Religion and Public Engagement in Higher Education

Today I have piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Catholic universities and colleges and their leadership on providing support for undocumented students. I’ve met so many amazing students and I am deeply proud of the role my own institution is playing in this important matter. Please read and share the article.

I see this as another form of public engagement, my self-assigned “beat” for the Chronicle columns. Last time I wrote about individual faculty and engagement (and will again in a piece tomorrow over on their Vitae site), but institutions as a whole can also engage. One model is the famous agricultural school-extension services of the big land-grant universities. Here, with undocumented issues, is another.

In many ways, my essay today is about  the role of mission, belief, even theology, and how institutions and their leaders implement mission. It’s also about epistemology – how we decide what our mission is and to what subjects it applies.

It seems to me that religious missions, in particular, can close a university off or catapult them into positive engagement and openness. The birth-control issue, recently decided in favor of colleges like Wheaton, is one issue, and I’m very upset about the role that Catholic universities are playing in denying coverage. I’m thinking, though, more about the pursuit of a religious exemption to discriminate against homosexual employees: George Fox has been in the news lately, but there are plenty of Catholic examples as well.

In these cases, it seems to me, that religion is being used to build a wall around the school, to say that modernity and the broader culture must keep out, must not corrupt, and that “religious freedom” means the right to be isolated. They certainly have a strong legal case, one that SCOTUS’ conservative Catholic men support, but it runs directly counter to my beliefs about the role of the university in society (not to mention my beliefs about equal rights and against discrimination, that’s a side issue for this particular blog).

On the other hand, as I tried to write about in today’s essay, mission can open a pathway to direct action within society, to lead, to bring about change, to, as our mission says, “pursue truth, to give compassionate service and to participate in the creation of a more just and humane world.” Since arriving at Dominican, I’ve been amazed and inspired to see how many people there really mean it. They try to live that mission. They do great work. They make me want to be a better person and to take my own stands in public.

And if you know the history of the Dominican order, good and bad, the way it plays out today won’t be so surprising. It’s the order of preachers, always focused on engagement, and today that engagement has brought my university into the world of immigration justice.

One of the reasons I wrote this piece, though, is that “Catholic” is contested ground. In American Catholicism, there are those who believe that belief requires them to restrict, to build that wall, as well as those who want to get out into the streets and engage, engage, engage. On the Left, there’s a sense that religion is always focused on the closing of options rather than making things more possible. Such rhetoric, in fact, feeds the notion that conservative religion is the only real religion.

Catholic beliefs defy easy left-right assessment. But belief is not action. Individuals and institutions choose where they want focus – anti-contraception or anti-poverty, for example. I’m really proud of these Catholic schools that have been pushed by mission to serve these students in need.

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