THE BLOG
11/01/2012 04:00 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Affirmative Action And The 'Critical Mass' Of Diversity In Religious Studies Departments

The United States Supreme Court is currently deliberating Fisher v. University of Texas. This case revisits decisions made in Grutter v. Bollinger, allowing university admissions officers to consider race and ethnicity when admitting students. The goal of these affirmative action practices was to achieve a "critical mass of diversity," which, the University of Michigan Law School believed, "has the potential to enrich everyone's education and thus make a law school class stronger than the sum of its parts." According to the opinion of the court, delivered by Justice O'Conner, "The Law School's educational judgment that such diversity is essential to its educational mission is one to which we defer." Surely awareness and interaction with such diversity has desirable consequences for students and, eventually, for the nation as a whole.

One of the many questions that emerge from these deliberations Supreme Court concerns determining the metrics for achieving "critical mass." How many, for example, designated minority students is enough for critical mass to be achieved? Is a token minority student sufficient? Or should the critical mass be reflective of demographics of the immediate region? The state? The nation? The world?

Though the issue pertains to admission practices at academic institutions it could easily be extended to a wide variety of contexts, such as sports teams, corporations and even to more abstract scenarios such as topics of study in academic departments, like a department of religious studies. Should a department of religious studies, whose mission is to teach students about religions (and not to teach students to be religious), have a critical mass of faculty who teach and research "minority" religions that will "enrich everyone's education" and that will be beneficial for the nation as it maneuvers in a globalized world?

Of course, in the "western" academe, most departments of religious studies weigh more heavily on Christianity than on Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism or any other religion. Is this merely Christian privileging? Is it anachronistic? Is it a bad idea?

Should affirmative action principles and practices help to form a model or ideal intellectual community and achieve a critical mass in departments of religious studies?

Naturally, departments of religious studies in religiously affiliated schools and universities do not need to worry about these issues. But what about departments located in state schools? Or in private schools that are, or strive to be, secular? Are they obligated to strive for a critical mass in terms of areas of study? (Though they may also strive for critical mass in terms of the gender, ethnic and racial diversity of the faculty, this is a different topic and I will not address it here.)

Should a department of religious studies have "equal representation" in the so-called world's religions, namely Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity? Should there be five faculty members, for all five of these religions? (As for whether they need also to be members of the traditions they study, this also is a different topic and I will not address it here.) What about Zoroastrianism, Jainism or any number of religions with a smaller, less visible or extinct population? Should the makeup of the departmental specialties reflect the demographics of the immediate region? The state? The nation? The world? Should there be a privileging of Christianity because the majority of the world's religious people are Christian? Or should the makeup be a reflection of popular interest or fashion? Or should it be responsive to political or economic variables? Such complexities are enhanced when one considers the curse/blessing of endowed chairs? If a local (and wealthy) religious community funds (or has funded) a number of chairs, and if accepting the gift creates an imbalance, should the department decline it? Would having a significant imbalance "in favor" of one religion be tantamount to advocating that religion as "true" or as the default "paradigm"?

What, then, is the critical mass of diversity? What should be the makeup of a department of religious studies that will enrich everyone's education? Should there be a privileging of Christianity?

Affirmative action principles and practices will help to form a model or ideal intellectual community and achieve a critical mass in departments of religious studies.