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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. As with all other administrative units, it was guaranteed that the department would become independent when the Ohio Legislature established Wright State University. Dr. Nicholas Piediscalzi was invited to become the founding member of the department. 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 assembling a faculty to achieve these goals.
From its inception, the department 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 12 courses that were offered during the 1965-66 academic year. By the 1971-72 academic year, more than 2,100 students registered in 60 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 Wright State. 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 11th year they assumed full financial responsibility.
The Danforth Foundation awarded 12 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 Wright State.
These programs were unique for their day in that they united state universities, a Roman Catholic university, a Lutheran university, private colleges, and theological seminaries in co-operative projects to expand and improve the academic study of religion 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 more than $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 Wright State 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 Wright State’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.”
Dr. Nicholas Piediscalzi
Emeritus Professor of Religion
In 1964 the two premier public universities in Ohio, Miami University and The Ohio State University, began a collaboration in Dayton that in three short years became Wright State. Having a mission distinctly different from its founding institutions, Wright State was created to meet community need by serving a student body combining large numbers of traditional and non-traditional students with diverse backgrounds. General education and college-wide requirements played a large role in the developing curriculum. The university’s faculty emphasized providing students with access to the broadest range of course work in all the traditional arts and sciences disciplines and led to the creation of a Department of Philosophy.
In its second year the university added two full-time professors of philosophy. Robert Bryant became department chair and Robert Power joined Nicholas Piediscalzi, professor of religion, in the new department. When Bryant left the following year, Power became acting chair and was joined by Ronald Hough and Eugene Valberg. Valberg was replaced in 1967 by Donald Beelick, who retired from Wright State in 2002 having also served for many years as pre-law advisor. Power became assistant director of Wright State’s new Division of Liberal Arts in 1967 and then served as acting dean of the College of Liberal Arts from 1970-1972. He retired in 1982. Hough became department chair in 1970 and remained in that position until his retirement in 1999 making him the longest-serving chair in university history. Frank Levitt joined the philosophy faculty in 1969 and was replaced by William Walters in 1972, who left the university in 1978. Charles Taylor joined the faculty in 1977 and in 1997 received the Award for Innovative Excellence in Teaching Learning and Technology. He became director of the Master of Humanities program in 1995, department chair in 1999. He also served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts from 2005 until retirement in 2012.
From the outset the faculty in the Department of Philosophy had diverse responsibilities in the College of Liberal Arts and the university. They contributed to the education of graduates from all colleges by providing required humanities courses for the university’s general education program. They taught the logic and philosophy of science courses that were part of the research methods requirement taken by all students earning a B.A. in the College of Liberal Arts. And they provided courses in medical ethics for pre health-care majors, as well as business ethics classes.
The Department of Philosophy also supported the university in its mission by providing classes to majors and non-majors in the widest range of disciplines. Students from English, history, religion, classics art, motion pictures, music, physics, communication and psychology regularly took advanced philosophy classes. The largest percentage of majors were pre-law, while some were pre-law. Many majors, however, wanted a classical liberal arts rather than a pre-professional degree. Because teaching students to think critically and write effectively has been the fundamental concern of the department faculty, the Philosophy Department has prepared students to assume careers in a wide range of fields.
Dr. Charles Taylor,
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy
The classics department at Wright State is as old as the university itself. Dr. William King was hired in 1964 to establish the department. His wife, Dr. Cynthia King, joined the faculty in 1965. At this time, Wright State was still a satellite campus of Miami University and The Ohio State University. The only building on campus was Allyn Hall. The library, with a classics collection of 25 books, was housed in the cafeteria. When Wright State became an independent university in 1967, the classics department continued to thrive.
In 1977, Dr. Jan Gabbert, a Wright State alumna herself, joined the Kings, establishing a core of three tenured full-time faculty members. Over time this core has been supplemented by various lecturers and instructors. 1977 also saw the Wright State classics department host its first Antiquities Day.
In 1981, Wright State hosted the annual meeting of the Ohio Classics Conference, the leading organization for classical pedagogy in the state. In 1989, Wright State hosted the Cambridge Latin Teachers Workshop.
In the 2000s, Dr. William King, Dr. Cynthia King, and Dr. Jan Gabbert handed over the reins of the department to faculty members Dr. Bruce Laforse, Dr. Jeannette Marchand, and Dr. Rebecca Edwards.
In 2008, Wright State established a chapter of the national classics honors fraternity, Eta Sigma Phi. In 2013, in conjunction with the College of the Education, the classics department began offering an advanced degree program for licensure to teach high school Latin.
Drs. William and Cynthia King
Professors Emeriti, Department of Classics