Saturday, October 10, 2009

Some More on Biblical Studies at Sheffield

Jim West has provided more on the crisis at U of Sheffield in particular a statement from Cheryl Exum, one of the Professors in the Bib Studies Dept there (for those of you who don't live and breathe biblical studies). It's being spread around the biblioblogosphere and I'll put it up here too.

End of Biblical Studies at Sheffield

I am writing you, in a personal capacity, to ask for your support in preventing the destruction of the Department …of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield.In its meeting on 7 October, the Senate of the University of Sheffield was asked to approve the following (copied from the Senate papers):

(a) that the 2009-10 entry to undergraduate programmes involving Biblical Studies should be the last and that the Department should cease to function as a single entity: (b) that undergraduate programmes involve Biblical Studies should be maintained for existing students, and that measures should be taken to ensure that they receive the high quality education and student experience which they have been promised; (c) that the Department’s academic staff should be transferred to the departments in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities most suited to supporting their longer term careers; (d) that the development of a Biblical Studies research centre be progressed with a view to providing a focus for postgraduate study and research and a continued point of contact and collaboration for academic staff irrespective of their new home departments, thus ensuring the continuation of scholarship in this area.

These proposals were made in the light of a review of the Department, conducted in the spring and summer of this year, for which I would like to give you a brief background. The Department had lost two members of staff (Loveday Alexander to early retirement and Jorunn Økland to a post in Norway), but had been given permission to fill a post with a senior New Testament scholar in 2009-10. Although this meant a change in staffing from 8 to 6, this kind of fluctuation in staffing has been typical in the Department over the years, and we had hopes of additional staff in future years. Difficulties began when the University decided, at the beginning of the 2008-9 academic year, not to make any appointments in the Faculty of Arts until reconsideration of the University’s financial position in the light of the national Research Assessment Exercise. So we were not allowed to proceed with the New Testament appointment. Then, in the second semester, the University decided to review the Department, citing the reduction in staff and the Department’s fluctuating undergraduate numbers and as major concerns (at the same time, deciding to cap the number of new students we could accept at 20). In fact, undergraduate numbers in the Department have always fluctuated, but Level 3 (i.e. final year) classes in the last two years have had the highest numbers ever.

Another problem for the Department arose when the University, in June of 2009, introduced a Voluntary Severance Scheme as a means of coping with the current economic downturn. Three members of staff are leaving. As someone within only two years of retirement, I am one of them; the others are Keith Whitelam and Barry Matlock. This leaves the Department with three permanent members of staff: Hugh Pyper, and Diana Edelman in Hebrew Bible and James Crossley in New Testament. We have also been given a two-year appointment in New Testament, Mark Finney.

These are the events that led to the proposals above. I did not know until today that the transferal of staff to other departments was being proposed, since I have been excluded from any formal discussions of the future of the Department. At the meeting of Senate, the vote on these proposals was postponed thanks to the intervention of the Sheffield University and College Union and the Union of Students. Our students are currently mounting a strong protest and you can find information about this on a number of sites on the web ( try, for example, As I understand it, the decision has already been made to suspend undergraduate admissions for the coming academic year while the above proposals are being reconsidered. But suspension of the undergraduate programme, in effect, means the end of it. And the notion that there can be any postgraduate ‘centre’ or programme without the existence of an independent Department of Biblical Studies is not wishful thinking, it is a way of subtly dismantling the Department, since the Department and its reputation depends on its distinct identity and its vibrant research culture based on its outstanding undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.

I am writing to ask you to support the efforts of our students, alumni/ae, colleagues and friends to reverse what could be the end of an outstanding department by writing to the Vice-Chancellor to urge him not to dismantle the Department (1) by destroying an excellent undergraduate programme, which will inevitably be the effect of a suspension of admissions for the 20010-11 academic year and (2) by setting up a Biblical Studies ‘research centre’ that cannot succeed without an undergraduate programme and its contribution to the Department’s research culture, when one appointment of a senior scholar would enable the Department to maintain its strength in attracting postgraduates.

The Vice-Chancellor is Professor Keith Burnett and his email address is Please copy your message to Professor Paul White (, who, I understand, will be in charge of the ongoing review. For those of you who are willing to write on our behalf, I would be grateful if, in order for us to have a record of the level of response to our plight, you could either send me a blind copy of your message (bcc) or simply reply to this email that you have written to the Vice-Chancellor. Please also consider sending a copy of your letter to the website listed above.

If might be helpful for you to know that the Department ranked 6th in the national Research Assessment Exercise (higher, depending on how one reads the figures), quite an achievement for a small department. We achieved the highest mark in the national Teaching Quality Assessment, and our rating in the national Student Satisfaction Survey was, to my knowledge, the highest in the University, well above that of the Faculty of Arts and the University as a whole. We were at the time the review was undertaken (and may still be) also one of the few departments in the Faculty of Arts not in deficit.

I apologise for any cross-listings. I have combined and split various email lists I have in the interest of reaching as many colleagues as possible. Please feel free to forward this letter to anyone you know who might be willing to help.

Thank you for any support you can offer us,


J Cheryl Exum
Professor of Biblical Studies
Director, Sheffield Phoenix Press

Cheryl Exum's email address is if any of you are planning to send an email of support.

From reading her statement it appears that there may be the usual management skulduggery involved, the kind which we've seen too often in universities in this country. Roland Boer has some worthwhile comments to make. First off re the University's crying poor:

This is bullshit, since state-funded institutions are recession proof: they keep doing their thing largely irrespective of what is happening in the economy. Governments run up deficits during recessions and pay them off during booms. So the university must have other reasons for cutting staff, as they periodically do - new programs, petty political battles, bigger pay for executives, or what have you.

All too often here in Australia, we've seen universities cry poor and sack people and close down disciplines and departments. I suspect in part it might be due to the new managerialism in universities, which never sees very far into the future and in response to any apparent problem always resorts to chopping - they call it, perversely, saving - staff. It's the sort of shortsighted management that led to the Global Financial Crisis. The other thing about crying poor is that, as a very good friend of mine repeatedly says ( and used to teach this stuff too) all budgets are human constructs. There is nothing inevitable or immutable about a budget and to try and hide behind budgetary constraints to justify decisions like this, more often than not show a want of imagination (and when they don't it's more likely to be corrupt self-interest at play). As Roland says

I've learned never to trust institutions - whether university, church or whatever - or give my soul to them, since they'll just trample on it when they see fit.

Roland also notes that:

3 of the existing 6 staff took the money and ran. That is, they accepted golden handshakes and left three staff in the lurch. It is difficult to maintain a department of three. The three who went did so for various and probably good reasons, but they do not find themselves part of what is now called the 'precariat'.

Cheryl is doing her best to raise awareness of the situation, and it's clear that the University has acted very shamefully indeed, but he has a point, nonetheless. It does not take away from the fact that this decision sucks big time and should be reversed.

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