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Religious Affairs: Understanding Interfaith on Campus

Why is it important to understand religious diversity on campus? In this month's HigherEd Careers interview, Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson discusses topics surrounding multifaith college communities. Also highlighted are opportunities on how to educate a campus on different faiths and traditions in order to promote people coming together from varied spiritual backgrounds.

Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: Rev. Cooper Nelson, what does your role as university chaplain and director of the office of chaplains and religious life encompass?

Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson, Brown University: I direct a multifaith office of chaplains and affiliated religious leaders who oversee the care of the university community - faculty, students, staff and alumni/ae and the moral, spiritual, religious and convictional aspects of our life.

Hibel: You have a very distinguished background1 with much of it being involved with ministry in higher education. What prompted you to choose the path that combined both?

Cooper: At heart I am teacher first and a pastoral presence second. I am convinced that our colleges and universities are places where students and faculty bring both of their intellectual gifts and challenges, as well as their deepest heartfelt dreams. The combination is so rich and fulfilling and the range of what we need to do together is nearly limitless.

Hibel: On most college campuses, interfaith or the interaction of people from different religious faiths and traditions is present. What types of religious diversity is occurring on campuses across the country?

Cooper: Students from every faith and cultural tradition - both American and international - are drawn to the excellence of the American system of higher education. Quite literally, we are welcoming in greater numbers each year a broader diversity of spirituality and religion on our campuses, opening truly rare opportunities for intercultural learning and interfaith collaboration and learning.

Hibel: What interfaith understanding, cooperation or competence should universities be supporting?

Cooper: As much as they possibly can, but with the depth that befits the caliber of education and nuanced understanding that we require in the classroom and laboratory. This required a vast development of religious literacy among our current leaders of higher education

Hibel: How do universities best foster this interfaith growth?

Cooper: First, they must know who is present in the community and what the needs of the evermore varied set of identities requires; and then we must also face and understand our own histories. Most of our campuses have not been inclusive and we now must demonstrate effectively that we are capable of welcoming everyone.

Hibel: What are the implications of the constitutional separation of government and religion for higher education?

Cooper: They differ for state-funded institutions and private ones, but they differ less than one might think. State-funded institutions must be careful to demonstrate that they are not relegating their religiously identified students to "second class," denying them access to student activities funding or organizational support in the form of professional expertise. Private institutions may well continue affiliations with religious communities, but if they receive federal funding they are not permitted to fail to accommodate a diversity of belief and practice even when some of that may be in controversy to the beliefs of their communities of affiliation. I'd like to think that higher education generally will realize the truly rare opportunity that exists in the convergence of difference that a modern academic community is for creating some rare moments of dialogue and cooperation.

Hibel: How can interfaith campus groups bring to attention the beliefs that faiths share when world events happen that highlight the positions of religions that divide a campus?

Cooper: Some of this will emerge directly from the deep affection that students develop for one another as they live and learn together, even if they arrived from not only divergent backgrounds but even when the differences between their communities have been quite strident. But I am convinced that fostering this growth takes the guidance and teaching of highly skilled professionals on our campuses who are chaplains, directors of religious life, deans who work on multicultural understanding and identity development and faculty in many disciplines. This work is critical in all programs of higher education - undergraduate and graduate - and it is fascinating and heartening work that is truly new.

Hibel: What are the opportunities and also implications of student religious diversity and accommodation on campus?

Cooper: The opportunities are vast and hold tremendous promise for allowing students in the "laboratory" of higher ed communities to experiment with new modes of collaboration and exploration. However, the implications of not doing this work while students are in residence and studying together are also vast. We risk hardening the stereotypes that are rampant in society. We may well deepen the cynicism that is always near that the discordant aspects of religion are the only last dimensions. We may well discourage religious identified students in their pursuit of intellectual growth by failing to integrate spiritual and religious growth with intellectual depth. Because some of this reflects my fear of missed opportunities it is important to note that each of these concerns has a dazzling, positive correlate for what the years of a university education can begin - a life of deeper respect for difference and the intriguing and demanding work of envisioning a world where coexistence is highly prized goal.

Hibel: When an unexplainable tragedy strikes on a school or college campus our different religious beliefs are often put aside and communities unite as one. Why do you think this happens and why is it important on a college campus?

Cooper: Tragedy sets all of our labor on a different horizon line and asks us powerfully, 'What really matters?' Many of the "grammatical details" of our religious practice and belief melt into a background place where kindness, compassion grief, understanding, and tears are our shared experience. Our nation and our campuses are in the midst of such a moment. We ask better of ourselves when the stakes are high. We can do this with less sorrow more often, and if we do, we arrive more nearly together in the hardest of times, which is a great comfort and strength.

Hibel: What is religious literacy and what minimal competence may be important for higher education professionals to demonstrate?

Cooper: This is not easy to answer yet. Most everyone agrees that it is a good thing, most everyone agrees that we don't have it, and we are now working hard to understand what level of literacy do professionals in our schools, hospitals, courtrooms, banks, and in every professional setting need. I think we may need to promulgate a phrase I've begun the use, "Piety for many; Literacy for all", to help the jittery to understand that this is not a project to suggest that one must be prayerful. It is rather an effort to suggest that the current level of illiteracy is contributing negatively to the work of global and personal understanding that is needed to do our most important tasks well.

Hibel: What advice would you give someone who is seeking to begin a career in the area of religious affairs on campus?

Cooper: First, I would extend a warm welcome (to them). The ranks of new folks needed to do this work must swell and their skills and knowledge need to be carefully nuanced and deep. Time in graduate schools of religion or divinity school is highly recommended; knowledge of student development is not adequate. The capacity to make connections to the broad work of identity development is also important. This work is organizational and programmatic, but it is also teaching and educational - so it holds enormous variety and richness. Join us!