Getting Religion in the Public Research University

By Kaplan, Matthew L. | Academe, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview

Getting Religion in the Public Research University


Kaplan, Matthew L., Academe


Michigan tackles religious diversity at many levels in this Difficult Dialogues project.

The University of Michigan has been at the forefront of efforts to create a campus learning environment in which all students, faculty, and staff feel respected and valued. In two widely publicized cases decided in 2003, the university defended its affirmative action policies before the U.S. Supreme Court on the premise that racial and ethnic diversity contributes significantly to student learning and prepares students for life in a diverse democracy.1 Recent developments involving higher education and religion have made it clear that religious diversity is equally important for student learning. Last January, we received a grant from the Ford Foundation, as part of its Difficult Dialogue initiative, to help us create an environment on campus in which religious difference is seen as an opportunity for study and exchange, rather than a source of silence, animosity, or fear. The grant period runs through February 2008.

Like most other public institutions today, Michigan conceives of itself as largely secular. Although religion played a defining role for students and faculty early in the university's history-it was not until the late nineteenth century, under the leadership of President James Angell, that students were released from mandatory daily attendance at chapelreligion lost its central role on campus as Michigan increasingly modeled itself on the German research university and articulated its dedication to academic freedom. The activities of intellectual inquiry and the transmission of knowledge came to be seen as separate from issues of religious faith: dispassionate investigation entails purposefully suspending individual beliefs in the pursuit of knowledge, and a critical perspective on all fixed be liefs became central to disciplinary inquiry. Such a perspective has been particularly important in the sciences, where research sometimes challenges religious explanations of the origins and nature of the natural world.

Today, religion is certainly not absent from our campus. Michigan has a strong academic program in religion that includes several nationally recognized scholars. But these disciplines take an academic approach to religion, not the faith-based approach relied upon at seminaries and universities with strong religious affiliations. Institutional funds do not support the various campus chaplaincies and religious organizations at Michigan, and personal religious views, practices, and identities have been treated as private matters. This tradition of institutional separation from issues of faith is, however, being challenged by growing political and social movements that emphasize the importance of religious faith in all aspects of intellectual life, including the sciences.

On January 27, 2006, the online magazine Inside Higher Ed captured this perspective in an article titled "Faith on the Quad." The article quoted William M. Sullivan, a sen-ior scholar at the Carnegie Founda-tion for the Advancement of Teach-ing, who explained why twenty-five scholars from different disciplines and faiths have been working on a new statement about the role of re-ligion on campus. "To live in Amer-ica is to live in a religiously charged atmosphere," Sullivan said, "and that includes colleges-whether they like it or not."

News stories about religion and higher education are now common. Whether they concern specific inci-dents (such as when residence assis-tants at the University of Wisconsin were first denied permission then allowed to offer Bible study in their dorm rooms) or national trends (surveys finding increased spiritual-ity and religiosity among first-year students), these reports highlight the timeliness of the Ford Founda-tion's efforts to stimulate productive dialogue about religion.

Campus Conflicts

Recently, Michigan's Center for Re-search on Learning and Teaching held the first event under the Diffi-cult Dialogues banner, a seminar for faculty titled "Student Religion, Faith, and Spirituality in the Classroom and Beyond: How Do Faculty Respond? …

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