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Supporting Religious Pluralism at Elon University
As Robert Putnam (2000) and others have demonstrated, representational diversity is necessary but not sufficient for a pluralistic culture to thrive. In strong, inclusive communities, people cultivate bonds across differences and work to better understand each other. Faculty, staff, and students at Elon University have engaged in sustained work toward building our own inclusive community since our most recent strategic plan, the Elon Commitment (2009), articulated an unprecedented university-wide commitment to diversity and global engagement—including interfaith engagement and religious pluralism.
While Elon's distinctive context and history shape our efforts, our experiences may suggest useful lessons to other institutions. Since its founding by the United Church of Christ (UCC) more than 125 years ago, Elon has been a predominately Christian campus, nestled in a conservative and largely Christian county in North Carolina. Although we are no longer actively affiliated with the UCC, our history and location require us to work diligently to create a campus community where our colleagues and students from secular and non-Christian backgrounds as well as those who are Christian can see themselves belonging.
We have made significant strides in this direction. We now have vibrant Jewish student life programming; a growing number of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, secular, and unaffiliated students, faculty, and staff; and an increasing number of people from interfaith families. We have built a beautiful building, the Numen Lumen Pavilion, where people from any faith tradition—or none—can feel welcome in reflection, dialogue, and practice. A recent campus climate survey revealed that students from a wide range of religious and secular backgrounds feel comfortable at Elon. However, many who are part of minority groups do not feel that their perspectives are well represented or understood on campus. We are working to address this finding by encouraging intercultural learning and exchange across the institution, using the Numen Lumen Pavilion as the physical hub for these activities.
Improving Climate by Encouraging Interfaith Exchange
In December 2010, Elon and Wofford College received a grant from the Teagle Foundation to collaborate in using student assessment data to make evidence-based decisions related to campus diversity and pluralism. In addition to conducting campus climate surveys, we worked with colleagues from the Interfaith Youth Core and with a consultant from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) to create and refine a Pluralism and Worldview Engagement Rubric modeled on AAC&U's VALUE rubrics (Baxter 2013). Faculty and staff can use the rubric to assess the level of competency students demonstrate in samples of their work. Both the process of developing the rubric and recent efforts to apply it in programs across campus have helped us understand whether and how students are developing more pluralistic mindsets during their time at Elon.
While working on the Elon Commitment and on our Teagle project, we have learned lessons that can help other institutions frame their work on religious pluralism:
- Have a clear but evolving vision that aligns with defined areas of responsibility. Specific people are responsible for every institutional priority named in Elon's strategic plan, including our focus on multifaith initiatives and religious pluralism. When advocating for change, we have engaged constituents across campus and relied on leadership from the top; advocates garner allies where they can and work collectively to achieve shared goals. This strategy supported the creation of the Numen Lumen Pavilion, which was envisioned by our previous chaplain, Richard McBride, and carried forward by our current chaplain. The dream of the two chaplains captured the imagination of our president (who became its champion) and ultimately gained the support of our board of trustees (many of whom donated funds to support construction).
- Establish academic avenues for interreligious understanding and exploration. At Elon, those of us who are responsible for prioritizing pluralism at the institutional level have vibrant partners among our religious studies faculty, several of whom designed a multifaith module for our required first-year global experience seminar. Our Jewish studies minor and our new Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society also support academic research on and exploration of religion. During the 2013–14 academic year, students in one of our residential neighborhoods chose "religion and conflict" as their annual theme and hosted related dinners, dialogues, speakers, and films.
- Support cocurricular learning for students and colleagues. The Interfaith Youth Core emphasizes that appreciative knowledge is the basis for respectful relationships. To cultivate a campus climate based on such knowledge, we have created frequent co- and extracurricular opportunities for everyone in our campus community to learn about a range of religions and worldviews. During our winter term, the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life hosts lunch sessions where students speak about their own religious practices and traditions. This spring, professor of religious studies L. D. Russell offered a semester-long, eight-session whirlwind tour of major world religions, bringing together people from all parts of campus to learn together.
- Anticipate potential barriers to inclusion. We have mapped out aspects of Elon's culture that might prevent members of minority groups from feeling like they belong. For example, although pork barbeque is a state delicacy in North Carolina and local recipes often feature bacon, many people refrain from eating pork products for religious reasons. Thanks to an informal educational campaign, those who order food for campus events now routinely account for such dietary restrictions when planning meals. Recognizing that scheduling important events on major religious holidays creates barriers to inclusion, Elon also approved a final exam calendar that includes breaks on Saturdays as well as Sundays.
Building an Inclusive Community
At Elon, we have found that inclusive practices are contagious. When religious and secular communities feel supported, they are likely to support other communities. For instance, last year a Jewish student arranged for students in the Jewish community to prepare and serve a meal for Muslim students who were planning to break a fast. While encouraging sharing and collaboration across lines of difference, we also encourage groups to take time and space for their own practices and community-building. Our goal is bridging and bonding.
Thanks to cross-campus efforts, members of the Elon community are learning a lot about each others' religious, spiritual, and secular traditions—and also having a lot of fun. Each month, we host religious or cultural festivals on campus, including Sukkot (Judaism), Diwali (Hinduism), Chinese New Year (Taoism, Confucianism), Mardi Gras (Christianity), Holi (Hinduism), and Holiday Lights and Luminaries (Christianity, Judaism). Last year, the staff of the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life staged mock wedding ceremonies from four traditions (Jewish, Roman Catholic, Southern Black Baptist, and Muslim) for same- and opposite-sex couples, providing engaging and enjoyable opportunities for members of the campus community to learn together about the beliefs, practices, foods, music, dances, and other customs connected to this ritual.
Completed in 2013, the Numen Lumen Pavilion now stands as a testament to our permanent and ongoing commitment to religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue. With affiliate campus ministers sharing office space to encourage serendipitous conversation and meaningful interaction across differences, the pavilion models the community we aspire to be. When we conduct our next campus climate survey, we hope that more people who practice minority religious traditions or who are not connected to a religious tradition report a sense of belonging on campus. We plan to continue monitoring our campus climate and making evidence-based decisions about programming, budgets, and staffing.
To download the Pluralism and Worldview Engagement Rubric, visit http://www.ifyc.org/sites/default/files/u4/PluralismWorldview EngagementRubric2.pdf.
Baxter, Katie B. 2013. "Measuring Student Learning for Interfaith Cooperation: The Pluralism and Worldview Engagement Rubric." Journal of College and Character 14 (3): 259–66.
Elon University. 2009. The Elon Commitment: Engaged Minds. Inspired Leaders. Global Citizens. http://www.elon.edu/docs/e-web/administration/president/strategicplan2020/
Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Peter Felten is the director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University; Brooke Barnett is the interim associate provost for inclusive community at Elon University; Jan Fuller is the university chaplain at Elon University.