Interfaith Cooperation is the Future of Higher Ed
What will happen the day after the day after?
That’s not a misprint. That’s the question that everybody who is not putting 150 percent of their energy into dealing with the many emergencies of the moment might want to spend a little time with.
I think the one thing that can safely be said about most campuses is that, after the crisis, they will be more of a cohesive whole rather than the sum of sometimes dissonant parts. The closest reference point for what most campuses are experiencing now is what happened to Tulane University during Katrina, which I wrote about recently.
The hurricane destroyed New Orleans and threatened the very existence of Tulane. One of the things that President Scott Cowen and his leadership team decided to do was put an end to students applying to different Tulane schools for admission, and instead centralize admissions. This was not principally an administrative decision implemented to maximize efficiencies. Rather, it was a spirit-oriented decision meant to create wholeness. It communicated: We are one Tulane. We share a common spirit and a common mission. Every procedure we have will affirm that central purpose.
Many colleges are going to change radically in the next couple of years. If your typical approach is to find ways to protect your turf, circumstances will likely require a fundamental change.
Not only is that attitude spiritually wrong, it is strategically unwise. There is no use in trying to rearrange the chairs on your part of the deck if the whole ship is going to sink. And make no mistake, the waters are rising more rapidly than anybody could have predicted even three months ago.
Much better to say, “If this ship sinks, I’m going to be part of building a new one that floats and work to bring the whole community on board that vessel.” Better yet, if this is the age of air travel, perhaps this is the time to be thinking about a different craft altogether. Instead of a new ship, maybe you want to be designing a plane and learning how to fly. (That’s essentially what Paul LeBlanc did at Southern New Hampshire University after the 2008 financial crisis.)
Whether it’s a new ship or a plane, the old “protect my turf” ways fall short of taking on the new challenges we all face in the Covid-19 moment. I’m hoping this is a moment in which interfaith and diversity work can elevate in significance and spread in reach. If you lead one of these programs on a campus, think about drafting a memo (wait until this emergency is over to send it!) to your college’s executive team that emphasizes just how vital interfaith and diversity work are to the mission of the whole campus. You don’t simply tend to the needs of a small group of enthusiastic students (important as that might be), you are integral to helping the campus accomplish its highest mission in virtually all phases of its work:
- You work with the people in admissions to reach out to new groups of prospective students, everywhere from Islamic schools to Evangelical homeschooling programs;
- You run trainings for staff and faculty on campus because no one is born with the skills to engage positively with diversity, people have to learn and practice them;
- You design and teach General Education courses, because being educated in and comfortable with diversity issues is part of the definition of being an educated person;
- You partner with pre-professional programs like Nursing and Business and Elementary Education because amongst the most important things that employers seek are applicants with the skills to cooperate across difference;
- You work with the Career Office because it’s not enough to simply have diversity education in coursework, students need to be adept at weaving their practical knowledge of cooperating across difference into their job interviews;
- You help students find meaning and explore their identities, and do it in a way that builds positive community on campus, helping students graduate on time and positioning them advantageously in the job market.
The diverse doctors and nurses and scientists and public health officials that are leading us through the Covid-19 crisis - the ones who are cooperating across lines of difference and serving the highest ideals at great sacrifice to themselves – these individuals are the highest ideal for your future graduates. And so are the ones who will invent the drugs, design the systems and advocate for the political change that will help prevent (or at least contain) the next inevitable pandemic, whenever it comes.
As college campuses necessarily evolve to address the Covid-19 challenge, graduating interfaith leaders should still be a top priority.