February 4, 2010

Knox hires professor for Religious Studies chair

Next year, Knox’s Religious Studies program will get a facelift under the leadership of a new Endowed Chair in Religion and Culture.

“We’ve been doing really good stuff in religious studies for awhile, but we’ve not been able to systematically shape the program,” said Professor Penny Gold, the Religious Studies program committee member who has been leading the search to fill the endowed chair. “In the past, we’ve not had the staffing to look at the essential elements of the program.”

The Religious Studies program began advocating for a new position in the fall of 2007, when Knox solicited proposals from professors for new faculty positions. The program committee, after looking at schools comparable to Knox, proposed two new positions in Religious Studies.

The Faculty Advisory Sub-Committee reviewed all of the proposals and decided that the Religious Studies programs were among the strongest. At about the same time, an anonymous donor provided the college with $2 million to create an Endowed Chair in Religious Studies. Since endowed chairs bear the names of the person who donated the funds to create them, the donor’s anonymity is only temporary.

“The donor’s vision was very similar to what we had worked out in our proposal,” said Gold. “It was very fortunate.”

Because the gift was large enough to fund a position beyond the entry-level, Gold and the program committee searched for candidates who could provide leadership and bring significant teaching experience to Knox. The committee was especially concerned with finding someone who had a Ph.D. in Religious Studies, since current Religious Studies faculty all specialize in other academic areas. The new faculty member would be expected to assume leadership of the program within a year or two.

“We wanted [a candidate] who would bring us the perspective and expertise of someone who’s identified with and trained in the field [of religious studies] in a way the rest of us are not,” Gold said.

After attending the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion and interviewing around 10 potential candidates, Gold and the program committee chose two to invite to campus. At this point, an offer has been made and accepted, but as a formal contract has not been signed, the name of the new chair has not been made public.

“I had lunch with both candidates at the beginning of the term, and no matter which one they bring in, I think the department and the college as a whole will benefit immensely,” said senior Sarah Juist, a Religious Studies minor.

Up until now, the Religious Studies program at Knox has been a conglomeration of courses taught by interested faculty members from other departments. With the creation of this new position, however, the program will simultaneously broaden its offerings and gain more structure.

The new position could possibly double the number of courses offered in Religious Studies as well as create more introductory courses for students who are curious about the field.

“Our main focus is developing a more coherent, structured minor,” said Gold.

Currently, student interest in Religious Studies goes beyond the program’s offerings. Gold has tried offering her “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” class firstt period in an attempt to deter students from enrolling, yet almost twice as many people as there are spots regularly sign up for the class.

“There is no other course I teach in which I turn that many people away,” said Gold.

Gold’s situation is not unique. The program’s “Gospels and Writings of Paul” course also frequently over-enrolls.

“Religious Studies classes right now are packed,” said Juist, “and with a new professor coming in, there will be more courses both in numbers and diversity to spark student interest in the program.” It seems that the creation of the Endowed Chair in Religion and Culture could not have come at a better time for Knox.

“With a new full-time […] faculty member coming in […] we will finally have someone that can make some sense out of the random course offerings we currently have,” said Juist.

Anna Meier

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