MIAMI – The Dalai Lama has offered $100,000 to help an imperiled religion department at a Florida university after receiving an e-mailed plea for a letter of support from a longtime acquaintance on the faculty.
"He responded with this astounding, astounding offer," said Nathan Katz, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Florida International University. "I fell off my chair."
The department is one of three at FIU slated to close in response to a $27 million cut in state funding to the public university.
Katz said he e-mailed the Dalai Lama's office last month after finding out the program was in jeopardy and asked for a letter of support.
FIU received a letter from the Dalai Lama's office this week offering $100,000 and his help fundraising to prevent the planned closure of the department.
"In our deeply interconnected world, understanding and appreciation of diversity of religions is critical in fostering a culture of genuine tolerance and peaceful coexistence," read the letter from a secretary to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader who has spent 50 years in exile after a failed uprising to oust Chinese rulers. "If the department were to close down, it will not be easy to rebuild."
Katz said he first met the Dalai Lama in 1973 as a student studying the Tibetan language in India, and was later a researcher at his library. The Dalai Lama even wrote the introduction to Katz's first book.
Katz said he also thinks the Dalai Lama, who received an honorary doctorate of divinity from FIU in 1999 and returned in 2004, has "genuine affection" for the university.
FIU President Modesto Madique is drafting a letter accepting the offer, an FIU spokesman said.
But the department isn't safe yet. Katz said the department must raise about $5 million to create an endowment that could fund the $600,000 yearly operating deficit.
Jack Fitzmier, director of the American Academy of Religion, said there's no nationwide pattern of budget cuts targeting religion departments. However, he said state schools are under more pressure than private schools.