Monday, 12 October 2009

Closure of Sheffield's Dept of Biblical Studies?

A petition has been going around to appeal for a reconsideration of the decision to close down the undergraduate studies at the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield. Please read the letter of appeal forwarded by the BNTC from Prof Cheryl Exum below which is self-explanatory.

The Department of Biblical Studies is one of its kind in the UK where the emphasis is on biblical studies, unlike other Department of Theology, Department of Religious Studies, or Faculty of Divinity in other universities. Please follow the instruction below if you are moved to join in the appeal.

From BNTC:

Please find below a letter that was forwarded to me from Prof Cheryl Exum as regards the current crisis facing Biblical Studies at Sheffield. Any support that we, as BNTC members, can give staff and students at Sheffield at at this critical time would be so much appreciated. There has been a facebook group been set up ('Dont Shut Down Biblical Studies at Sheffield') which already has over 700 members. Please join this group, or otherwise if you are not a facebook user show your support for the department by e-mailing the VC at Sheffield (see details below).

Many thanks indeed


Dear Friends and Colleagues,

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
, Sheffield Phoenix Press


Sceptics 不肖生 said...

how dare they touch my giants...cheryl exum and david clines!

Kar Yong said...

I am shocked, but not entirely surprised by this move. Sheffield is not the first to shut down the biblical studies dept (or in the case of other universities, the Theology Department). We would probably see more closure or merger of theology departments in the future.

Israel Lee said...

Kar Yong

Sheffield's Biblical Studies Program Survives

This just came in. The protest succeeded in stopping the closure, at least for the moment. Thank God.

I did not know it was started by Bruce. Felt I ashamed that as a Sheffield student, I did not take the time to write and protest. :-(

Kar Yong said...

Thanks, Israel, for the link.