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Oscar Romero’s Martydom and Civic Engagement in Higher Ed

On March 24, 1980, then Archbishop Oscar Romero, a hero of the El Salvadorian people and a champion for Liberation Theology (Christian) was shot and killed after nearly three years of vocal dissent against the El Salvadorian army and government’s oppression of its people. Soldiers had been ordered to fire upon innocent civilians if needed and what became known as “death squads” roamed throughout much of the country. A day after speaking to a soldier about his need to come back to his core identity, thus walking away from these death squads and returning to a life of peace and justice, an organized assassination took place in a small parish while Romero was serving communion.

With the 35th anniversary of his death and assassination taking place this week, Romero’s impact remains heavy on the hearts of Catholics but also speaks volumes of what religious and spiritual identity can be on the college campus.

While much of religious practice has become an evangelism of conversion, Romero’s call for justice and compassion for those he surrounded himself with is exactly the kind of religion that benefits the college campus. In the bubble that is every higher education institution in the country, those religious groups and persons who emphasize a mutual concern for one another speak to the inherent possibilities when universities incorporate religious and spiritual identity into their diversity. Students learn from one another, they become engaged with each other, and see each other eye to eye. And there are more of these groups than one might think hanging around on campus.

But there’s more. With social justice and compassion comes civic engagement. And as many universities are seeking a greater way for students and others to build connections with the needs of their communities, students of religious and spiritual identity who are fostered in a religious experience of justice are highly likely to be a part of the university’s civic engagement efforts. Consider who on your campus just came back from a spring break trip that had anything to do with helping others.

Rhonda and Douglas Jacobsen, in their book No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education, speak to this civic engagement as one of six “sites of engagement” that religious groups may have a better grasp at than higher education institutions. The potential for partnership is tremendous amongst these groups and the university. And Romero’s theology does not just represent Catholics or Christians, but speaks to the broader call to care for one another across religions. Rabbi Hillel, once asked to recite the whole of the Torah while standing on one foot, obliged with the following. “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor. All the rest is commentary.”

Today’s higher education can learn much from realizing that Oscar Romero is not an isolated figure for Catholic theology, but is a great influence on many Christians across the world. His values speak beyond Christianity though, into the compassion that other traditions embody and that higher education seeks as we train and prepare global citizens. Persons like Romero can be a catalyst for our religious and spiritual members of campus looking for an example and can for us be a way to foster curious about spirituality on our campuses.


Why NYC Public School’s Decision Is Important for Higher Education

A week ago, New York City Mayer Bill De Blasio fulfilled a campaign promise to integrate the New York City public school’s system to include the Muslim Holidays of Eid- al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.  The move is historic, both because it complements the inclusion of the Jewish High Holy Days which had previously been incorporated into the calendar some years back and because it overcomes former Mayer Michael’s Bloomberg’s resistance to doing it.  But more importantly, it now sets a bar by which every school of higher education in the country could (and should) adhere to.

On the campus of the University of Minnesota, where I work, the lack of support of religious diversity is extremely evident.  The University does not recognize holidays for Muslim students, does not have in place adequate dining options to accommodate for the beliefs and practices on campus, and remains woefully ignorant of the need to have appropriate prayer space for a group that has outgrown their space for Friday afternoon prayer.  In general, the University is behind the times and generally where many public universities and some private universities remain today.

The move from the Big Apple though gives schools a chance to utilize the precedent in changing the entire structure of the campus calendar.  By giving these days off school, the University avoids the challenges of meeting the needs of a certain group of students while having other students continue to attend class.  This of course may be too difficult though with the number of hours required in class to meet credit requirements.  An alternative method was proposed by Andrew Delblanco in his 2012 book College: What it Was, is, and Should Be.  In it, Delbranco argues that universities should simply create “blackout days” where in the university would be restricting itself from holding any form of test or assignment due date on these dates.  This means that a student could miss class (a choice that many students make frequently regardless of religious holidays) but that student would not be penalized or pressured to be present. In this way, the college calendar would continue as it seems to have always done, but students could practice their traditions in the ways they feel most comfortable.  It also would meet the requests of those non-faith members of campus who do not believe their learning should be affected by these religious holidays.

Either way, the new reality is that higher education can not longer overlook this vital part of human identity and the growing pressure that should come from the largest public school system’s move for inclusion.  With almost 20 million college students attending U.S. universities, it is time for those who are in leadership to step forth and make the bold steps that are needed to move from the de facto Christian calendar to one that further encompasses the diversity that exists on campuses and that we hope continues to thrive in our country.

The Last Taboo of Higher Education

religions_earthI credit Hannah Pynn with the naming of this blog post, for surely she said it better than I. In higher education, and particularly public higher education, a long standing fear stands in the way of an age old endeavor: to meet, educate, and train the whole person. For decades, co-curricular endeavors to support specialized student populations have swept the nation. Women’s centers movements and multicultural centers, GLBTQA centers and international student services, mental health and well being, sexual violence and parent programs. All of these areas have been addressed. But in its fear and frailty of knowledge, higher education has left out a pivotal realm: spirituality.
Efforts over the past decade have moved us forward on discussions to change this situation, with research coming from multiple corners of higher educations and individual units and organizations breaking down walls as reality hits in and student needs are being neglected. Even so, and with more research arriving each month to further rationalize an argument, the time has come for higher education to embrace reality: spirituality is at the core of human identity and its specialized support is needed if higher education is to live out its mission of training the whole person.

While accepting this task has taken quite a time, making it reality may take ever further.  Complexity of legal issues, generalized fear of reprisal from individuals who remain skeptics, and simply a lack of education on the topic are all issues to be concerned about.  But there is also a need for higher education workers and religious “campus ministry” staff to find common mission.  Often times, the mission of religious staff has been quite different, even oppositional to that of the university’s.  If common ground might be found, at least to the understanding that we are here trying to shape students into well rounded students for a globalized world, then perhaps our missions can align, at least to a certain extent.  I would challenge the religious staff out there to consider the opportunities that would come from partnering with the university.

In many ways, this is where this blog is meant to help.  With so many questions to be considered but yet so much research being done, the chance to synthesize the work of higher education and the religious workers is important. Simply ignoring one another or holding each other at arms length has and will continue to be a fruitless activity leading to more division and little progress. Thus, a call for renewal and change.

This website is being designed to support the hard work of spirituality in higher education.  We need everyone’s voices, everyone’s ideas, and everyone’s concerns.  We need everyone listening and talking to one another.  So here is my request.  Call your colleagues, tell them to connect to this blog, to connect together as religious professionals and higher education administrators and staff and each week, let’s find ways to connect.  If you have a topic you want to write about, please let me know.  If you have suggestions on what you would like to know about, let’s connect.  If you simply with to engage in this topic, and don’t know where to start, send me an email at j.cody.nielsen@gmail.com and we can talk.

As a note, I already run a sister blog that is focused mostly on the issues related to campus ministry at large, including but not limited to things like board development, fundraising, and general issues related specifically to how to support the field of campus ministry.  You are welcome to connect with this blog as well at www.campusministrymatters.com.  I look forward to connecting with many of you and hopefully meeting with many of you as this project unfolds.  Thank you for the support.

No Longer Invisible: Religion in Higher Education

imagesIn the last decade, spirituality and higher education have collided together in a plethora of ways.  Post 9/11, hundreds of journal articles, dissertations, newsfeeds, and research institutions have been busily working to understand the new convergence of these two institutions of learning.  The work of the Interfaith Youth Core and Eboo Patel over the past decade has created opportunities for engagement across faith traditions in ways we might have never thought possible.

Now comes a book that may finally be getting to the core of higher education’s challenge and opportunity.  In many ways, this book is the reason I feel compelled to work in higher education.  Rhonda and Douglas Jacobsen have once and for all hit on the head the realities of spirtuality on campus.  And it’s for the better.

For much of the 20th century, religious identity was dismissed at the university level, most especially in the public university, where prayers in schools and the Scopes Monkey trial were present markers of a national movement of “Freedom from Religion.” And while the trends have continued to be for public universities to stray away from religious and spiritual identity, the Jacobsen’s have given us all something to think about.

The book is part history and part assessment of opportunity.  The first part lays out a history of higher education and religious life, the second, six sites of engagement. These six sites are of particular importance and are listed below.

  • Religious Literacy
  • Interfaith Etiquette
  • Framing Knowledge
  • Civic Engagement
  • Convictions
  • Character & Vocation

The Jacobsen’s believe within these six sites of engagement lie both the rational and the missional imperatives religious life communities should occupy on campus.  It is clear that some religious life organizations are more attuned to these sites of engagement than others, as para-church movements tend to emphasize interfaith etiquette and even civic engagement less than others.  Never the less, the outline of what makes religious life on campus unique and valuable can be understood within these different arenas.

Perhaps what remains now is the question of how religious life and higher education might co-mingle in their interests in student development.  The co-curricular realm of student affairs remains largely fearful of taking the step into a broad welcoming of religious and spiritual identities on campus.  Similarly, religious life seems hesitant to directly engage from a national level higher education administrators at the level needed to achieve widespread transformation.  It seems each are waiting on one another to engage the topic.  Will we finally cross into the new world and bridge the chasm between us?