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Interfaith Leadership and Cooperation in Higher Education

Three institutions cooperate to bridge religious difference and prepare students to be interfaith leaders

By Ben Dedman

November 1, 2019

In the last few years, many colleges and universities have seen their campuses and nearby communities become increasingly divided over issues of globalization, diversity, and religious identity.

To help institutions bring faculty, students, and staff together across these differences, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) have partnered on a three-year grant-funded project, Interfaith Leadership in Higher Education.

“AAC&U is proud to partner with the Interfaith Youth Core in advancing humanistic identification across religious differences,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U. “At a time of increasing polarization, higher education must play a leadership role in leveraging and demonstrating the strength that comes from diversity and pluralism in our campus communities and beyond.”

In 2018, AAC&U and IFYC hosted the inaugural Institute on Teaching and Learning for Campus-Wide Interfaith Excellence (now held each summer), as a part of the AAC&U Integrative Learning and Signature Work summer institute, to prepare teams of college and university leaders to transform their campuses into model environments for interfaith cooperation. Ten institutions attending the institute were selected to participate in the three-year project.

Below, three of these institutions—University of Denver, Concordia College–Moorhead, and University of Miami—explore how they are cooperating to bridge religious differences and prepare students for lives as interfaith leaders.

“There are so many college graduates across the nation who have not even taken a single course in religion,” said Jacqueline A. Bussie, director of the Forum on Faith and Life and professor of religion at Concordia College–Moorhead. “But that’s what it means to be educated. We need to have an understanding of all kinds of diversity with which we’re going to engage for the rest of our lives as global citizens.”

Increasing Interfaith Awareness of Traditions and Worldviews

“Though people are very well intentioned around something like religious inclusivity, there's not a lot of awareness around when other people's religious holidays are,” said Sarah Pessin, professor of philosophy and Judaic studies and interfaith chair at the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver (DU).

To help fill this gap, Pessin and DU’s religious inclusivity team (composed of faculty and staff from departments and offices across campus, including Judaic studies, the Latino Center, religious studies, social work, Campus Life & Inclusive Excellence, and the Office of Teaching and Learning) are partnering with colleagues at Concordia College–Moorhead and the University of Miami to create fact sheets on interfaith holidays. Each sheet focuses on a single holiday, providing straightforward information like its name and pronunciation, a description of what the holiday commemorates, foods people traditionally eat, and tips for students and faculty to discuss accommodations for missed classes or assignments.

DU started the project by drafting six initial fact sheets for Eid al-Fitr, Holi, Easter, Passover, Ramadan, and Vesak, and the three-campus team hopes to develop many more in the coming year.

“The fact sheet library will always be in ‘beta’ mode so that we can improve the project as we go,” Pessin said. “Our goal is not to be comprehensive but responsive. We are starting with fact sheets for holidays that impact the most students on our particular campuses at this time. If you don’t see your holiday represented, or if you see information on a sheet that could use updating, contact us to help the project improve and grow.”

As the teams share prototype fact sheets for testing, users are especially excited about information that explains the mood of the holiday and sample proper greetings.

“Over the years, people have definitely said things to me like ‘Happy Yom Kippur,’” Pessin said, noting that the Jewish holiday is generally observed as a reflective day of fasting. A more appropriate greeting for that day would be something like “Have a meaningful Yom Kippur.”

“This is not about encouraging people to be offended if their neighbor doesn’t know the more appropriate greeting; it is simply about having an easy way to learn more about each other on our campuses,” Pessin added.

The fact sheets will be used in various ways on each campus. At the University of Miami, the sheets will be linked to the multifaith calendar that’s available to the university community. At Concordia College–Moorhead, fact sheets will be disseminated across campus and in dining halls, where celebrations will be held with foods traditionally eaten on the holiday. And at DU, the fact sheets are part of a larger effort, the Interfaith Your Calendar Challenge, launched in 2017.

Interfaithing Your Calendar at the University of Denver

Though diversity, equity, and inclusion have always been priorities at DU, they are getting increased focus as the campus implements its new Impact 2025 strategic plan.

With a “very strong emphasis on the whole student,” educators across the campus are coming together to “increase awareness and opportunities around diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Pessin said. “We are very excited to be working on our religious inclusivity initiative in this setting, with the participation of graduate and undergraduate faculty as well as administrators across academic units and studentlife.”

The DU campus views religion as a part of students’ broader intersectional identities, and the campus is currently building a new cultural center and hiring the center’s full-time director. Additionally, working with their campus’s Madden Center for Innovation in Liberal and Creative Arts, Pessin and two colleagues received Mellon funding for a new Interreligious Dialogue project, including internship opportunities for students and a new Comparative Religion and Interreligious Dialogue course through their department of religious studies.

“Religious literacy is essential,” said Andrea Stanton, chair of the department of religious studies and member of the campus’s religious inclusivity team. “We want to equip our students to be engaged and inclusive leaders, and educating them to know more about their neighbors is a key part of that.”

In 2017, Pessin noticed many faculty and staff lacked familiarity with the religious holidays celebrated by their students and colleagues, and she concluded that hanging interfaith calendars on office walls would not work.

“Having a separate interfaith calendar—even if it’s really pretty—is not an effective way to avoid scheduling campus-wide events on dates when many members of the campus community cannot attend,” Pessin said. “Seeing interfaith holiday dates should be as straightforward as looking at your daily online work calendar.”

The Center for Judaic Studies took the lead, creating step-by-step PDF guides to help faculty, students, and staff turn their Outlook or Google calendars into an interfaith calendar in just twelve minutes.

Interfaith superheroes at the University of Denver.

To encourage participation, Pessin visited offices around campus to train people to “interfaith” their calendars. When each office finished, they dressed up as interfaith superheroes and posed for photos posted on the center’s Flickr page. After an academic dean, human resources office, and more participated, others wanted to join in on the fun.

“It was super successful,” Pessin said. “We had a lot of offices and individuals across the University of Denver participating in this challenge.”

To build on this success, Pessin partnered with the Office of Teaching and Learning and computer science faculty colleague Susanne Sherba, whose undergraduate students developed Interfaith It, an app that they aim to make available on the Apple App Store later this year.

“This collaboration provided students the opportunity to develop their technical and nontechnical skills while working on a meaningful project,” Sherba said. “The result of their work is a useful app that will allow faculty, staff, and students to learn about various religious holidays so that they can provide appropriate accommodations.”

With the click of one button, the new app automatically adds dates of holidays from six religious traditions into users’ online Google, Apple, or Outlook calendar. “It’s a five-second replacement for the twelve-minute process we developed a few years ago,” Pessin said. The app also includes information from the holiday fact sheets as well as user-friendly search tools.

As the calendars and fact sheets make their way across campus, Pessin has already seen people building community around the project. One day, for example, a staff colleague delivered apples and honey—a traditional food for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year—to the Center for Judaic Studies.

“He shared that the calendar project felt like an invitation to learn about and reach out to neighbors from different traditions,” Pessin said. “I don’t want to pretend that our project solves all of the injustices and structural inequities in our society, but I think people are eager for an opportunity to reach across any line of difference for a moment of uplifting, for a moment of real connection.”

Staying Rooted and Open at Concordia College–Moorhead

Concordia College–Moorhead’s faculty and staff work hard to balance its Lutheran Christian traditions while maintaining an environment of belonging for students identifying with all faiths (or none).

“We call ourselves rooted and open,” Bussie said. While the campus stays true to its Lutheran roots, “we’re open to a deep reverence for all of the religious traditions and nonfaith traditions that our students, faculty, and staff bring to our campus community.”

Concordia held a “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor” event
on October 15, 2019.

In 2011, to cement its commitment to interfaith diversity and cooperation, Concordia established the Forum on Faith and Life, an on-campus center that coordinates curricular and cocurricular efforts to promote religious diversity and foster deeper understanding across difference.

“We’re always trying to improve every day. There’s always more that we could do, I think, to demonstrate to everyone here how much they belong and the unique contribution they make to this community,” Bussie said.

In 2015, with funding from IFYC and the Kemper Foundation, Concordia surveyed local workplaces to identify if they had a need for religious diversity training. Every person they interviewed wished their employees had religious diversity training, but none offered it.

“Wouldn’t it give all of our graduates a major leg up in the workforce and in the world if they knew how to constructively engage with religious diversity as a key component of diversity, and as one that often gets neglected?” Bussie asked.

To help students gain these competencies, Concordia has offered a religious diversity course for the last fifteen years, and every Concordia undergraduate student is required to take two religion courses. Concordia is also “one of fifteen institutions in the United States with an interdisciplinary interfaith studies minor that’s designed to complement any major,” Bussie said. Thirty-five faculty from thirteen disciplines (including business, education, history, psychology, music, and social work) teach in the minor.

As part of the AAC&U and IFYC project, Bussie got her first-year interfaith studies course, Compassion and Hope: Interfaith Perspectives, approved as a PEAK (Pivotal Experiences in Applied Knowledge) course. Every Concordia student must participate in two PEAK experiential learning courses, which push students to integrate course readings, discussions, and theories with community engagement around “complex and ambiguous real-world problems,” Bussie said.

Outside of class, Concordia is also committed to an equitable and hospitable campus environment. Some of the changes are small—like adding new books and religious materials (such as a Kiblah for Islamic prayer) to the campus’s Interfaith Reflection Room—while others call for college-wide policies to be rewritten. Concordia’s chief diversity officer, Edward Antonio, is leading a task force to develop a religious accommodations policy that is now nearing final approval.

“We did not have a policy that allowed students who are not Christian to have their religious holidays accommodated when it came to exams or days off of class and school,” Bussie said. “We need to have a policy that protects and sustains everyone equitably on campus.”

Bussie led a second food hospitality task force that conducted a needs assessment to determine how dining services could better accommodate the various religious dietary needs of faculty, staff, or students.

“Our preliminary thinking was, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could figure out how to have kosher and halal food?” Bussie said. “But we realized was that our need was much more basic than we thought.”

Several students and faculty on the taskforce “testified very passionately” that their religious dietary restrictions kept them from being able to safely eat in the dining hall. Their religious beliefs prohibited eating pork or beef, but there was no way to see if a dish contained these meats, and they felt embarrassed to hold up cafeteria lines to ask about each individual dish.

“Our dining services had done all this work to accommodate all different diets—we flagged for gluten, we mark for vegan, vegetarian,” Bussie said. “All of those appear on these fancy electronic digital boards. But the thing that we had forgotten was pork and beef.”

Meals at Concordia are made in-house from five thousand recipes, and it will take approximately six hundred hours (paid for by a generous donation from the college) for a team of student interns and staff to comb through recipes and identify those containing pork, beef, or their derivatives (such as gelatin).

Two of the interns participating in the meat-flagging project are doing so as part of their major (nutrition and dietetics) as well as their minor in interfaith studies. “What an incredible internship experience of seeing how interfaith studies and interreligious literacy is essential no matter your profession, even nutrition and dietetics,” Bussie said.

In August, members of the task force went to the cafeteria and saw their handiwork in action.

“There was a little sign that said, ‘This dish is pork free,’ and it was a cause for celebration for all of us,” Bussie said.

Creating a Culture of Belonging at the University of Miami

“A lot of people, when they think about diversity, they think about race,” said Miriam Lipsky, assistant provost for institutional culture at the University of Miami (UM). “They might think about gender or sexual orientation. They don’t necessarily think about faith or worldview.”

Since 2015, UM’s “Culture of Belonging” initiative has worked to ensure a welcoming educational environment for all members of the community.

“Our focus is on creating a culture of belonging at the university where people feel valued and have the opportunity to add value and to be actively engaged in university life,” Lipsky said.

Since 2018, when a team of chaplains, faculty, and staff attended AAC&U and IFYC’s institute, UM’s work has been focused on bringing people together across these differences.

“The reason behind whatever success we’ve had so far is that we have a very dedicated core of team members,” said Ashmeet Oberoi, clinical assistant professor and director of the master’s program in community and social change. “We're volunteering in many ways in order to make it happen, because this is really not a part of the primary jobs or positions that any of us hold.”

Some of UM’s work, which is partially funded by the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, engages people across campus offices and organizations to open up events that would usually just be for one student organization—such as Hillel’s celebration for the Jewish holiday Purim—and make them available to all students. Other initiatives involve bringing people together around communal activities, such as the annual Religion Awareness Day, where students passing by can get T-shirts and speak with representatives from religious groups on campus.

“The unique thing about our Religion Awareness Day is that we’ve had the first turban-tying event associated with Sikh religion that any campus in South Florida had,” Oberoi said.

For the last two years, UM’s Catholic chaplain, Father Phillip Tran, has sponsored a multi-faith team in a local charity race that funds causes like local homeless shelters or the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“I’m so proud of Father Tran,” Lipsky said. “He runs in the Miami heat in his full black chaplain vestments.”

Feature Cheesecake2.jpg
Students baked a cheesecake featuring a chocolate
chip rosary for the Interfaith Thanksgiving celebration.

Each November, students plan and host a Multifaith Thanksgiving attended by more than a hundred students (and growing each year). The event isn’t focused on education or information delivery but acts as an opportunity for students from different faiths to come together, discuss how their faiths understand gratitude, and eat foods traditionally associated with world religions or cultures (and that meet different dietary requirements). At the first Multifaith Thanksgiving, a group of Catholic students baked a cheesecake, making a rosary out of chocolate chips on top.

In January, students organized Getting to Know U, a panel conversation with student representatives of various faiths speaking about the principles of their faith, aspects that people often misunderstand, or things they find difficult—such as navigating the relationship between their faith and STEM fields. The 2019 event drew about eighty students, with standing-room only.

To bring these discussions around differences into the curriculum, the School of Education and Human Development and the Office of Institutional Culture have partnered to develop four intergroup dialogue classes on (1) race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status; (2) gender; (3) sexual orientation; and (4) ethno-cultural identities, traditions, and worldviews.

Oberoi will be facilitating an intergroup dialogue course on ethno-cultural identities, traditions, and worldviews that will “give the students the skills and space where they can have sometimes difficult but needed dialogue around beliefs informed by faith and worldview,” Oberoi said. The course curriculum is based off of the University of Michigan’s curriculum on Intergroup Relations and IFYC’s BRIDGE (Building Regular Interfaith Dialogue through Generous Engagement) curriculum and is funded by an IFYC Campus Innovation Grant

In October, faculty and staff started UDialogue, their own version of the intergroup dialogue program. Based off of Northwestern University’s Change Makers program, faculty and staff come together for discussions about differences related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, faith, or worldview. In the end, they will “hopefully better understand our students, and their different social identities, and how those might impact their participation on campus,” Lipsky said.

These dialogue experiences among students and faculty will take an intersectional approach that examines overlapping identities each person has.

“You can’t discuss identities in isolation; you have to look at the whole individual and their context,” Oberoi said.


  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.