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Department of Religious Studies
MA Program Outcomes Assessment

I. APPLICANT POOL, 2002-2003

  # %
Graduate Applicants: 33  
Accepted: 24 73%
Enrolled (% of accepted): 14 58%

The Religious Studies Department has earned a national reputation for the excellence of its terminal MA program. CU is generally acknowledged to be among the very best terminal MA programs in the comparative study of religions; some would judge it the very best. Faculty throughout the country encourage outstanding students to apply to CU.

We had outstanding applicants from excellent undergraduate programs across the country, including Brandeis, Colgate, Swarthmore, Emory, Trinity, Colorado College, Wisconsin (Madison), Virginia (Charlottesville), Tennessee (Knoxville), William & Mary, and the University of Colorado at Boulder. 25 of the 33 applicants were from schools outside Colorado. 12 of the applicants had GRE Verbal scores above the 90th percentile (including two 800, one 770, and two 740).


Total # Grad Students: 42
  Male: 20
  Female: 22
  International: 1
Ave GRE Scores:  
  Verbal: 591
  Quantitative: 568
  Analytical: 644

Considering that we offer only the MA degree, we have an impressive set of students from a wide range of undergraduate institutions. We are especially successful in recruiting students from outstanding liberal arts colleges. Our recent and current population includes graduates of Reed, Mills, Wesleyan, Wellesley, St. Lawrence, Smith, Carleton, Swarthmore, Trinity, Hamilton, William and Mary, Colgate, Hunter, Colorado College, Middlebury, St. Olaf, Richmond, Connecticut College, Kenyon, and Otterbein. We also have had students from quality universities, including Cornell, Emory, CSU, University of Virginia, UC-Berkeley, UCLA, Boston University, CU-Boulder (2), Ohio State, Rutgers, Duke, Tulane, Pittsburgh, and Missouri.


Master Degrees: 37
Exiting Without Degrees: 20

The Religious Studies Department MA program has been extremely productive. Maintaining rigorous standards and a demanding set of requirements (all students must write a thesis and prove foreign language competency), the department awarded 37 MA degrees from Spring 1998 through Summer 2002. The 2001-2002 year produced seven graduates. Twelve of our current students have completed their course work, are currently writing the thesis, and should graduate by Spring or Summer 2003. Relative to the small size of the faculty, we believe this is a truly outstanding record.

To calculate an approximate graduation rate: From Fall 1995 through Fall 1999, a total of 66 students entered our program. Those are the students who might roughly have been expected to graduate in the years under review (1998 – 2002). In those years, 37 students graduated. Another 10 are still working on thesis and will graduate within the next year. That yields an approximate graduation rate of 71%.

Post-MA Experiences of Students: Among our M.A. graduates since the 1998-99 academic year, a fair number have gone on to doctoral studies. Four have gone to study for the Ph.D. in the Religious Studies Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara (a fifth was accepted but chose to study elsewhere). We have cultivated a special relationship with UCSB for a number of years. The UCSB Religious Studies Department is one of the very best in the nation and it is the Ph.D. program that most closely resembles our own MA program in its orientation. This effort at building a special relationship has now clearly borne fruit. Other MA graduates have gone on to further graduate work at CU-Boulder (2), Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley), Georgetown, Emory, U. of Illinois, and Boston College. One recent graduate was just admitted to doctoral programs at Harvard, NYU, and Temple, whereas another was admitted to Columbia, Chapel Hill, UCSB and Temple. At least two others are currently applying for Ph.D. programs. Among the graduates who are not now in graduate school, at least three are teaching in community colleges. One of these taught a course for our department last summer, which was very well received. Other notable positions achieved by our recent graduates include: research fellow at the Interfaith Center in NYC; research fellow at Ford Foundation in NYC; Islamic scholar teaching and editing a scholarly journal in Indonesia (he also composed at least one public speech for the former President of Indonesia Dr. Waheed); archivist collating Mary Baker Eddy papers at Eddy Library in Boston; administrative assistant, Office of the President, CU-Boulder; Director of International Education Office, CU-Denver. Several other graduates are now working in education-related occupations, including secondary teaching and college administration. Still others are in Information Technology.


The Religious Studies MA requires a rigorous program of study. Every student is required to begin the program with an intensive course of "Approaches to the Study of Religion." Every student must demonstrate competence in a wide variety of religious traditions or culture areas by taking courses in at least three different areas as well as completing two seminars in comparative studies in religion. Every student must demonstrate in-depth expertise in one area by writing a high-quality thesis. The thesis oral defense does not focus solely on the thesis, but places it in the larger context of the student’s entire intellectual experience in the Masters program. Accordingly, questions relating to courses and other academic engagements (e.g. field research) are raised at the oral defense. This process provides useful information for assessment, as well. With this combination of breadth and depth, our graduates have an excellent foundation for further teaching and scholarship, as well as occupations requiring critical thinking and writing skills.

Presenting Papers at Academic Conferences: Another indicator of quality achievement is that our graduate students now frequently give papers at conferences, especially the annual Rocky Mountains-Great Plains regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature. We shall continue this tradition in April, 2003, when the regional AAR/SBL meets in Boulder. The program will include a panel consisting of two CU-Boulder professors and two CU-Boulder grad students. In addition, five other MA students in our program will be presenting papers on other panels. The paper proposals undergo a rigorous review by members of the Program Committee gathered at the main North American annual AAR meeting, the most recent having been held in Toronto in November 2002. More than a dozen faculty members from CU, DU, BYU, Utah, Creighton, Regis, Iliff, CC, Wyoming, Nebraska, and New Mexico served on the committee that met in Toronto. One of our MA students also delivered a paper at the Toronto meeting, a notable achievement for someone not yet in a doctoral program, because the competition for acceptance of proposals is so intense.

Teaching Assistant Experience: We are equally gratified by the fine teaching performance of our students. Teaching is now seen as an integral part of the professional preparation provided by our M.A. program. A large majority of our students serve at least two semesters (sometimes three or more) as TAs. Most of them are very well received and highly rated by their students on FCQs. Each faculty member works closely with her/his TAs to guide and review their activities and performance, as well as welcome their suggestions for improvement of the course. Because the Graduate Teacher Program provides such outstanding opportunities for pedagogical training by means of workshops, discussions, and reading recommendations, the regular teaching faculty are often helped in improving their classroom performance, as well. That is a splendidly synergistic benefit of the program.

A number of grad TAs choose to participate in the certification option of the Graduate Teacher Program. The Lead Graduate TA works hard to provide training throughout the AY, including individual videotaping of presentations with thorough confidential follow-up discussion and critique. The manner in which the Graduate Teacher Program provides agency for TAs is wonderful to behold, because the students direct and assess themselves in important ways. One of the finest measures of the program is when an outstanding TA, usually with two appointments completed, applies for the respected and highly demanding Lead TA post (which pays a miserably low stipend considering the time, energy, patience, accountability, and intellectual application required).

We would not be able to conduct our graduate program without our .1 (=25%) TA positions, which in recent years have typically numbered 15 to 19 in the fall semester and 12-15 in the spring. Since most of our grad admissions are non-residents of Colorado, a full year of NRTDW support is essential before the student qualifies for residential tuition status. Our generous allotment of TA positions, or course, is related to the large core courses that we teach as a service to undergraduates across the campus. Without the large courses and the linked TA positions we would not have much of a graduate program, pure and simple. When our graduate students come to discern this, they have learned some valuable lessons about how higher education works as an intellectual and marketing enterprise!

Additionally, our success in sending our graduates on to outstanding doctoral programs is importantly related to their training and experience as TAs in what is generally recognized as one of the most innovative and successful graduate teacher programs in North America. (A few years ago, the CU Graduate Teacher Program and Emory University’s parallel and innovative "Tattoo" program were featured in a plenary session at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Philadelphia.) We have defined a valuable niche market through our combination of superior academic and pedagogical training for the majority of our grad students. And although institutions such as Chicago, Santa Barbara, Emory, and Virginia do not admit any but the best academic prospects to their doctoral programs, the fact that they will be getting high quality, experienced classroom instructors can be a tie-breaker in admitting a CU MA over other academically promising applicants without the TA training. Furthermore, the TA program provides indispensable and irreplaceable financial support for our students and, interestingly, together with our outstanding academic program (including a tough thesis requirement), it also appeals to doctoral institutions that are pleased to move our graduates through their programs at considerably lower cost than their in-house grad students who earn both the MA and PhD on site. We are talking here about "time to degree." Why not admit well-trained CU MAs when CU has already paid the "up front" costs of the long graduate study trajectory and provided a reliable appraisal of the applicant’s qualifications for rigorous graduate studies? The success of our MA graduates in getting admitted to excellent doctoral programs is a key assessment outcome. And our success reaches in the other direction—pre-matriculation at CU—in attracting MA applicants from the range of excellent B.A. institutions that were mentioned earlier in this report.

Periodic Faculty Evaluations of Grad Students in Formal Meetings: At least once each semester the Religious Studies faculty meets together to discuss and evaluate the progress of all graduate students in our MA program. Usually this process requires two full meetings, due to the detail that some students’ records require for proper evaluation and recommendation. We hear remarks provided by each student’s principal adviser and solicit remarks from all faculty members who have had the student in class, as well. We look for problem areas and decide on how best to address them. We believe that this well established practice is a key factor in the program’s success. Having stated this, we are not so naïve as to assume that what we do is perfect, nor are we opposed to suggestions of additional ways to assess our students’ progress.

Writing Recommendations: One of the most important assessment measures that we provide is writing recommendations for further graduate study and employment opportunities. The late autumn finds us hard at work on numerous letters of recommendation, the preparation of which requires thorough review of student files as well as examination of their application statements.

Post-Commencement Exit Questionnaires: The department provides questionnaires to graduating/recently graduated MA students. Not all are filled out and returned, but we do receive some back and they can be useful, although they are not sufficient as a balanced and detailed assessment exercise.


The department has been particularly successful in attracting women students, a group that is still underrepresented in the academic study of religion. We currently have four students of Mexican or Latin American heritage (all U.S. citizens); a fifth student enrolled last fall but left the program during the semester. We have one student of Iranian heritage (an American citizen). We currently have one Native American student, and students of Dutch, Israeli, and Japanese nationality. Last year we enrolled our first African-American student, but he was "too successful." An outstanding scholar from the University of Chicago came here to lecture, met this student, and lured him away to Chicago to work under him (with a full fellowship in Arabic, by the way).

The department continues to recruit minority students actively by means of advertising brochures, posters, telephone contacts, referrals from colleagues, and outreach while visiting other campuses. Given the small size of our program, recruitment of underrepresented students is done through individual contacts with prospective students. We are currently in the process of identifying schools with sufficient potential to justify a personal visit by a faculty member to encourage prospective applicants. Every initial contact with a minority potential applicant is followed up vigorously, with vigorous efforts to maintain financial support.


Dual MA Programs: The department’s Dual MA program with East Asian Languages and Civilizations has admitted its first two students. Several other students have expressed serious interest in enrolling in the program. Thus far the coordination between the two departments has gone quite smoothly. With former Associate Dean of the Graduate School Professor Rodney Taylor returning to full-time teaching in spring semester 2003 and the department’s recent appointment of a tenure-track assistant professor in East Asian Buddhism, we expect the joint MA with EALC, particularly, to be even more attractive to top students in the future. There is also interest (though no formal applications yet) in the joint MA program with the History Department.

Naropa University/CU Sanskrit Cooperation and Tibetan Buddhism Courses: The joint program with Naropa University, providing for up to three years of study of Sanskrit, is operating smoothly, with a small number of CU Religious Studies students enrolling each year. The beginning levels of the language are taught by a Naropa faculty member, whereas the upper level text courses are taught by our Sanskrit/Hinduism specialist Dr. Loriliai Biernacki. -- For many years, our unit has benefited greatly from the presence of Dr. Reginald Ray, of Naropa University, as a half-time Senior Instructor in Tibetan Buddhism. Dr. Ray is one of the world’s leading Tibetan Buddhism specialists and his courses have been among the most in demand in our curriculum. We are committed to continuing our productive relationship with Naropa and are looking forward, particularly, to the arrival of Dr. Thomas Coburn, a South Asian religions specialist with a long and distinguished career as scholar-teacher and high level administrator, at St. Lawrence University, who will assume the presidency of Naropa in July of 2003. We have already been in touch with Dr. Coburn and he is as interested as we are in expanding our cooperative relationship, including at the graduate studies level.

Colloquia and Lectures: The department’s colloquium series, guided by a newly invigorated student-faculty committee, has been quite active, with several presentations by our own faculty and students as well as out-of-town visitors since the fall 2001 term. The graduate program is particularly enriched by the annual Robert C. Lester Lecture on the Study of Religion, which brings an outstanding scholar to campus for several days each spring, to deliver a lecture on innovative theories and methods in religious studies. The lecture is shortly afterwards formally published and widely distributed throughout North America. This year’s Lester Lecture was actually a series of four public lectures, delivered by Tony Swain, of the University of Sydney. Dr. Swain is the world’s leading authority on Australian Aboriginal religions. His lectures, which are currently being reviewed for possible publication as a book, were collectively titled "Varieties of Aesthetic Experience."

Graduate Student Liaison to RLST Faculty: Each year the graduate students choose one of their cohort to be their liaison to the faculty. The liaison attends departmental faculty meetings and addresses issues of special concern to the graduate students. Through the liaison, graduate students have continuing involvement in all departmental decisions affecting their education. This year there was closely-divided three-way vote for that position, indicating that the students take it very seriously. The graduate students meet regularly and provide substantial feedback—including occasional criticism—to the faculty on a variety of issues and concerns, such as maintaining "best practices" in thesis advising, reviewing and possibly revising our graduate curriculum and requirements, providing more guidance in getting published, and advising on potential career choices.

Serving on Search Committees: Two graduate students served on this year’s East Asian Religion tenure track assistant professor search committee. They and two additional MA students traveled together to Toronto and participated with five faculty members in interviewing ten candidates for the position during the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. When short listed candidates were later brought to campus, a number of grad students met with each for an hour by themselves. They provided input to the faculty during the final selection discussions. We include this here to indicate an important dimension of real life professional training that such employment related activity can deliver.

Annual Departmental Retreat: Each September the department sponsors a weekend retreat, usually at the YMCA of the Rockies near Estes Park. Typically, about 30 grad students, majors, and faculty occupy two spacious rented vacation homes and, from Friday evening until Sunday noon, cook and eat together, enjoy an evening ice-breaker, sing and play guitars, have discussions and planning sessions, play at least one challenging group game (a few years ago it was a mystery drama called "Who killed Mircea Eliade?" [one of our discipline’s all-time leading thinkers, originally from Romania], with people playing lawyers, judges, and defendants -- e.g. Freud, Jung, James), go on hikes, ride horseback and engage in other activities. The majority of participants in the retreat are grad students, usually ca. 15+. The event is a very successful get acquainted experience and community builder that provides momentum during the ensuing academic year. The grad students undertake most of the tasks required to bring it off, such as program planning, logistics, grocery buying, menu planning, seeing that everyone has transportation, cooking , cleanup, helping newcomers feel welcome and safe, and properly vacating the premises on Sunday (final cleaning up, discarding/recycling trash, returning the keys, inventorying equipment, etc.). The department pays the bill by means of a special fund (that is currently threatened by the common budget crisis.)

North American Stand-Alone MA Program Consultation: The department is continuing conversations with other religious studies departments in the United States and Canada offering stand-alone MA degrees. The long-range goal is to establish an ongoing network of communication among these departments to promote and enrich the stand-alone MA in our field. We expect this to enhance the respect with which our department is held as a leader among stand-alone MA Religious Studies departments.

Report prepared by
Ira Chernus, Director of Graduate Studies
Frederick M. Denny, Department Chair
March 21, 2003


Last revision 03/26/03

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