WASHINGTON -- When a topic of conversation is as notoriously discomfiting as religion, the established thinking -- particularly in academe -- is that it's easier to just ignore the subject altogether. But what is the responsibility of a college, regardless of religious affiliation, to address the topic when it has a stated commitment to diversity, inclusion and citizenship?
Three dozen or so faculty members, student life officials and administrators were asked to ponder that question here Friday at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Of course, given that they had chosen to attend a presentation on promoting religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation on campuses, it was presumably something to which they'd already given some thought -- even though few of them worked at religious institutions.
"One goal of civic engagement that we have as institutions is helping our students learn how to engage meaningfully and productively with difference," said Trina Janiec Jones, an associate professor of religion at Wofford College, a liberal arts campus in South Carolina that is affiliated with the Methodist Church. Despite the academy's push to embrace diversity on campuses, she said -- a movement that, while potentially incorporating religion, generally focuses on race, gender and class -- the mere presence of people with diverse backgrounds or views doesn't necessarily mean that different populations are talking to each other.
"People are very hesitant to think about a concept of pluralism," Janiec Jones said, "because they think that means letting go of their own religious commitments." (That topic was also addressed here over the weekend  at the annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.) Contrasting pluralism with religious "tolerance," she noted that the former goes beyond suggesting "a sort of grudging agreement to co-exist," toward a real willingness to participate in civic discourse, and perhaps even an appreciation of views one doesn't agree with.
Janiec Jones and her colleagues are halfway into a two-year project called "Using Assessment Evidence to Improve Programs and Promote Shared Responsibility for Mission-Based Outcomes," funded through the Teagle Foundation's "Engaging Evidence" grant. The goal (which will likely take far longer than two years to fully realize) is to assess and, with luck, improve the state of religious pluralism on their campuses. Janiec Jones and her co-presenters are finding it's difficult to do, not just for students but also for faculty -- who, many in the room agreed, are even more hesitant to broach the topic.
Professors at Elon University in North Carolina, which is no longer affiliated with its founder, the United Church of Christ, agree that understanding religion is clearly an important component to global citizenry, said Peter Felten, an assistant provost at Elon and director of its Center for Advancement of Teaching and Learning. "But," he continued, "almost all of our faculty will say, 'It's just not an important issue in my course.' "
While students may not be especially religious in the sense of attending services or identifying with a particular faith, their spirituality in college -- the search for meaning and purpose in life, and asking existential questions -- is on the rise, recent research has found . Yet the majority of these students also said their professors never encouraged discussions of religious or spiritual matters. (A follow-up study  found that hundreds of colleges were working to enhance students' spiritual development.)
At the AACU meeting, one audience member from a small institution in northwest Iowa described how even when students express interest in or ask questions about religion, they're scuttled by professors. "Because many of the faculty feel uncomfortable talking about religion, if anyone brings it up they just say, 'Oh, go talk to the chaplain,' " she said. "They act like they don't have to talk about it."
And the misconception among some parents that faculty actively discourage students from practicing religion or look down on them for doing so -- and among others that requiring a single general education religious studies course is the first step toward turning an institution into a "Bible college" -- doesn't help either, Janiec Jones said.
"It sort of reminds me of trying to talk to teenagers about sex," she said. Even though it's all over the media and woven into everyday life, "try to have a serious conversation and they freak out a little."
But how does one assess the extent and impact of this hesitancy on the campus climate, then figure out where to go from there? Not a single person in the room Friday could point to a bit of institutional data they thought could be useful.
Felten and Janiec Jones have had to start from scratch, but they've made some promising progress.
Widely used annual projects like the National Survey of Student Engagement  and The American Freshman: National Norms , out of UCLA's Cooperative Institutional Research Program, aren't terribly helpful on questions of faith and religion, but at Elon, Felten and others have used them as a jumping-off point to start conversations on the topic.
For instance, Felten said, while NSSE doesn't ask students specifically about their contact with peers of different faiths, it does ask whether a college "encourages contact among students from different economic, social, racial or ethnic backgrounds," and whether those experiences contribute to an understanding of people from those varied backgrounds. So Elon invited everyone on campus (about 250 of 6,000 showed up) to an event where they were sorted into mixed groups and asked to answer those questions. Even though the questions didn't explicitly address religion, they prompted "really rich discussion" and storytelling about meaningful, pluralistic engagement that students and faculty have had or want to have, which can inform the university's future efforts.
Over the two years Elon has hosted this event, Felten said, its NSSE scores on those particular questions have seen statistically significant increases.
The Wabash National Study also offers some survey instruments  that can be helpful, including the Miville-Guzman Universality-Diversity Scale (Short Form), a multiple-choice questionnaire that measures student attitudes and behaviors regarding diversity, and the Openness to Diversity and Challenge Scale.
But of course, assessment doesn't always lead to encouraging findings: after distributing the two short Wabash surveys to participants in its 200-person "global experience" course, Elon found that after taking the course, students became more open to diverse perspectives and considered them more valuable. The problem was, they didn't enjoy or seek out such diversity -- in fact, they did so "slightly less than before," raising all sorts of curricular questions (which have yet to be answered).
Finally, having another institution to team with can be helpful as well. Wofford and Elon are comparing data from the Interfaith Youth Core's Campus Religious and Spiritual Climate Survey . IFYC aims to assess knowledge and attitudes of people on campus, as well as their behaviors and relationships. Elon, for example, found that while its students "love Buddhists," they don't know anything about Buddhism (and Tibet, and the Dalai Lama).
"A lot of what our students know about religion is from the media," Felten said. "That's an interesting dilemma if we're trying to build pluralistic capacities." And, as the findings of the global experience course survey suggested, students report an ethos of inclusion, they just don't interact much across different populations.
"So, we're a great warm campus that values difference," Felten said, "we just don't want to deal with it."
As the project is still in its infancy, it's unclear where the campuses will go from here. But any college that aims to link knowledge, career and civic citizenship -- in theory, all of them -- should engage in this difficult but worthwhile work, said Ron Robinson, the Perkins-Prothro chaplain and professor of religion at Wofford.
"I think in higher education we thought for a long time that religion was going to go away. It hasn't and it's not going to," Robinson said. "Because we have freedom of religion, that necessarily drives religion into the market place, and it means we have to engage people of different world views.... that's part of our task."