A historic photo from the laying of the cornerstone at Neu Chapel on the University of Evansville's campus in 1965. Provided photo
A historic photo from the laying of the cornerstone at Neu Chapel on the University of Evansville's campus in 1965. Provided photo
EVANSVILLE — He didn't go to college with the intention of becoming a pastor, but the Rev. Alex Thompson said the University of Evansville's ties to the United Methodist Church were an important factor drawing him to the school.

"I sort of had (the ministry) in the back of my mind that it might be a possibility, but it was really at UE where I met people and had professors who were able to hold together a rigorous intellectual life with a life of faith," said Thompson, now an ordained United Methodist minister who pastors two churches and teaches at a Methodist college in Tennessee.

Thompson graduated from UE in 2010 with majors in archaeology, biblical studies and classics. He said his education prepared him well for seminary and later in a Ph.D. program in New Testament. It has also shaped his own approach to teaching and preaching.

That opportunity, however, could soon be unavailable to future students.

UE's religion and philosophy department is one of three slated to be eliminated as part of a "draft academic alignment plan" unveiled last month. A total of 17 majors will be slashed if the Board of Trustees approves the proposal, and nearly a quarter of the faculty will be forced out.

Many, including Thompson, feel the proposed cuts shake the very foundation of UE's identity as a Methodist, liberal arts college.
 
More: University of Evansville freshmen, sophomores face uncertain future

More: Alfred Savia: Cutting UE's music department would be 'devastating' for Philharmonic

'Deep ties' with Methodism

For nearly 170 years, UE has been affiliated with the Methodist church. Its religion department forms the bedrock of that relationship.

"I think it is fair to say that the religion program is an essential part of the university's historical identity," wrote Jim Ware, a longtime professor of religion at the school. "UE has prepared students for seminary and theological study since its founding in 1854 and has offered a major in the area of religion since the institution’s establishment as Evansville College in the early 20th century.

"I think it is also fair to say that the United Methodist Church has always considered the teaching of religion, especially biblical studies and theology, as an essential component of a Methodist-affiliated institution such as UE."

The church's University Senate reviews Methodist schools every 10 years to ensure, among other things, that they still maintain a meaningful relationship with the church. UE last underwent that process in 2017.

One of the so-called "marks" of affiliation is teaching religion.

"A Church-related institution respects, honors, and provides the teaching of religion, and, specifically, appropriate scholarly theological teaching in the Christian tradition within the curriculum," the church says.

Many non-majors take religion courses as part of their general education requirements, and that will likely continue even if the cuts are approved, although with adjunct instead of full-time faculty.

Although the teaching of religion is part of a Methodist school's identity, there's no reason to believe eliminating that department would lead either the university or church to sever their relationship.

"The University of Evansville is proud of its longstanding and deep ties to the United Methodist Church," a UE spokeswoman wrote after declining an interview. "Our affiliation with the United Methodist Church plays an important role at the university and will continue to do so in the future."

But some think those ties will no longer be as strong.

Thompson said there's a pipeline of UE graduates going into church ministry. He can think of seven around his age who are now ordained UMC pastors.

"It's only inevitable that getting rid of the philosophy and religion department is only going to weaken its relationship to the United Methodist Church and its ability to attract students of faith who are interested in finding where their faith intersects with their future in the world," he said. "The students will go elsewhere. It's really sad to lose that heritage."

Local Methodist leadership has been silent on the proposed cuts. District Superintendent the Rev. Mitch Gieselman declined to comment for this story, and Bishop Julius Trimble, who sits on the university's Board of Trustees, didn't respond to an interview request. A handful of local Methodist clergy also turned down interviews.

The Rev. Tamara Gieselman, UE's former chaplain who now works for the church's General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, forwarded an interview request to the board's spokeswoman, who in turn referred questions to the university.

'Gutted'

The loss of the religion and philosophy department would be felt far beyond the confines of the school.

"There was a time, not so long ago, when UE was the central hub for interfaith dialogue and programming — so crucial in our community and our world today," a handful of local Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergy wrote in a letter to the editor opposing the proposed cuts.

Since UE President Christopher Pietruszkiewicz assumed his post in 2018, the men wrote, the university chaplaincy has been "gutted," the school's interfaith dialogue program was discontinued and representatives from various religions are no longer being invited to teach courses.

"Add to this the proposed elimination of departments that have been so important to local congregations, and we can’t help but think that the university is moving in the wrong direction," they wrote.

The proposed cuts to the religion department, and other humanities majors, lead some to question UE's identity.

"I can't imagine a school starting in the way that U of E did abandoning that," said the Rev. Timothy Weisman, the pastor of a Lutheran church in Manhattan. "It will be a different school."

The nature of that new school is what the Rev. Trevor Petty, a 2006 UE graduate with a major in literature and minors in religion and political science, would like to know.

"Who is this university that's surviving? No one's articulating that," said Petty, who is ordained in the Restoration movement of churches. "I just don't need to know that this thing is going to continue in some shape. My thought is, well, what is it? Is it just a school that has whatever shape is necessary to survive for the next few years? What is its identity?"

The administration recently extended the period for comments on the proposal. That now ends in late February.

© 2021 courierpress.com, All rights reserved.