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Commentary: Religious Diversity in Higher Education

There are overwhelming indications that religious diversity is a current and relevant issue for college campuses. The Spirituality in Higher Education study  out of UCLA demonstrates that college provides a fertile ground for students to explore issues of religion and spirituality.  Pew research on millennials indicates that while religious affiliation is on the decline, students engage in prayer and other spiritual practices, which rival other generations.  In a country of growing religious diversity, we know that students will be regularly engaging across lines of difference in their professional and civic lives; however, Pew research shows that American’s knowledge about diverse religious traditions is dramatically low

The goal of the Interfaith Youth Core, the organization where I currently work, is to make interfaith cooperation a social norm.  We believe that religious diversity does not have to lead to inevitable conflict — it can provide an opportunity for cooperation and contribution to our common civic good.  In today’s world and on today’s campuses, there’s no question about whether religion will come up. Rather, the question is how it will come up, and who will speak out when it does.  In my undergraduate experience, the university lost educational opportunities time and time again, ceding the conversation about religion to the news media and dorm gossip. 

The mission of higher education is to cultivate global citizenship and leadership skills in its students — and the sector has consistently demonstrated visionary leadership around other social issues, including multiculturalism, gender, sexuality and environmentalism.  As higher education has done with so many critical social issues of our time, colleges and universities have an opportunity to serve as a model for successful engagement of religious identity. 

Against a broader backdrop of global religious conflict, flashpoints around religious issues have marked college campuses. This year, Vanderbilt University erupted with accusations that the university was stripping students of their freedom of religion because of Vanderbilt’s “all-comers” policy for student organizations. 

In fall 2010, “Everyone Draw Muhammad Day,” (a day where secular student leaders chalked campuses with stick figures of Muhammad to protest South Park’s decision to eliminate an episode depicting Muhammad; depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are viewed as a significant sign of disrespect within most Islamic traditions) spread on campuses across the country, including Northwestern University, the University of South Carolina and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

In 2007, the University of Michigan-Dearborn came under fire for installing footbaths for the ritual use of Muslim community members (ritual washing before prayer is common practice for many Muslims), hearing accusations that the university was using public funds preferentially.  Very often, these conflicts spin out of control for specific reasons–either a lack of knowledge about particular religious practice or a lack of capacity to proactively and positively engage issues of religious identity. While many within higher education are well-versed in issues of race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, the knowledge and capacity to effectively address religious diversity is markedly lower. 

Despite this, religion is alive on campus.  These few examples demonstrate that, often in public and controversial ways, religion — and increasing religious diversity — is a clear presence within campus communities.  And yet, this narrative that religion causes conflict is not the only story we can tell.  A pro-active, positive engagement of religious identity and diversity can lead to entirely new narratives about religion on campus — a diversity issue that ignites not only our campus communities but also communities across the globe. 

There is incredible potential in the engagement of religious diversity issues on campus.  Pro-actively advancing interfaith cooperation at an institution-wide level means creating opportunities for students to come together across lines of religious identity to take action for the common good.   Not only does this work provide a basic knowledge and skill-set necessary for leadership in the 21st century, it also taps into the powerful source of social capital in religious communities, providing opportunities to make an impact on community issues and cultivate deeper civic engagement. 

President Obama recognized this potential and called on higher education to make interfaith cooperation a priority through his Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge More than 250 institutions (including 25 historically Black institutions, 11 Hispanic-serving institutions, 11 community colleges) have answered the call, recognizing the priority and potential of positively engaging religious diversity on campus. 

Despite the urgency and relevance of this critical issue, many institutions of higher education continue to leave religious diversity off the table in diversity conversations on campus.  It is incumbent upon individual campus leaders throughout the institution — including diversity affairs, religious life, high-level administrators, communications staff, and student affairs — to raise up this priority and fulfill higher education’s broader goals of equipping students for global leadership.  As we have seen with so many other issues that higher education has prioritized, the results could transform American society. 

Mary Ellen Giess is the VP of Campus Partnerships, overseeing IFYC’s strategic outreach to the sector of higher education and serving on the executive leadership team at IFYC.  Mary Ellen joined IFYC in 2008 after completing her master’s in religion, government and constitutional law at Harvard Divinity School. 

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