The Founding of the Department of Religion

by Nicholas Piediscalzi, Emeritus Professor of Religion, 1965-1988

 

            The Department of Religion was founded in 1965 at the Dayton Campus of Miami and Ohio State Universities under the administration of the Department of Religion at Miami University.Nick Pied_edited-1.jpg  As with all other administrative units, it was guaranteed that the Department would become independent when the Ohio Legislature established Wright State University (WSU).  Dr. Nicholas Piediscalzi was invited to become the founding member of the department.  (The Danforth Foundation from 1965-68 provided his salary.)  He assumed the task of developing an academic program in religion studies, establishing a religion major and initiating an interdisciplinary program in conjunction with other colleges and departments, and to assemble a faculty to achieve these goals.

            From its inception, the Department has maintained the highest standards in the academic study of religion, across disciplines and between institutions of learning. The collaborative spirit in probing the meaning and significance of religious phenomenon, and the interaction between religions and cultures has been its guiding principle and the source of its success throughout the years.

            Approximately 200 students enrolled in twelve courses that were offered during the 1965-66 academic year.  By the 1971-2 academic year, over 2,100 students registered in sixty courses taught by five full time and three adjunct faculty members.  Members of the Department introduced team-taught interdisciplinary courses with faculty members from the Administrative Sciences and Finance, Biological Sciences, Cinema, Engineering, English, Geography, Political Science, Sociology, Cinema and Geography Departments, and the College of Education.  These courses received special recognition in Religion in the Undergraduate Curriculum by Claude Welch (1972).  In addition, members of the Department co-designed and co-taught seven courses for the University Honors Program.

            The Department was instrumental in founding and obtaining funding for two unique inter-institutional programs.  With the assistance of the late Rabbi Selwyn Ruslander of Temple Israel (Dayton, OH), a $75,000 grant from the Harriet Sanders Trust was obtained to fund the Sanders Chair in Judaic Studies.  Dr. Eric L. Friedland was appointed to the Sanders Chair in 1968. He taught two courses per year each at the University of Dayton, Antioch College, United Theological Seminary and WSU.  He served these institutions and the greater Dayton area with distinction until his retirement in 1998.  The trust paid the scholar’s full salary for the first year and on a descending scale for the remaining nine. Each year the four institutions shared equally in taking on a greater share of the program’s budget.  In the eleventh year they assumed full financial responsibility.

The Danforth Foundation awarded twelve institutions in Southwestern Ohio, a $278,605 grant, in the same year, to establish the Consortium for Higher Education Religion Studies (CHERS).  The funds were used to aid in the expansion of undergraduate studies, the development of graduate education, faculty development, innovative cooperative programs, seminary cooperation and continuing education.  The schools involved were: Antioch College, United Theological Seminary, University of Dayton, Hebrew Union College (Cincinnati), Western College for Women, Central State University, Wilberforce University, Payne Theological School, Wittenberg University, Hamma School of Theology, Miami University and WSU.

These programs were unique for their day in that they united state universities, a Roman Catholic university, a Lutheran university, private colleges and seminaries in co-operative projects to expand and improve the academic study of religions according to the principles established by the U.S. Supreme Court Schempp Decision (1963).

The Department and the College of Education founded the Public Education Religion Studies Center (PERSC) in 1972 with grants from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., and Religious Heritage of America, Inc. (totaling over $250,000).  The purpose of PERSC was to encourage and facilitate the teaching about religions within constitutional bounds, mainly in elementary and secondary public schools, by conducting workshops, seminars, and conferences throughout the nation; serving as a national resource center on available curriculum materials and teacher education programs; and providing a research center for scholars studying religion in public education religion studies.  In 1976, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded PERSC $75,675 to conduct a two-year teacher education summer workshop for teachers from Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan.  The purpose of the workshop was twofold:  (1) to equip elementary and secondary school teachers with basic competency in the academic study of religions; and (2) to design resource units that would enable elementary and secondary school teachers to integrate religion studies into existing world culture curricula; these were published and distributed by PERSC.

In 1971, the Department initiated an experimental program with the Medical Centers of the Greater Dayton Area.  Seminars on medical ethics (for physicians, nurses and administrators) were conducted at local hospitals.  In addition, dinner meetings were held at WSU for approximately 150 physicians each, in 1971 and 1972.  Nationally recognized experts in medical ethics were the featured speakers at these meetings.   These programs played an influential role in the establishment of the Department of Medicine and Society in WSU’s new School of Medicine.  Dr. Robert D. Reece, an ethicist in the Department of Religion, was appointed the founding chair of this department in 1975. His innovative and valuable leadership in this role continued until his retirement in 2005.

At the opening session of PERSC’s inaugural national symposium (June 17, 1973), the late Dr. Eugene B. Cantelupe, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, stated, “If I were asked what department at Wright State University has had the greatest impact on the University curriculum, I would immediately reply, The Department of Religion.  Through initiated co-operative team-taught courses with the departments in every college of the university, religion studies has permeated the entire curriculum.  This demonstrates the point that religion per se is an academic humanistic discipline that should be studied as other disciplines are, objectively and intellectually.”