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What Does Faith Look Like in Higher Education?

Explaining the language institutions use to describe their waxing and waning relationships with their religious connections.

January 24, 2023

Explaining or discussing faith can ignite heated, passionate and explosive debates in academia. And yet, faith has played and continues to play a large part in higher education. The manifestation of faith is a continuum ranging from adherence to specific practices associated with a particular organized religion to something more general, like faith in humankind’s ability to learn, prosper and contribute to the greater good.

In the U.S., the historical origins of many colleges and universities have been closely tied to faith, in particular Christianity. For example, Harvard University, the oldest U.S. institution, was founded in 1636 to train Congregational clergy. Numerous religious sects have supported higher education by establishing institutions large and small—Roman Catholics (Georgetown University), Methodists (Emory University), Presbyterians (Davidson College), Baptists (Baylor University) and Lutherans (St. Olaf College), to name a few. Over time, the degree to which institutions align themselves with a particular faith waxes and wanes. The language institutions use to signal these connections is nuanced and institutions carefully choose how they signal identity relative to religion and belief. Here are a few terms, very general definitions and some examples:

  • Nonsecular: Privately funded institutions that align their identity and work with certain religious beliefs. These institutions can be further defined as faith-based and/or sponsored, affiliated and founded by a specific religion and sect.
  • Faith-based: The beliefs of a particular religion and sect are foundational to the institution’s mission, vision and values and are integral to teaching and campus life. Examples include Liberty University (Baptist–Southern Baptist Convention), Brigham Young University (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and Villanova University (Roman Catholic–Augustinian).
  • Sponsored: A religious organization provides financial support for the institution with the expectation the beliefs are upheld and promoted. The degree of support and the manifestation of religious doctrines in the institution’s operation varies but typically is more significant than if the institution identifies as having an affiliation with a particular church. An institution can be faith-based and sponsored (as with the examples above) or historically supported but not solely focused on a faith-based identity. An example of faith-based and sponsored can be illustrated in the Roman Catholic Church, where subgroups, known as congregations, support several institutions. The Roman Catholic–Congregation of Holy Cross sponsors the University of Notre Dame, Holy Cross College, Kings College, Stonehill College, the University of Portland and others.
  • Affiliated: This term may indicate a relationship between a sect and the institution exists, which may include some financial support. For example, the United Methodist Church founded many universities and colleges but may only offer support via scholarships today, such as with American University and Boston University. Here is a listing of other schools affiliated with the United Methodist Church in this manner.
  • Founded: This term generally means that a particular religion or sect established the institution but the institution no longer receives significant (or perhaps any funding) from the founding entity and doesn’t subscribe to a faith-based identity. Indicating a founding status evidences an appreciative and respectful nod to its religiously based history but signifies a more secular approach to teaching and student experience.
  • Secular: This term primarily relates to public institutions adhering to the separation of church and state where no particular organized religion finds root (some many celebrate all beliefs or none). Some private institutions identify in this way as well. These colleges and universities focus on institutional traditions and rituals, supporting service to a greater good via the pursuit of knowledge. Relative to nonsecular higher education, faith is expressed in the belief that humankind has a great capacity for growth, betterment and individual agency despite external conditions and identities.

The existence of faith finds evidence in declarations by numerous international human rights organizations insisting on equal access to higher education. One example is the United Nations’ Internal Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, dated Dec. 16, 1966. Article 13, item 1 states,

“The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to education. They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They further agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”

And in particular, Article 13, item 2. c. states,

“Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.”

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Kathy Johnson Bowles

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