Spiritual, but not in the Classroom

Survey of professors finds plenty of faith -- and a correlation between life of the soul and teaching styles.
March 1, 2006

A life of the mind does not prevent professors from having a spiritual life as well, according to a study released Tuesday.

More than 80 percent of faculty members consider themselves spiritual at least to some extent, and a majority of faculty members consider themselves religious to some extent, and pray to some extent, the study found. The analysis -- by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles -- also found that black and female professors are more likely than other groups of faculty members to be spiritual. And while the survey found that professors at religious colleges are generally more spiritual than those at secular institutions, the study found equal levels of spirituality among faculty members at Roman Catholic institutions and at community colleges.

The study is part of a long-term effort by the UCLA research center to document the spiritual state of campus life and to encourage more discussion among students and faculty members of issues of deep meaning.

Many professors support the idea of having more discussions of issues of morals and ethics in the classroom, the study found, but many also balk when spirituality is mentioned. "This is a vitally important part of human development and the academy has pretty much rejected this aspect of development," said Alexander Astin, founding director of the Higher Education Research Institute.

The following are summary results on spirituality (which was largely left to survey participants to define, but doesn't necessarily mean following any particular religious faith). The results come from a survey of more than 40,000 faculty members at 421 colleges.

Faculty Members on Their Spirituality

Question Not at All To Some Extent To a Great Extent
Do you consider yourself religious? 37% 29% 35%
Do you consider yourself spiritual? 19% 34% 48%
Do you engage in prayer/meditation? 39% 35% 26%
Do you engage in self-reflection?   2% 30% 68%

Generally, the survey found women more likely to think of themselves as spiritual and to have characteristics associated with a high degree of spirituality. Beyond gender, there were clear patterns about spirituality by race and ethnicity and by institution type.

Black faculty members are the most likely (66 percent) to identify themselves as spiritual "to a great extent." They are followed by American Indians (60 percent), Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders (59 percent), Puerto Ricans (57 percent), Chicanos (53 percent), whites (48 percent) and Asian Americans (37 percent).

In terms of institution types, 64 percent of faculty members at religious, non-Catholic institutions scored high on measures of spirituality, followed by 50 percent at Catholic colleges and community colleges, 43 percent at nonsectarian colleges, 41 percent at public colleges, 36 percent at private universities, and 33 percent at public universities.

The UCLA survey did not ask faculty members to identify their religious faiths (if any) so that demographic information is not available.

Richard A. Yanikoski, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said he feared that the data may be limited without asking questions about actual religious practice and belief, as opposed to just questions of spirituality. He noted, for example, that some people who are religious -- asked about spirituality by a secular group -- may assume that it is "new age spirituality" that is being asked about.

At the same time, he said he was surprised by the figure of 50 percent for Catholic colleges and hoped the figure would prompt additional study. Yanikoski said that he believes that the decline in the number of priests, brothers and nuns at Catholic institutions has resulted in a healthy discussion on how to make sure that faculties and the college experience are spiritual and Catholic. He said that generally, he thought Catholic colleges and their faculties were devoting more attention to these issues now than they were a decade or two ago.

The role of religion in American higher education is the subject of increasing discussion among professors of many faiths, and in the secular academy as well. The new study follows a report released by the UCLA research center in April about the spiritual quest of undergraduates, most of whom want to explore questions of spirituality and meaning -- and many of whom feel that they get little help from colleges in doing so. In January, a group of scholars released a draft declaration calling for more integration of religion into the scholarly, curricular and student life parts of campuses.

The new study on faculty and spirituality looked at professors who had high degrees of spiritual identity and asked them other questions to look for relationships between spiritual outlook and professional attitudes. The more spiritual faculty members are, the report said, the more likely they are to be happy with their work, their lives, and their ability to balance work and non-work aspects of their lives. Spiritual faculty members are also more likely to use participatory teaching techniques than are non-spiritual faculty members.

The area where the study found hesitation by faculty members about spirituality on campus was in encouraging students. While large majorities of faculty members want colleges to promote students' self-understanding and moral character, only minorities of faculty members in various disciplines believe that colleges should be concerned about students' spiritual development.

Astin said that some of what faculty members support may well come under the broad category of spiritual development, but that there is clearly a hesitation about using that language.

The following shows professors' reaction on encouraging student spirituality:

Proportion of Professors Who Believe Colleges Should Encourage Students' Spiritual Development

Discipline Percentage
Health sciences 41%
Humanities 40%
Education 33%
Fine arts 31%
Business 31%
Engineering 31%
Mathematics/statistics 28%
English 28%
Agriculture/forestry 25%
Social sciences 24%
Physical sciences 24%
Biological sciences 22%


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