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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Religion graduate students speak out against cuts

UF religion graduate student Leah Sarat often prays that whatever happens to her job and research position, her talents still can be used to best serve the world.

Ever since Dean Paul D'Anieri of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences announced the college's $9.3 million budget cut proposal on March 18, Sarat, along with other members of the department, has worried about her future.

Anxiety has recently rippled throughout the university, especially tainting the departments, such as religion, where potential cuts could be among the steepest.

Sarat, 28, is a third-year doctoral student in the Religion in the Americas program who conducts field research on religion's role in some Mexicans' decisions to come to the U.S. Her only source of income is her part-time job as a religion teaching assistant at UF.

D'Anieri's proposal would slash the religion department's budget by $808,000, much of which comes from faculty and staff layoffs, according to the presentation draft plan posted on the college's Web site.

The proposal is a response to UF President Bernie Machen's request of a 10 percent budget cut plan from each college and administrative unit, due to a possible decrease of $72 to $75 million in state funding in 2009-2010, UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes said.

Under the proposed cut, Sarat doesn't know whether she can complete her remaining two years as a graduate student at UF and be one of the lucky few to still teach religion at UF.

At 2 a.m. last week, Sarat was awake "agonizing" over the possible cut with her roommate, a fellow UF religion major.

While buzz about a possible department cut has filled department members' ears for several months, she said, she thinks about it throughout the day.

"It's a pretty constant backdrop," Sarat said. "It's just an uncertainty, and it's just kind of hard to move on with your research and work."

Proposed department cuts have moved many to defend the importance of their studies.

Sarat said religion influences the decisions of politicians and terrorists, adding that many people turn to religion to answer tough questions about things such as life and death, politics, society and race.

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In response to the proposal, Sarat led fellow religion graduate students in writing a grievance letter, which was posted on The Gainesville Sun's Web site on Tuesday.

During lunch breaks in her office, Sarat's colleagues and fellow graduate students vent their fears about the proposal, she said.

Talk often centers on the worry that 65 percent of the department's budget will be cut, along with the elimination of about 10 professors, possibly tenured faculty, leaving about four total to teach religion.

As a result, many who would be directly affected by the changes have turned to suggesting creative solutions.

Sarat said she joked about having a bake sale for the department, while fellow religion graduate student Mallory Bolduc helped spray-paint "Save Religion" on about 10 T-shirts.

President Caleb Simmons of the Religion Graduate Student Association, 27, said after the dean's presentation, he was so fired-up that he ran to his office to change into one of the shirts.

"I knew there was a budget crisis, but I never thought it would affect the religion department because it's such a strong department faculty-wise," Simmons said.

Simmons, religion Chairwoman Vasudha Narayanan and a few others will meet with Provost Joe Glover on April 6 to plead their case against the cut.

Proposed budget cuts will not be finalized until the university's budget is announced by the state, which will be after the legislative session ends on May 1, Sikes said.

Machen and Glover will then submit their proposals to UF's Board of Trustees to make the ultimate decisions about the cuts, she said.

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