A Four Pillar Approach to Policy and Practice

Extensive research of higher education and religious, secular, and spiritual identities and communities in the United States and Canada reveals four significant areas of work that collectively allow a college or university–of any size or type– to support religious, secular, and spiritual worldviews on campus. These four pillars capture the essence of Convergence’s vision and outcomes.

PILLARS

Pillar I: Relationship & Oversight

Challenge: Students, staff, and community members need to be engaged with the university’s mission and vision. Student groups at times need oversight and support, and religious, spiritual, and secular identity on campus can find amazing intersections when there are connections between the university and these groups.

Solution: Campus administrators can build a relationship with religiously, secularly, and spiritually affiliated student groups, their staff, and their larger connecting community partners.

Pillar II: Advocacy

Challenge: Religious, secular, and spiritual practicing students often find that when their needs are unmet, there is no one to go to on a college campus.  These students can feel unsafe and unable to express themselves in the ways that give them higher purpose.  Without structures to support them, students are left at a loss and forced to find their own ways to practice their religious, secular, and spiritual beliefs–even if that means leaving the university.

Solution: Campuses can hire or identify a visible point person to address the needs that religiously, secularly, and spiritually diverse students are facing, train and advocate across campus for the needs of religious, secular, and spiritual accommodations on campus.

Pillar III: Infrastructure

Challenges: Attending institutions that are public or private, religiously affiliated or not, thousands of students on college campuses every year are trying to live their religious, secular, and spiritual lives to the fullest in spaces often unfit to enable this engagement. Take these three examples as possible areas of opportunity at one’s campus: (1) A group of Muslim students want and need to pray five times a day and there is nowhere on campus for students to wash their feet and also pray, meditate or simply quietly reflect on or nearby campus.  (2) A Jewish student who is forced to by a dining plan, cannot eat any of the food in the dining commons because none of it is made in a kosher kitchen. (3) Not getting their holy days off in the academic calendar, a Jain students asks to be excused from coursework and exams for the observance of Paryushana and to reschedule.  The professor refuses because they have never heard of such a holiday.

Solution: Campus administrators can create structures and policies to enable students to practice their worldviews and potentially explore and engage others on campus. In the challenge examples given above, these solutions could look like building a reflection room on campus or creating a community partnership with a nearby mosque in order to give students’ access.  For the second example, this looks like working with dining and food services staff to ensure all students can eat on-campus food and open up the entire population to different cultures.   Thirdly, the point person from Pillar II can officially identify and disseminate which holy days warrant excuse from classroom activities.  Notice how these structures and policies are built for the betterment of all–from one’s who possess a specific religious faith to those that are secular and exploring.  The goal is to support religious, secular, and spiritual students and staff and encouraging students to engage across diversity in order to learn to live in a diverse world.  A tangible example of this in practice, is New York University’s “Faith Zones” modeled after the LGBTQIA+ “Safe Zone” training for designating spaces intended to engage and support religious, secular, and spiritual diversity.

Pillar IV: Programming & Training

Challenge: On many campuses,  religious, secular, and spiritual engagement opportunities are largely separated, siloed and not integrated across the curriculum, programs, and general management of the university.   Due to this glaring separation, student religious, secular, and spiritual groups may be inadvertently or intentionally undermined by the university by not being able to host events successfully because of disparities of socio-historical access or knowledge and stereotypical beliefs about their worldview held by staff, other students, and administrators.    Additionally, training and education for students and staff is essential to create a positive campus environment where religious, spiritual, and secular diversity is allowed and celebrated.

Solution: Campuses can offer training and programming for administration, staff, faculty, students,  and campus partners on religious, secular, and spiritual diversity.  These trainings could include online on-boarding webinars required during on-boarding, months and series of inter-disciplinary programs addressing the diversity of worldviews and their communities, partnering with student groups and faculty members doing the work to amplify their voice.   In doing training and programs such as these, the goal is to engage the experts (faculty, staff, and community members) and experts in experience (the students) to engage across diversity through dialogue and other educational experiences across difference to improve the experience for all and better prepare students to live in the global society.

The point person in Pillar II could be tasked with identifying and overseeing the implementation of these and other needed changes to campus infrastructure. This charge becomes even more mission-centered when looking through the lens of compliance.  While such accommodations are worth doing first and foremost to build a positive campus climate for religiously, secularly, and spiritually diverse students, faculty, staff, and administrators and to help them all engage across difference, some of these accommodations are in fact legally required.   For example, the right to free assembly and free speech in the First Amendment is often associated with many religious, secular, and spiritual practices.  We as an organization can help you consult with your legal staff on campus or legal consultants in order to ensure compliance and best practices.