Harvard’s Committee on the Study of Religion will lose two of its top leaders next year, when Chairman Robert A. Orsi and Director of Undergraduate Studies Thomas A. Lewis will join the faculties of Northwestern and Brown Universities, respectively.
Diana L. Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies and a Harvard Divinity School faculty member, will be the committee’s new chair. Eck previously chaired the committee from 1990 to 1998.
Orsi, the Warren professor of the history of religion in America, has accepted a chaired position in religious studies and a joint appointment in history at Northwestern. He said he is leaving primarily because the Divinity School did not offer—or seriously consider offering—a faculty position to his wife, Christine Helmer, a senior scholar there.
“The decision was made by a very small group of people without much recourse or appeal,” Orsi said. “They had offered my wife three years of full teaching, [but] actually cut it down to half-time. When they did that, I simply couldn’t stay here anymore.”
A Divinity School spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
Helmer will join her husband at Northwestern as a full professor in religion with a joint appointment in German.
Orsi said he looks forward to contributing to the growth of Northwestern’s “ambitious” religious studies program.
Lewis, who is currently an assistant professor of Christian studies, will return to Brown, his alma mater, to take a position in the department of religious studies. He said one of his reasons for going to Brown was that religious studies is an actual department there, whereas at Harvard the study of religion is administered by a committee.
“I think that [a department] provides for more flexibility for the study of religion and more stability,” Lewis said. “One of the things that struck me about not having a department here at Harvard is that the academic study of religion as a discipline seems less established at the Faculty of Arts and
As chair of the committee, Orsi said he has worked to open religious studies to undergraduates and boost its presence in the humanities. He said those efforts are reflected in the growing number of religion concentrators.
“We tried very hard to develop new courses for undergraduates, because we found that although the Divinity School claims that undergraduates take their courses, they don’t,” Orsi said.
Orsi said he is concerned that the committee remains too isolated from the rest of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), and that few of his FAS colleagues had even known there was a religious studies program at Harvard.
“The Divinity School is very much interested in taking over the study of religion, which would really be a disaster,” Orsi said. “We really believe religious studies needs to have a presence in FAS that is separate and distinct from the Divinity School.”
Orsi said that he had the support of Eck in his belief that religion studies should have its own department.
“The study of religion is a humanities or social science discipline,” he said. “The people who are most affiliated with the study of religion...study it from historical-cultural points of view.”
Brigit M. Helgen ’08, a religion concentrator and the president of the Harvard College Democrats, called Orsi one of her favorite professors.
“My entire sophomore tutorial, we all call ourselves ‘Orsi disciples,’” she said. “He kind of shaped all of our viewpoints as to how to study religion.”
John C. Seitz, a fifth-year doctoral student in the study of religion who has worked closely with Orsi, said that the departure of Orsi and Lewis is a “loss for the university,” but that it will not necessarily inhibit the committee’s growth.
“They left [the religion committee] in a better condition than they found it,” Seitz said. “There’s so much other great faculty in the committee...who can help us get through the transition and guide us to new places. It will be different but just as exciting.”
—Staff writer Angela A. Sun can be firstname.lastname@example.org.
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