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Making Faith-Based Institutions Inclusive

Michael A. Helfand, an Orthodox Jew, describes how his experience at a Christian university has given him a window into how faith-based institutions successfully promote religious diversity.

April 5, 2017
 
 
Stauffer Chapel at Pepperdine University

When people meet me for the first time, it doesn’t take long for them to realize that I am an Orthodox Jew. The most obvious giveaway is the yarmulke on my head. Of course, this isn’t by itself surprising -- and being an Orthodox Jew doesn’t make me particularly unique. What does surprise people is when they learn I teach at Pepperdine University School of Law, part of a university that is affiliated with the Church of Christ.

This surprise frequently comes in the form of the following conversation, often at an academic conference. Someone will see my institutional affiliation on my name tag and ask me, “How are things at Pepperdine?” When I respond enthusiastically, my interlocutor will follow up by asking, “But how do they treat --” or “but are you OK,” almost expecting me to unburden my soul with all the horrors of being a committed Orthodox Jew at a Christian university.

These repeated interactions frequently lead me to reflect on the extraordinary distance between these prevailing perceptions and my own lived reality. Put succinctly, I cannot imagine working in a more supportive and rewarding academic environment than what I have experienced at Pepperdine. To be sure, my comfort with faith-based higher education presumably also has a lot do with my own education; I spent many years at Yeshiva University, the largest Orthodox Jewish university in the United States. And my area of research is law and religion, which means my substantive work dovetails nicely with the intersection of faith and knowledge that lies at the heart of many faith-based universities. But these experiences and interests have also given me a window into how faith-based universities successfully promote religious diversity.

From my vantage point, the reason why Pepperdine has proven fertile ground for cultivating religious diversity among its faculty alongside its continued commitment to its core Christian mission is because it conveys to its entire faculty that we are valued because of and not despite the university’s faith-based mission.

This is a tall order. Some faith-based universities aim to maintain religious conformity as part of an overall commitment to their religious objectives -- an aspiration that often manifests itself in university policies requiring all applicants to sign a statement of faith. In these institutions, religious diversity isn’t an objective; instead, the religious character of these institutions adds to the overall institutional diversity of higher education by providing unique faith-based approaches to university life.

Other faith-based universities opt to incorporate faculty of other faith traditions, but they do so simply for practical reasons rather than religious ones. Positions must be filled, courses must be taught and you can’t always find a co-religionist to fill a particular faculty line. Such an approach can raise some challenges. While it may provide for more religious diversity on campus, there is the potential for those faculty members of other faiths or no faith to feel as if they stand somewhat outside the core faith-based objectives of the university. And this may impact professional satisfaction, which can in turn negatively impact student learning.

The faith-based universities that are most successful in incorporating religious diversity into their campuses, while taking practicalities into account, don’t use pragmatics as their dominant motivation. In these institutions, the goal is to identify faculty members who combine an alternative perspective along with a deep commitment to the institutional pluralism that religious universities provide.

The key to maintaining this balance is a university administration and faculty that does not simply expect faculty members of other faiths to work parallel to the university’s faith-based mission. Capitalizing on religious diversity within a faith-based university works best -- both from a student and from a faculty perspective -- when the university actively seeks to incorporate that religious diversity into the faith-based mission of the school. It gives students a more multifaceted educational experience and gives faculty an increased sense of institutional value -- and, in turn, increases buy-in to the institution’s mission.

In my own experience, it is the opportunities I have had to collaborate with the university on programs core to the institution’s faith-based mission that have solidified my sense of purpose at Pepperdine even as I don’t share the same faith commitments of the university. Some examples that come to mind include delivering the invocation before one of the university president’s monthly briefings, delivering a prayer before Pepperdine’s Sept. 11 memorial, speaking at the university’s faculty conference on the topic of “Innovation, Tradition and Identity,” and serving as the associate director of Pepperdine’s Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute for Jewish Studies. In each of these instances, members of the university community have made a proactive choice to include me in the faith programming of campus life, which is a significant piece of what makes me feel part of the university community and university mission.

From the perspective of the university, creating an educational environment that is simultaneously committed to a particular faith tradition while still incorporating religious diversity requires, to my mind, two key components.

The first is transparency. Many faith-based institutions interested in recruiting from a broader pool take the approach that they should water down the prominence of their faith-based mission. Things as simple as Christmas cards are rebranded as holiday cards because the institution fears alienating other members of the university community by using overtly Christian language. Similarly, when recruiting, faith-based universities will, at times, downplay the centrality of their religious mission to the educational vision of the institution.

The problem is that hiding the ball in this way invariably works to everyone’s detriment. Most obviously, it hinders the university’s ability to identify which faculty candidates are truly a good fit for its faith-based educational environment, and, conversely, it may lead some faculty candidates to join an institution that doesn’t quite match their professional objectives.

Moreover, it also sends the wrong message to core constituents within the university ecosystem; it gives the impression that broadening the faculty pool requires suppressing the institution’s religious mission, thereby undermining the very objectives of the entire enterprise. By contrast, a transparent message regarding an institution’s faith-based mission will not only attract the right kind of potential faculty candidates, but will also make them more likely to join a faith-based institution once that transparent message dispels some of the myths about the aims of faith-based higher education.

The second is integration. Faith-based universities seeking to enhance religious diversity among their faculty can’t allow that process to end at the hiring stage. It also requires a proactive approach to finding opportunities for those new hires to participate not simply in the academic life of the school, but also in some of the essential faith programming within the campus. Of course, matching up the right people with the right opportunities can be challenging. But when a university is committed to identifying those opportunities -- precisely because it is committed to making religious diversity part of its faith mission -- then it can capitalize on its faculty in a way that simultaneously promotes professional engagement, personal satisfaction and educational excellence.

All told, faith-based universities can provide the institutional diversity that can amplify the benefits higher education brings to the world around us. They create learning environments that enable students with deep faith commitments to engage the academy and bring the two -- faith and learning -- into conversation. Various faith-based universities approach this endeavor in different ways; each balances the benefits of religious diversity against the benefits of homogeneity to create a unique and vibrant faith community that pursues the values of the academy. This balance is a challenge and in constant need of calibration. But some institutions -- those that transparently convey their faith commitments and integrate a diverse faculty into their faith aspirations -- can walk this delicate balance and create a uniquely transformative university that is deeply committed to both faith and learning.

Bio

Michael A. Helfand is an associate professor at Pepperdine University School of Law and associate director of Pepperdine's Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute for Jewish Studies.

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