Statement on the Report on the Study of Religion at Harvard
Dear Members of the Harvard Community,
As many of you know, last fall I asked a group of distinguished scholars to offer me their advice on how we might strengthen the study of religion at Harvard. Today, I write to share a report of their observations and suggested approaches.
The report, which is grounded in the view that the "academic study of religion is essential" in a world in which religion and religious conflict play an ever more important role, acknowledges the extraordinary resources within the field that exist at Harvard—in the Divinity School, in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in our libraries and collections, at the Radcliffe Institute, and at our professional schools, which address pressing issues, such as human rights, global health, and ethics that are closely connected to religion. At the same time, it urges significant strengthening of the curriculum for undergraduate concentrators, notes the importance and challenge of training religious leaders in a pluralistic context without sacrificing depth and rigor, and advocates a significant public leadership role for Harvard in the international dialogue on religious issues.
The report also offers suggestions for modifications to the structures supporting the study of religion at Harvard, including the reconfiguration of graduate degrees and the consideration of creating a department of religion situated within one school. I have asked Dean David Hempton in HDS and Dean Mike Smith in FAS to undertake careful consideration of the report in consultation with their faculties, focusing particular attention on the curricular and programmatic recommendations, with most immediate attention to the creation of a strong undergraduate program that effectively mobilizes the University’s remarkable intellectual resources in this key field. The deans and I believe that the advancement of the study of religion at Harvard will be best accomplished through a careful crafting of a partnership of FAS and HDS, beyond what exists today, and that the establishment of a new department in FAS alone would undermine rather than advance that creative interdependence and would divert resources and attention from the intellectual and substantive foundation of our teaching and research.
I welcome your feedback and am working to identify a time to meet with faculty for further discussion. I have also asked Dean Hempton to formulate an internal committee composed of HDS and FAS faculty to take up the issues identified, beginning with the substantive issues concerning the undergraduate curriculum and the doctoral programs, and to develop a plan for potential ways forward. Details on committee membership will be shared in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you may send any thoughts you have in confidence to [email protected].
The findings and recommendations within this study reflect a year of intensive thought and review. I am very grateful for the committee’s deep engagement and want to extend particular appreciation to committee chair Caroline Bynum. I would also like to thank the faculty, students, and staff from across the University who took the time to meet and share their views with the committee. In writing their report, the committee referred to religion as "a fundamental aspect of the human experience." We at Harvard have the opportunity to strengthen our teaching and research in an area that has not just been central to humankind for millennia, but profoundly shapes the world in which we all live.