Managing the American Academy of Religion: An Interview with Professor Jin Y. Park

- through Francois Leclercq

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Image courtesy of Jin Y. Park

On November 23, 2023, American University Professor Jin Y. Park assumed a role that religious scholars consider a great honor: that of president of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). It’s a position she will hold for one year, until November 23, 2024. The AAR is the world’s largest and most prestigious organization for religious scholarship. The organization's mission is to promote "excellence in the academic study of religion." (American Academy of Religion) It promotes and facilitates exchanges between specialists of religion and those interested in the profound role of religion in the human experience. Its annual meetings are the culmination of the organization's activities, but the Academy also organizes activities throughout the year, including through webinars, regional meetings, publication series, etc.

The AAR is an institutional member of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). In September, it hosted a leadership seminar for all new presidents of its member organizations. The executive directors of member organizations also meet regularly with the president of the ACLS to exchange ideas on current issues and future directions for scholarly organizations.

As chair of her university's philosophy and religion department, Park devoted her career to Buddhist reflections on moral, ethical, and political thought. In an increasingly unstable global environment, his focus on Buddhist ethics, governance, and engaged citizenship in an East-West context has been essential for thinking productively about our times.

“As you know, the world is changing rapidly and scientific activities are also changing over time. In recent years, the AAR has tried to reflect the changing academic scene,” Park told me. “The AAR has continued to foster excellence in the academic study of religion while promoting public understanding of religion and its involvement in issues such as climate change. Regarding the job market, the AAR is faced with a decrease in the number of professorships in the humanities and a decrease in research funding.

For Park, the AAR was a place through which she met scholars in her field, exchanged ideas, and fostered new milestones in religious studies. As with many groups founded in the West, the organization began with a focus on Western religious traditions, particularly Christianity. When Park joined the group nearly three decades ago, participation by scholars of non-Western religious traditions was minimal. “However, over the past 30 years, the academy has transformed into an organization more sensitive to diversity and inclusion. Not only has the space for scholars of non-Western religious traditions expanded, but the leadership has changed as well, as you can see from someone like me – a Korean American specializing in Asian Buddhism of the East, particularly Korean Buddhism – now has the privilege of serving as president of the AAR,” she said.

As one of the leading academic societies focused on religious studies in the West – and certainly in the United States – the AAR hosts the largest and best-known religious studies conference in the world. Held annually, the meeting has been held entirely in person since 2022, and Park said the AAR is catching up to pre-pandemic participation levels. In response to my question about the rise of virtual meetings, she noted that “in 2022, AAR leadership hosted a series of meetings with AAR members to hear their perspectives on the AAR and also discuss the terms of the annual meeting. » The conclusion was that virtual meetings can complement some of the limitations of in-person meetings.

These limitations are not trivial, as Park acknowledges: “Since the pandemic, research funding at many higher education institutions has been reduced or eliminated, making it difficult for some researchers to finance their travel to at the annual meeting. And there are also access issues. People with disabilities or those who cannot come to the conference site for other reasons would like to have virtual meetings.

To meet this demand, the AAR will pilot a virtual annual meeting in June this year. This June meeting will take place over 3 days during the last week of the month, scheduled for the 24th to the 27th. It will have various components, including a plenary presidential panel. Since the June 2024 meeting is a pilot project, it will involve trial and error. Overall, Park and his team are excited about this new aspect of the AAR Annual Meeting.

Park’s academic interests are just a few of hundreds, if not thousands, of academic interests under the AAR umbrella. I asked her how she ensures that all voices within the AAR receive attention and visibility. " You're right. Buddhism is only one part of the AAR. My field – non-Western religion – is still not a dominant AAR topic. But, as in our society, diversity, equity and inclusion are increasingly recognized as important in academia, so it is imperative to address social equity,” she responded.

“I am the president, but like past and future presidents, I do not make decisions alone. The AAR has various committees (standing and ad hoc) on which scholars from different religious traditions with different research topics sit. As president of the AAR, my role is to hear the voices and ideas of different groups and to facilitate a space in which thousands of academic interests can flourish and where we can share discussions about their relevance for our lives and our society.

Image courtesy of Jin Y. Park

Being president of the AAR naturally requires a set of skills that don’t always come instinctively to people. As Park observes in the academic context: “For me, one of the most important leadership qualities is the ability to listen to the voice of voters. Human relationships seem to be one of the most difficult aspects that a person in a leadership role must juggle, and hearing voices requires making decisions to act. In a group like the AAR, which has thousands of members, it is never easy or even possible to make decisions that all members agree with or like. She added: “Playing a leadership role, I believe, means being thoughtful in making decisions, always considering groups that would not accept a particular decision and communicating with them.

“I believe that the interpersonal skills required for high-level leadership also go hand in hand with in-depth knowledge of situations and contexts. The more informed and carefully contextualized a situation is, the more effective and compassionate decision-making can be. Kindness is an important quality for any leadership role.

As noted above, his current research has always been relevant to the major priorities and issues of the world today. Today, it becomes even more urgent. “One topic I have focused on in recent years is nonviolence. Nonviolence is the first precept of Buddhism, and many other religious traditions also teach it. Amid the endemic violence of our time, the practice of nonviolence seems, for many people, a little out of place,” she observed.

“My students generally say that nonviolence is an interesting but impractical idea. However, I believe that we cannot counter violence with violence if we want to imagine a better world than the one we currently live in. As you know, violence takes many forms: not only the most explicit forms like war, armed violence and sexual violence, but also social discrimination, hunger, economic inequality and climate change are all forms of violence. that we face in our time. Park continued. “If we agree on this, there should be various forms of non-violence that we can practice at different levels: social, political and even in our daily lives. »

Park suggests that we should take time to reflect or reflect on nonviolence and its relationship to our lifestyles. “An academic expert on the subject mentioned that we teach various wars in our education, but not much about non-violence. I completely agree with this. I believe that nonviolence should be a movement, not in the sense of demonstrations in the streets, but in the sense that nonviolence should be a constant and consistent practice.

She notes that violence and non-violence are inevitably linked to the power dynamics of the parties involved. “When violence is used, those who impose it must believe that they are more powerful than the object of their violence; as such, the value of the object of their violence is understood hierarchically in relation to the one imposing the violence. Those on the margins most often tend to suffer from violence, whether it is social violence or even the ecological problems of our time. For me, reflection on marginality, another subject on which I work, goes hand in hand with considerations of non-violence.

As president of the AAR, Park was able to decide the presidential theme of the upcoming year's conference. Fittingly, his presidential theme for the 2024 AAR meetings will be: violence, non-violence and the margin. I can't imagine a better presidential theme for our times as 2024 unfolds before us. With Park’s thinking and leadership, the AAR is poised for new breakthroughs and may just help us think better about how to save the world.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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