This week, an excited group of Protestant clergy members and nonprofit officials broke ground on a new and unusual dormitory project that will serve the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Once constructed, the building will allow just under 300 students to live in an environment that is supportive of spirituality and religion, say organizers.
The $17 million private dorm will be one of a handful of religious-inspired residence halls serving college students at public institutions. Organizers with the Pres House, a student religious center operated by the Presbyterian Church, have been striving to launch the endeavor for the past 10 years. Any student will be able to apply for a spot in the dorm, regardless of his or her denomination or belief in God. Selection will be based on a first come, first served basis.
Student interest in spirituality has motivated the efforts, according to Mark Elsdon, co-pastor and executive director of Pres House. He pointed to a 2005 study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles, which indicated that a majority of students consider religious and spiritual matters  to be an important part of their lives.
“I think there’s a real need for a supportive spiritual community,” says Eldson. “We’re trying to make a large university smaller and meaningful.” Optional programs allowing for open talk about religion and spirituality will also be offered.
Gregory Roberts, executive director of the American College Personnel Association, said that such efforts should be applauded. “I’m an advocate of American colleges and universities embracing faith and spiritual development,” he said. “I think that many students want an environment where they can explore their faith.”
While organizers say that they’ve received a range of student and faculty member support for the project, the privately funded endeavor has still caused concern among some members of the progressive city in Wisconsin.
“We’re not happy about faith-based anything,” said Anne Nicole Gaylor, founder and president emerita of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “When you introduce religion into a public school environment, you are going to build walls between students.
“It seems exactly the opposite of what a university should be,” added Gaylor. “Religion is closed.”
Randy Bare, who organized a similar Presbyterian dorm near the University of California at Berkeley in 2003, said that it hasn’t divided students since it opened.
Bare added that students at Berkeley's Westminster House tend to use alcohol and drugs less than their counterparts at university-sponsored dorms. “Students and parents are attracted because there’s an assumption that alcohol and drugs won’t be an issue,” said Bare. He did note that having a spirituality focused dorm is not a panacea for such problems, however.
Eldson said that there would be rules against using alcohol in the Madison dorm. Sexual habits of students would not be monitored, he added.
As such projects become more common, Bare anticipates that more colleges and universities will look toward help from faith-based organizations in efforts to ease the crowding of university-sponsored dorms.