“Improving Religious Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Ed”

“Improving Religious Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Ed”

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Large or small, public or private, most universities and colleges have seen an increasingly diverse population of faculty, staff, and students. A four-year national study at 120 campuses, the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey discovered that while 70% of college seniors were committed to bridging religious divides, only 27% of Jewish students, 37% of Buddhists, and 38% of Hindus believed their campuses were receptive to religious diversity.

There is certainly a gap between perceptions of minority religious groups and the intentions of campus leaders to bridge the religious divide. These statistics and others were shared at Interfaith America‘s recent presentation at the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) Annual Meeting in January. As a follow-up, I spoke with Rebecca Russo, Senior Director of Higher Education Strategy for Interfaith America, who elaborated on the challenges that campus leaders face and strategies they can employ to bridge the gap.

Bethany Wallace: What challenges do campus leaders currently face around religious diversity & inclusion?

Rebecca Russo: Issues related to religious diversity and inclusion can challenge campus leaders, who often lack the religious literacy and knowledge to fully understand the nuances of a complex situation How should a campus leader respond when the legitimate expression of one person’s religious or secular identity comes into conflict with — or is perceived as offensive by — another person in the campus community?

These challenges are inevitable in a religiously diverse democracy, especially as illustrated in the recent high-profile cases at Hamline University and Macalester College that were widely covered in the New York Times and other publications.

Campus leaders need to have a radar screen for religious diversity and the ability to understand how these challenges can be distinct from — and may require different paradigms than — other diversity-related issues.

Wallace: How have you seen campuses become more diverse and inclusive in regard to religious diversity? Can you share an example or story?

Russo: In recent years, many campuses have become more religiously inclusive by providing training for staff, faculty, and student leaders on religious diversity; creating both deep and broad opportunities to learn about religious diversity and interfaith cooperation in the curriculum; creating student leadership programs for students to develop and exercise interfaith leadership skills; embedding interfaith skills as part of competencies needed to be effective professionals after graduation; and improving policies and space accommodations for religious practice.

The academic field of interfaith and interreligious studies has grown significantly, and more institutions now provide academic programs to develop leaders who are prepared to positively engage religious diversity in their civic and professional lives.

Campuses are beginning to shift from seeing interfaith programs as nice-to-have to understanding that engaging religious diversity positively is an essential skill that students need when they graduate.

A few examples include:

Wallace: What tips or best practices would you suggest for campus leaders who feel compelled to improve religious diversity/inclusion?

  • Develop your own interfaith skills and understanding of religious diversity (e.g., by listening to Eboo Patel’s podcast or taking this Foundations of Interfaith Leadership course). By prioritizing your own learning as a starting point, you will better understand the needs and opportunities on your campus and model lifelong learning for your students.
  • Use the Campus Interfaith Inventory to take stock of your institution’s programs and practices. The Inventory identifies both assets and areas for improvement in engagement of religious diversity across all areas of campus life.
  • Engage other members of your campus community to listen and better understand their experiences and needs. Where are students feeling belonging and inclusion now, and where can religious inclusion be improved? Where do staff and faculty see opportunities for increasing interfaith learning and connecting it to existing programs and opportunities?

Wallace: Are there any additional resources you can offer for campus leaders?

Russo: The Interfaith Leadership Summit (August 4-6, 2023) is an in-person event that equips students, staff, and faculty to positively engage religious diversity on campus. Additionally, Interfaith America offers a variety of courses, curricula, and tools, including our online Foundations of Interfaith Leadership course, and our recent webinar recording on art, religion, and academic freedom provides insights for college and university leaders on engaging religious diversity productively.

Disclaimer: HigherEdJobs encourages free discourse and expression of issues while striving for accurate presentation to our audience. A guest opinion serves as an avenue to address and explore important topics, for authors to impart their expertise to our higher education audience and to challenge readers to consider points of view that could be outside of their comfort zone. The viewpoints, beliefs, or opinions expressed in the above piece are those of the author(s) and don’t imply endorsement by HigherEdJobs.

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