Following the announcement of a dean for religious and spiritual life, students have questioned the necessity of this new role. In particular, critics have asked if the funds used for this new position could have been better spent elsewhere, such as in the much-needed areas of diversity and inclusion. In addition, many do not see the need or use for such a position when the majority of campus is secular.
The basic answers to these questions are fairly straightforward. Funds were donated for the specific purpose of creating this particular position. Giving donors the agency to choose where their donation is directed creates more incentive for them to contribute; this is an important part of donor engagement.
Furthermore, the position will be valuable to all students on campus, not just those who practice a religion. Speaking to The Lawrentian, Vice President for Student Affairs Nancy Truesdell clarified that this position would potentially act as a combination of a counselor and administrator.
Although the position description remains vague, Truesdell mentioned broad programmatic areas this new dean could extend to campus. These include film series, book talks, meditation sessions, opportunities to explore mindfulness and support for religious students. Truesdell also hoped this position could complete the picture of student wellness by enhancing spirituality and social justice.
However, this discussion goes well beyond straightforward answers. It is worth exploring why a position relating to religious and spiritual life incurred so much concern around campus. While Lawrence has come a long way from its Methodist-affiliated origins to become a largely secular institution, students who identify as religious still form a significant portion of our campus community.
These students have consistently expressed sentiments of exclusion and dissatisfaction in campus climate surveys. In his first matriculation address, University President Mark Burstein highlighted feelings among some students that their opinions were not taken seriously simply because of their religious identity.
These sentiments are not without foundation. Systems relating to religious diversity are lacking on campus. Even though student organizations or campus departments put together small-scale events to celebrate holidays or provide support for religious service, there is no systematic campus-wide effort to support religious students. Given these sentiments and a lack of appropriate support for religious students, this deanship has great potential for enhancing student welfare.
Even if you are not affected by the addition of this position itself, it is important to consider that there is a diversity of religious and spiritual ideas on campus. In fact, this deanship would be furthering the university’s initiatives toward diversity and inclusion instead of diverting from them by reaching out to religious students.
The Lawrentian is hopeful the new dean’s activities will promote general campus cohesion through thoughtful and mediated discussions. Through effective conversations, a bridge can be built between students who identify as religious and those who do not.
In addition, we hope this will be a push to further improve healthy living and spiritual awareness on an overly stressed campus, in line with existing initiatives to ensure student wellness and academic success. Finally, we would like to see this position entail coordinated and thoughtful support for religious students by providing spaces, opportunities and infrastructure to conduct religious activities.
Although much remains to be revealed about this position, we hope the administration maintains openness in its deliberations and includes adequate student representation. With the hope that this new deanship, alongside all other initiatives at Lawrence University, moves forward with transparency and enhances student welfare, the 2015-16 Editorial Board of The Lawrentian signs off its last staff editorial.