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Higher Education is an Inclusive Key

Transform Campuses, Transform the World

Higher Education is an Inclusive Key

by Cody Nielsen

Higher education may be the most important invention of the second millennium. Consider for a second that, alongside the Gutenberg press, higher education holds a value that few if any other creations in the last 1000 years can match. Higher education is often one of the key markers of first-world countries, being a vessel to move countries into the modern world. Higher education can thus be a vessel of immense transformation of society and culture, an incubator for the great transformations that move our world forward from ages past to the future.

This is exactly why higher education is the key to the movement to fully support religious, secular, and spiritual identities and their values in society. Much like the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, the Vietnam era protests of the late 1960s, and the GBLTQIA movements of the last 30 years, higher education has been the setting for some of the most significant civil rights events of our lifetimes. Can we then recognize that one of the keys to overcoming Islamaphobia, anti-Semitism, even anti-atheism, resides in the halls of our sacred academies and on the grassy quads that highlight the more than 4000 campuses in the United States?

Higher education should be more significantly considered in the so-called “interfaith movement” because it is the environment in which many members of our society first have a chance to experience the “other.” Few if any places in society are more diverse than the college campus, let alone the residence halls that many first-year students move into as they begin their college experience. These experiences can be life changing, and for many of us who have had the privilege to obtain a degree, they have been. The experiences of our undergraduate years especially are often solidified in memories of late-night study sessions, parties, and experiences. We are always changed and sometimes a little nostalgic of those moments that seemingly lasted a moment, but last forever in our psyche.

To claim higher education as one of the most important arenas to support religious, secular, and spiritual identities requires a significant step forward. Certainly efforts have been made already to support students, but to get to the heart of these issues requires another key development. This looks at the deeper environmental issues that are plaguing our academic settings.

Maucker Student Union at the University of Northern Iowa – Photo:    Wikimedia

Maucker Student Union at the University of Northern Iowa – Photo: Wikimedia

In the fall of 2002, I entered college at the University of Northern Iowa. My alma mater is a small campus, located in a modest city in north central Iowa. Progressive to a point, Iowa is overall a very conservative state, but small pockets of progressivism dot the landscape. This includes Cedar Falls, one of the few places I’ve ever truly called home. It was here that I met Chad, my first college roommate, who is gay. To this day, Chad is one of the people I admire most. But I didn’t come into college with a favorable view of gays, both because it was 2002 and because it was Iowa. While my friendship with Chad would spark a change in my worldview, the environment of UNI was necessary for me to fully be transformed. Through institutional markers such as our GBLTQ center, the ally training that many professionals and students had the opportunity to participate in, and the inclusive environment fostered through programming on campus, I came to see a campus that was welcoming and inclusive of all forms of the GBLTQ identity spectrum. The reinforcement of these institutional markers changed me forever, altering my previously understood values and helping me foster a lifelong friendship with Chad.

Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Identity Inclusion as Civil Rights Issues

Today’s university environment is not yet fully transformed. Guided by the Gregorian calendar, Christian hegemony is deeply present on our campuses. Our students, more religiously diverse than ever, deserve a better opportunity to feel safe and belong. This change asks us to get serious about professionalizing interfaith by training and equipping campus professionals, whether chaplains, campus ministers, or higher education-based professionals, to work collaboratively in creation of inclusive institutional policies and practices. Much like the movements of the past, our campus environments can only shift through a transformation of the attitudes of our institutions.

Photo:    Pexels

Photo: Pexels

The environment requires an additional stage of effort. To create the “social norm” that many most notably Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, highlight requires policy and practice overhaul within the institution. Over 22 million individuals will pay college tuition this year in the United States, but those students receive a sense of welcoming and belonging in variation depending what their religious, secular, and spiritual identities they claim. Offering those 22 million Americans the opportunity to feel safe and belong, and to experience campus environments that are inclusive to all forms of religious, secular, and spiritual identities, are the catalyst toward that social norm. No other pathway in society exists for such a significant transformation as does the academy.

As we work together in the movement in the United States, our conferences, foundation dollars, and precious speaking opportunities should do a better job of focusing efforts and attention toward this area of society. In many ways, it may be helpful to realize that this call for inclusion on campus is a civil rights issue, prompting considerations at the governmental level of the institutions. The administrators driving institutional policies and practices must be brought into this work, encouraged by our movements but also held accountable by legal precedents and constitutional law to make our institutions of higher education vessels where all individuals might feel welcome. 

The students of today become the leaders of our society, the colleges and universities are the laboratories of the future, and our efforts to transform the institution will serve us all. So for a moment, let us consider that higher education may be a key: the key toward making pluralism a social norm, the key to riding our society of anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, and anti-atheism, and the key to making a world more openly inclusive of all religious, secular, and spiritual identities. To achieve this goal is higher education, we must take more seriously the institutional challenges that have plagued it from its beginnings.  And we must make the effort to create “social norms” more than dialogue.  It must be a civil rights issue and responsibility of all administrators who hold the power the provide environments of safety and belonging for all students, not just the few. If we can achieve this goal in higher education, we can offer our world a gift it deeply needs: a home for all religious and non-religious identities.

Header Photo: Pixabay