Elmhurst College: The College and Its UCC Heritage

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The College and Its UCC Heritage

This article, "Faith Reconsidered," appeared in Inside Higher Education on April 1, 2011.

Most students, while not devout, are actually quite spiritual, recent research has found. The authors of that study suggested that secular colleges—where academics often shy away from discussions on topics like God and life’s purpose—should do more to facilitate their students’ spiritual growth.

But one type of institution—the traditionally or loosely affiliated religious one—may be the ideal place to do it. For two of these colleges, religious roots are playing very different roles in the quest for spirituality, but both believe they are helping students get more out of their educations—and out of life. While Elmhurst College is reconnecting with its Protestant roots to achieve this end, Wagner College, a loosely affiliated Lutheran institution, is establishing homes for other faiths.

Zeroing In
Elmhurst, situated in a Chicago suburb, was a United Church of Christ seminary in its first 50 years before adding a full undergraduate program. While it still recognizes those roots, the college’s economic struggles in the 1970s and '80s resulted in a diminishing of the UCC presence; as part-time adults made up an increasing portion of the student body, Elmhurst graduated fewer ministers and denominational teachers. “It was essentially a secular campus—deeply secular,” said Jim Winters, vice president for communications and public affairs at Elmhurst. “The core values of the place were kind of watered down.”

Many colleges over the years have moved to broaden their missions beyond their founding faiths, and in recent years this trend has been most visible among Baptist institutions. But throughout the past dozen years or so, Elmhurst has been tapping into its UCC affiliation to refocus its mission and open up new doors for students. "A lot of the religious dialogue in the U.S. now comes from the right. Actually, a lot of young people are turned off because they identify religion with right-wing politics," Winters said, pointing to the late Southern Baptist pastor and televangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell as an example. "We're trying to have a conversation here on faith. We're not trying to have a conversion ceremony or anything like that. It's a dialogue. It's a dialogue about an important aspect of humanity."

UCC is one of the more progressive branches of Protestantism, Winters said; it was the first mostly white American church to ordain African Americans, women and an openly gay person. (It's also unusual for any of the 30 or so UCC colleges to be reaching out to the Church, he said.)

Elmhurst's only curricular requirement related to faith is a couple of religious studies courses; the college's main concern is offering students a bevy of non-academic ways to explore their spirituality. Elmhurst hosts many guest speakers who talk about a wide range of topics associated with questions of faith; for instance, homosexuality or Islamophobia. The Niebuhr Center, named for the theologian alumni H. Richard Niebuhr, Elmhurst's first president, and his brother Reinhold, houses resources for students interested in pursuing professions in service and the ministry.

Elmhurst President S. Alan Ray initiated a strategic planning process in 2009 identifying five core institutional values that the college shares with the UCC: intellectual excellence; community; social responsibility; stewardship; and faith, meaning and values.

The college's last two presidents, with Bryant L. Cureton preceding Ray, have been instrumental in advancing this mission, which Winters believes contributed to Elmhurst's rapid enrollment increase; its student body grew by 25 percent from 2003 to 2008. In 1994, the first year that Elmhurst started taking this new direction, the freshman class had 222 students; last year there were 538 (of 3,400 students total, 3,000 of them full-time equivalent). "I think it means something to students here," Winters said. "There's a lot of pride in the college lately, and a deeper sense of engagement among students. And I think all of this contributes to that."

Forty percent of the student body is Catholic, with the Lutheran and UCC faiths making up the second and third-largest denominations, respectively. (While the college's main goal isn't to attract more UCC students in addition to the ones who already make up about 5 percent of the student body, Winters expects that will be one effect.) Winters said Elmhurst's efforts have bridged divides, largely without alienating anybody inside or outside the institution, which is situated outside Chicago in a conservative-leaning suburban city, near Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts institution.

Branching Out
Through efforts led by a provost with a keen interest in spirituality, Wagner College in New York City has evolved its once strictly Lutheran chapel into a house of various faiths. Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Christian students all now worship in the chapel, and any group can hold activities there.

"There's very much a climate of acceptance and openness to exploring your own spirituality," whether it's grounded in faith or curiosity, said Devorah Lieberman, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Wagner. (Lieberman herself is Jewish.)

For Lieberman, two key moments illustrated the importance of creating this welcoming environment. In 2004, two students who were roommates of different faiths wandered into Lieberman's office to share how, in the process of becoming friends, they had opened up to each other's religion and become more spiritual people. They would consider the questions that spiritual—but not necessarily religious—people ask: Is there a higher purpose in life? Why am I here? What's my purpose? "That, for me, was a pivotal moment that students are asking the bigger questions," Lieberman said. "They were saying, we're not just about a particular religion, we're about something bigger than this." The conversation with those students ultimately led to the creation of a semester-long course where 10 students travel to Israel for two weeks to learn about different religions and interfaith relations, then return to New York to continue studying the topics and present at Faces of God, a town-gown campus speaker series that explores religious differences, tolerance and spirituality.

The second signal that Wagner was changing was later that same year, when Lieberman hired a local rabbi to work full-time on campus (with a doctorate in political science, he also teaches courses at the college). Knubel Chapel now has designated nights for Christian, Muslim and Catholic worship, with chaplains and congregation heads working for each.

Wagner was originally a Lutheran institution, but as society and the college have changed, the student body has become more diverse. While it's still rooted in Lutheranism, Jewish and Muslim students have grown in numbers (though Christian, Roman Catholic and agnostic students still make up the majorities).

Pastor Richard Michael, Wagner's Lutheran chaplain of four years, believes students hunger for such interfaith discussions, and are better off for them. "I think any school today, if we're not working to create critical thinkers, in a manner of ways, you're not doing your job. People who can ask questions, people who aren't afraid of others' beliefs because they understand their own, are able to find common ground," Michael said, noting that the missions of liberal arts colleges makes them particularly equipped to pursue this goal. "I think it's the only way to a better world, to get around all the kind of fanaticism caused by fear and misunderstanding."

Lieberman, the president-select (and first female to hold the post) at the University of La Verne, outside Los Angeles, is excited to continue this work in California later this year. Alexander W. (Sandy) and Helen S. Astin, the scholars at the University of California at Los Angeles who conducted the research showing that many students are spiritual but don't worship, are speaking at Lieberman's presidential inauguration. "Next year, the University of La Verne is going to have a lot of this stuff going on there, believe me," she said. "I want to do a lot of the same things to address spirituality across the student body, and the University of La Verne—this is grounded in the values that they have already."

Across the Board
Sandy Astin said that for colleges, there is an overall trend of encouraging spiritual exploration. "It appears that when students do make efforts in that direction, that it benefits their educational development and their general welfare. That this is a positive thing for students to do," he said. Astin is not surprised to see colleges of mainline Protestant denominations, like Wagner, reaching out to more religions, but Elmhurst's move to reconnect with its own religious roots is more unusual, he said. "I think a more common trend is toward encouraging students to get more in touch with their spiritual side, whatever that might mean to the student. It could be a particular religious faith, but it could take a lot of other forms besides that."

For the follow-up book to the Astins' research, Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students' Inner Lives, they asked colleges and universities what they're doing to cultivate their own students' spiritual development. Astin said that more than 400 secular and non-secular institutions reported work in this arena, including one college that's building a meditation center. Astin also noted that such work is "part of the whole liberal arts axiom of 'know thyself.'

"In an interesting kind of way, the secular colleges could all be in a position to do this even more effectively because in theory at least, there's no official party line when it comes to religious faith, although some would argue that their professors are pushing an agnostic or atheist perspective," Astin said. "But aside from that, secular institutions should be freer to encourage students to go in any direction that makes sense in terms of their spiritual lives, whereas the religiously affiliated are more constrained in that regard." If secular campuses could get past their fear of being perceived as proselytizing or evangelizing, Astin said, they could be quite effective.

"We were very surprised by how many students even expect this in college. For a lot of students this has to do with meaning-making: what am I doing here, why am I taking these courses, what do I want to do with my life?" Astin said. "Those are very fundamental questions that a lot of students are never asked about throughout their whole undergraduate experience. And yet the kind of mundane things that students do, like setting up a course schedule and doing career planning, really don't make sense unless they have some meaning and purpose in their lives."

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