New Tool Scores Campuses on Religious Diversity

Prospective students and their parents can find a wide range of useful information about colleges and universities online to help them decide which institutions might be the best fit. But there’s no go-to resource to gauge how welcoming a college is to students from diverse religious backgrounds.

That’s about to change. A group of researchers from Ohio State University and North Carolina State University has developed a tool called the Interfaith, Spiritual, Religious, and Secular Campus Climate Index, or INSPIRES, which rates higher education institutions based on their levels of religious diversity and inclusion.

Officials from 185 public, private, and religious institutions completed in-depth surveys of campus religion-related resources, religious accommodation policies, and more. The researchers analyzed the responses and scored the institutions based on seven criteria, including religious accommodations, efforts to reduce bias, and extracurricular and academic engagement. Campus leaders are expected to receive reports of the results and personalized recommendations from the researchers early next month. Institutions can then choose to make the information public as a resource for students and parents, in which case it will appear on the index website, or keep the scores private and use them as an opportunity to introspection.

“Our goal is to help campuses become more welcoming, but ultimately this effort is about serving students and supporting their growth in college,” said Alyssa Rockenbach, Distinguished Alumni Graduate Professor and Professor of higher education at the State of North Carolina, in an e-mail. .

Matthew Mayhew, a William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher professor of educational administration at Ohio State, said to “embrace the whole student,” instructors and administrators need a good understanding of how their campuses serve students of different belief systems, but, until now, they lacked a practical tool to assess this.

“It’s so good to put our energy into something that’s actually going to be used,” he said. “We are not going to publish things in these empirical and obscure journals that no one reads. This is something that we believe will really improve the lives of the people we intend to use. »

Cody Nielsen, director of the Center for Spirituality and Social Justice at Dickinson College, called the index “groundbreaking.” He is also the founder and executive director of Convergence Strategies, which seeks to improve the campus climate on religion.

He noted that campuses might have programs related to interfaith dialogue, but many university leaders do not question how their policies and practices affect students of diverse faiths. He says the “fundamental civil rights issues” related to students’ religious identity are too often overlooked, and the index helps institutions hold themselves accountable.

“We don’t take seriously the religious, secular and spiritual identities of our students on college campuses across the country,” he said. “This index, if done well and if its results are well presented, it has the ability to make a conversation out of it that can no longer be denied.”

The index criteria are based on the results of the longitudinal Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes survey, or the IDEALS survey, launched by Rockenbach, Mayhew and Interfaith Youth Core, a non-profit organization focused on promoting diversity. interfaith cooperation. The five-year project examined how students interacted with those of other belief systems and what made students of different faiths, or no faiths, feel more or less at home on campus.

A $220,469 grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations — which funds projects that “advance religious, charitable, scientific, literary and educational purposes” — made the evaluation process free for colleges that chose to participate, and the project secured funding for two more years. . Researchers are recruiting a new cohort of approximately 100 institutions to complete the survey this fall.

Musbah Shaheen, an Ohio State graduate research associate who worked on the project, said the researchers hope to have an ongoing dialogue with institutions that plan to release their scores on the index criteria, and those that choose to keep their scores private, and coach educate them on best practices.

“It’s not meant to be a one-time assessment,” he said. “It is meant to be the start of a conversation within the institution as well as between us as experts in this field and the institutions as stakeholders who have demonstrated an interest in becoming more welcoming and interested in understanding what they are doing on their campuses.

Shaheen noted that many institutions lack the basic infrastructure students need to observe their religion, such as kosher and halal meal options, canteen hours that work for students who fast from sunrise to sunset. sunshine for Ramadan, and convenient prayer spaces open during ritual prayer times. .

The researchers cataloged all sorts of details that campus administrators sometimes overlook, such as whether a campus’ accommodation policies for religious holidays appear on course syllabi, what types of religious iconography are found in halls, designated prayer rooms, if faculty members are undergoing religious diversity training, or if campus events take place in religious spaces such as chapels, a potential source of discomfort for atheist students.

Gordon Maples, a North Carolina State graduate research associate who also worked on the project, said he hopes the index can’t just be a resource for campus leaders, who often don’t not want to touch on religious matters “with a ten-foot pole,” but also for state policymakers. He noted that only about 11 states have laws that require campuses to have religious accommodation policies. , and he would like to see the index encourage state legislators and college administrators to develop more and better such policies.

Katie Baxter, vice president of program strategy at Interfaith Youth Core, said when campuses prioritize religious diversity and inclusion, it can have a nationwide ripple effect.

“Campuses are models of priorities for the rest of society,” she said. “We often think of campuses as mini-civil societies…that influence the communities in which they sit. Often what higher education says matters, the rest of society will follow.

She also described campuses as “the perfect practice arena” for students to learn about living in pluralistic environments and overcoming differences, which “strengthens our religiously diverse democracy.”

“College campuses are places where people practice living their values ​​and commitments and doing so in public and in diverse communities where not everyone shares those values ​​and commitments,” she said. .

Mayhew said college leaders are hesitant to include religion in diversity and inclusion discussions on campus, in part because of fear of “dancing that delicate line of separation between church and society.” ‘State”. They also don’t want to come across as encouraging or discouraging particular beliefs or practices.

Mayhew said religious accommodations — or lack thereof — can affect student achievement.

“We need to stop pretending that religious identification is not part of the student experience,” he said. “It’s an important part of the student experience.”

When students feel a sense of belonging on campus, “it’s a major driver for them to persevere in college,” Mayhew said. “We can try to pretend it’s not there…or we can start inviting conversations to enrich the dialogue.”

Nielsen, of the Center for Spirituality and Social Justice at Dickinson, hopes the index will lead to further research into how things like kosher or halal food options affect enrollment, retention and overall satisfaction of students who benefit from these offers.

Even if they haven’t done so in the past, Rockenbach thinks college leaders are starting to pay more attention to religious inclusion on campuses and are becoming more open to the kinds of issues the index addresses.

“I think higher education leaders have become increasingly aware of how identities are multifaceted and intersectional,” she said. “If we say we care about the holistic development of students, then we need to think about all the ways in which race, culture, class, gender identity, sexuality, ability, religion, secularism and Spirituality intersects in a person’s life and also shapes experiences with power, privilege and marginalization in education and society.

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