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What Does Secularism Look Like in Higher Education?

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Faculty Senior Level
August 11, 2022 Julia Collett SUNY Buffalo State College

Critical Religious Studies in Higher Education: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

Historically, American higher education was used to educate future lawyers and clergymen (Thelin, 2011). There is a long history of mandated religious services, Christian theology lectures, and exclusion of non-Protestants (Blumenfeld, 2006; Jacobsen & Jacobsen, 2012). This is no longer the case, and a popular misconception is that institutions of higher education are secular (Jacobsen & Jacobsen, 2012; Schmalzbauer & Mahoney, 2018). Many scholars have identified that secularism is falsely presented as neutral (Joshi, 2020; Small, 2020), meaning that secularism is used to convey the idea that a campus, institution, or location is free from religion. As it turns out, these institutions are rooted in values, beliefs, and symbolism that support Christianity (Joshi, 2020). Therefore, institutions of higher education are not “secular.” My goals in this blog are to highlight the ways the supposed secularity of public and private institutions of higher education are not actually neutral. I want readers to understand that higher education is rooted in Christian hegemony and to identify changes that can be made on any campus to support students of minoritized religions.

Christian hegemony is alive and well on college and university campuses through many means. University academic calendars allow Protestant Christians not to come to work or school on their religious holidays. This includes having Sundays off for weekly worship. Tests are not held, and assignments are not due on Christmas or Easter. When conducting my dissertation research, I learned that the public state institution I collected data at held final exams on Fridays and Saturdays, even thought the school has a large Jewish population that observes Shabbat. Because university academic calendars do not provide days off for non-Christian religious holidays, Maples and colleagues (2021) analyzed many institutions’ holiday accommodations policies. They found that in many cases that while the school did allow for students of minoritized religions to miss class, the responsibility was on the student to request an accommodation from their professor. Many policies indicated that professors have the right to ask the student to prove their religiousness by getting signed documentation from a religious leader. Some schools gave professors the right to deny a student’s requested absence. Christian students would never be asked to prove their religiousness, but further, they would never need to undergo this process because their holidays are included in the academic calendar as days off. This example raises the question: Is this a secular practice?

There are many other ways colleges and universities exclude non-Christian students. Many institutions have chapels on campus. They are often named University Chapel or Memorial Chapel, but the word chapel is still in the name, connotating a Christian understanding of religion (Chander, 2013; Joshi, 2020). This word signifies to students of minoritized religions that their religious identity does not belong. At some institutions, the iconography and architecture inside the chapel clearly convey Christianity. At such institutions, students of minoritized religions often do not have access to places to be in a religious community (Mutakabbir & Nuriddin, 2016). Students at urban campuses may be within walking distance of a mosque, synagogue, or temple, but there is little empirical evidence to support this claim. At a previous institution, students told me they had to drive over an hour to get to a place where they could celebrate their holidays or be in community with others who share their religious identity. This is not the case for Christian students because they can usually find both a chapel and peers who share their religious identity. Campus chapels are not secular, and I would not argue they should be secular. Instead, I believe that religious support and services should be available to all students, regardless of their religious identity.

Many areas of campus life make it challenging for students of minoritized religions to adhere to their religious identity. For example, dining halls may not provide kosher or halal options. There may even be limited vegan or vegetarian options. Dining hall hours may not accommodate Muslim students to eat during Ramadan. Residence halls may not allow students to burn candles or incense, which makes it difficult for students to keep an altar in their room. During my dissertation study, I found that some residence hall buildings have moved to forms of electronic entry, which makes it difficult for Jewish students to enter the building on holidays where they cannot use technology, such as Shabbat and the High Holidays. Student-run clubs and organizations at public institutions may be told they cannot receive a share of student activities fees because they are told “state money cannot be spent on religious activities.” This is not an exhaustive list, but it is clear the barriers that prevent students of minoritized religions from practicing their traditions are plentiful, while Christian students typically have their religious needs met. Again, is secularism present on college and university campuses?

I would not advocate for campuses to become truly secular, but instead to become pluralistic. Campuses that embrace religious pluralism are ones that do not essentialize or homogenize students of minoritized religions. They are campuses that highlight the nuance amongst and within religious identities. I would recommend institutions avoid planning largescale campus events and tests on major holidays. This should include all religions. Institutions could make decisions not to hold classes on certain holidays based on their student demographics. I believe that institutions should create an office or hire personnel who are directly responsible for supporting religious, secular, and spiritual students. Then they can understand the ways that Christian hegemony shows up in policies, practices, and programs held on campus. Faculty, staff, and administrators should evaluate and revise policies that privilege Christian students. Ultimately, do not call something secular if it is not secular. While the study of theology may no longer be mandated in the classroom, religion still exists on campus. Therefore, institutions of higher education need to focus their energy on cultivating pluralistic campuses instead of claiming that campuses are secular.

References

Blumenfeld, W. J. (2006). Christian privilege and the promotion of “secular” and not-so “secular” mainline Christianity in public schooling and in the larger society. Equity & Excellence in Education, 39(3), 195-210. https://doi.org/10.1080/10665680600788024

Chander, V. (2013). A room with a view: Accommodating Hindu religious practice on a college campus. The Journal of College and Character, 14(2), 105-116.

Jacobsen, R. H., & Jacobsen, D. (2012). No longer invisible: Religion in university education. Oxford University Press.

Joshi, K. Y. (2020). White Christian privilege: The illusion of religious equality in America. New York University Press. 

Maples, G., Rediger, L., & Small, J. L. (2021). Privilege as policy? An analysis of student religious accommodation policies in higher education. Journal of College and Character, 22(4), 272-290. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2021.1977151

Mutakabbir, Y. T. & Nuriddin, T. A. (2016). Religious minority students in higher education. Routledge.

Schmalzbauer, J. & Mahoney, K. A. (2018). The resilience of religion in American higher education. Baylor University Press.

Small, J. L. (2020). Critical religious pluralism in higher education: A social justice framework to support religious diversity. Routledge.

Thelin, J. R. (2011). A history of American higher education (2nd ed.). The Johns Hopkins University Press.