Faith on the Quad

Scholars issue draft "declaration" calling for expanded role of religion in curriculum and student life -- at religious and secular colleges.
January 27, 2006

"To live in America is to live in a religiously charged atmosphere," and that includes colleges -- whether they like it or not. With those words, William M. Sullivan, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, summed up why 25 scholars -- from a range of disciplines and faiths -- have been working on a new statement about the role of religion on campuses.

The Wingspread Declaration on Religion and Public Life: Engaging Higher Education is still only a draft. But the document, which comes out of discussions that started during the 2004 elections, was presented -- and at times the subject of intense discussion -- at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities on Thursday. The declaration calls on colleges to:

  • Provide students with "religious literacy" in their educations -- and make sure that this literacy is not simply the responsibility of religious studies professors. "Students must learn the relevance of religion to all disciplines -- sciences, humanities, arts, social sciences -- and the professions," the declaration states.
  • Promote civility in discussions about religion and religious issues -- even when participants in those discussions hold different views. "Higher education must foster a spirit of tolerance and actively champion an attitude of mutual respect and affirmation of the value of pluralism in a democracy without implicitly or explicitly privileging secular-rational world views or particular religious perspectives in the search for truth."
  • Help students with their concerns about "meaning" and "purpose" in life and with their desires to connect spiritual development with their intellectual growth in college.

While the declaration acknowledges that colleges have different missions and values, it encourages these steps at all institutions: public and private, religious and secular.

The declaration has been developed by the Society for Values in Higher Education. Nancy Thomas, director of the society's Democracy Project, said that during 2004, many scholars became concerned about a sense of "decreased tolerance" in public life, divisions into "secular and religious camps" in American society, and a sense that as religion was playing a more important role in American life, far too many Americans are ignorant about it. Higher education is experiencing many of the tensions caused by these trends, she said, but can also be "a catalyst" for change.

The tensions on campus were evident in the discussions among the provosts, deans and professors at the meeting, as they waited for the declaration's release. Two public university professors were trading stories about demands they face from evangelical students. Two professors at Roman Catholic colleges were discussing a controversial speech this week in which the new president of the University of Notre Dame questioned the appropriateness of certain arts events on his campus.

Thomas said that her group invited 25 scholars to convene last summer at the Wingspread conference center to draft the declaration. After additional reviews and adjustments, it will be released as a final document.

In the declaration's introduction, the authors stress that what they are seeking is not just a new course or lecture series, but something much broader. "Changes in the landscape of religion in American public life provide the academy with myriad opportunities for study, dialogue, critique, and action," the draft says. "Yet religion is all too often marginalized to religious studies programs and campus ministries. This statement advocates for the study about religion in all its dimensions, disciplines, and complexities and every level of education. We challenge colleges and universities to teach about religion across the curriculum and as part of their efforts to educate citizens for a diverse, complex, and religion-infused local and global society."

At the meeting Thursday, an overview about the declaration was followed by breaking those in attendance up into small groups so that the academic leaders could discuss the ideas before returning to a large, group discussion. In the small discussions, there appeared to be unanimity about the importance of discussing these issues and of colleges doing more to teach religion. But some of the specifics of the document resonated more with some than others.

Sue A. Alexander, dean of students at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, said that the declaration reflected a revival of interest in discussing such issues with students. Alexander said that many educators on the campus were influenced by a report issued in April that found that students nationally care a great deal about issues of spirituality and want their colleges to provide more of an environment in which to explore such issues.

Wheaton just created a new program -- the Office of Service, Spirituality and Social Responsibility -- to provide students with more of the kinds of opportunities discussed in the April report, which came from the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles. Alexander stressed that the new office would not try to impose any one way of thinking on students, but would rather "let students arrive at answers to these questions from a variety of faiths." Alexander said that faculty members have come forward since the office was created to say that they had long wanted to connect their interests and beliefs with their student work, but had feared that such topics were "off limits."

In the same group with Alexander was Kathleen M. Murray, provost of Birmingham Southern University. Murray said that she thought her colleagues would find the declaration helpful. A major goal at the university, she said, is to find ways to link its Methodist ties, a campus ministry that serves students of many religions, a connection to the city of Birmingham, and the idea of "global human dignity."

"We're trying to develop an umbrella to consider these things," she said.

Thinking big was indeed a theme of those involved in drafting the declaration. "This is about educating the whole student, the whole person," said Tony C. Chambers, associate vice provost of the University of Toronto.

In some of the other small groups, there were skeptics on parts of the declaration. In one group, two professors -- one from a secular, private institution and one from a faith-based university -- said that they agreed that many students were ignorant of religion and needed more education on the topic. But both professors said that they feared higher education was being asked to restore civility to American life -- a task that however important may be beyond the ability of academe.

When the groups all united for a larger discussion, other issues were raised. One professor, while praising the document, said that she thought that many of her faculty colleagues would "feel ill-equipped to do what this document calls for."

Another professor said that he was concerned about the document's call not to favor either a secular or religious view. He wanted to know if the principles being put forth would discourage a university from defending evolution from attacks by those who claim that "intelligent design" has scholarly validity.

But many others spoke with passion about how it was time for higher education to respond more fully to student demands for study of religion at many levels. One provost described how two students of different faiths -- randomly assigned to share a dormitory room -- came to her and told her that they had both learned to reject stereotypes they previously held about the other's faith. But the students weren't willing to rest on their laurels. They told their provost that they wanted her to set up more courses on comparative religion.


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