R̶e̶l̶i̶g̶i̶o̶, literae, libertas.

After months of being in limbo, the religion department no longer exists at Hamline.


Aidan Stromdahl
The Hamline seal sits over the doorway to the old Hamline library in Giddens Learning Center. Religio refers to religion, literae to literature and libertas to liberty and the liberal arts. “We were founded with ‘religio’, that was seen as essential in understanding the world in a higher education, collegiate level study,” Victorin-Vangerud said. “‘Religio’ has been in our DNA as an area of study from our founding.”

Audra Grigus, Senior Reporter

In May 2019, members of the religion department were called into Dean Marcela Kostihova’s office and were told that their department was being “sunset” a term used to mean eliminated or discontinued. In the fall of 2020, the department was officially eliminated and realigned into the global studies department.

Mark Berkson, a professor in the religion department for 20 years, said that he looked for answers and a way to make a case for the continuance of the department, but the decision was deemed “non-negotiable” by Marcela Kostihova, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

“Nobody asked for my opinion or my recommendation for anything,” Berkson said. “There had never been a committee recommendation about this, no one had looked into it, there had been no review, it was simply an administrator making an announcement that a department, that has been a part of Hamline for a very long time, a well-regarded department, was simply being eliminated and merged into something else.”

Kostihova said she did consult with faculty, even though she did not have to.

“If I was making changes to a program, then that’s a process that has to go through a faculty committee, but administrative realignment is an administrative decision,” Kostihova said.

However, some believe that the religion department should have a proper review with the combined input of students, faculty and staff. 

“There’s a program review going on, my hope would be that religion can be involved in that just like every other program and be reviewed in a fair and transparent way,” said Nancy Victorin-Vangerud, the university’s Chaplain and Director of the Wesley Center. “And if out of that, restructuring needs to happen, I want to support our academic leaders in being creative and adaptive.”

According to Kostihova, the elimination and realignment happened due to “the departure of several of our faculty,” citing that there can be no one-professor departments, which the department would be with just Berkson, as well as “the reduction of the number of students who are seeking a major and minor.”

As reported by Berkson, in spring 2021, there are 23 religion majors, 247 students currently enrolled in religion classes and all 4-credit courses are filled to capacity. While Berkson was the only full-time faculty member in the department for the past two years, he shares the load of the religion department in large part with visiting religion faculty Amanda Furiasse, adjunct and co-advisor for the Oracle Trevor Maine and Victorin-Vangerud. 

The program was not granted permission to hire new full-time professors, despite Berkson requesting it with the retirement of professor Earl Schwartz and the leaving of professor Deanna Thompson.

With the loss of departmental status, there are concerns for autonomy, connections with other institutions and their departments, ability to hire faculty in the future and budgetary authority. 

“The strength of a department, to the extent that the university remains committed to at least a partial departmental structure, is that it allows for independence, with focus, fortified by a budget,” Schwartz said.

Kostihova has expressed that “we haven’t trimmed the budgets, or taken any restricted or unrestricted funds from religion.”

While the department no longer exists, the religion program itself remains, now under the global studies department.

“We were not, at this point, proposing any kind of reductions to the program, elimination of the study of religion, or the ability of students to do the major or minor,” Kostihova said. “I’m not willing to take the chance that because it’s dwindling, and the number of faculty is shrinking, that it’s not supported appropriately.”There is some concern for other motivations behind the elimination of the department.

“My worst fear is if there’s a suspicion or devaluation of religion, as an academic subject, because it’s a controversial area,” Victorin-Vangerud said.

Schwartz has his own theories.

“The administration has been relatively frank about this with admissions concerns,” Schwartz said. “That placing that religious heritage too close to the front of what Hamline is about might discourage enrollment in certain potential sectors of what could be identified, unfortunately, as a market. It has to do less with identity and more with first impressions.”

Students and faculty can expect to see continued administrative changes to their departments in the future.

“It’s not that religion is being targeted more or differently than any other program, there are a number of other programs that are in a similar situation, it’s just that the faculty here are not necessarily as receptive to change as faculty in other areas,” Kostihova said.

Berkson’s one request has been for a fair chance to fight for the existence of the department.

“What I won’t accept is a decision being made without any faculty input, which completely denies the very idea of shared governance, which the institution claims to value,” Berkson said. “To me, it was a due process question, we were never given a process. My demand ever since has been ‘let us have a process.’”

Berkson also expressed a fear that if a lack of due process can happen to them, it could happen to other departments as well.

“It’s a fearful time and I think faculty in all the departments and programs have a certain amount of fear and trepidation with what’s going to happen to our future as a university,” Victorin-Vangerud said. 

Religion has been a central part of Hamline’s identity, as a Methodist-affiliated university, since its founding. The department worked in conjunction with philosophy for the first one hundred years and has been independent ever since.

“I think it is in the university’s interest in very, very important ways to think and rethink carefully what loss of the department would mean,” Schwartz said. “What it means academically, as a part of the university’s mission; socially, as a place in the larger social environment of the campus community; and I think in the life of alumni, in relationship to the larger community.”


To read more about student reactions and impact statements, check out Response to realignment