Many Faiths, Many Disciplines, One Dialogue
Alfred Tat-Kei Ho is a Professor of the School of Public Affairs & Administration and the Coordinator of the 2020 Multi-Faith Dialogue at the University of Kansas (KU). Bander Almohammadi is a graduate student of the KU School of Law. Virginia Harper-Ho is a Professor and Associate Dean of the KU School of Law. Alejandro David Tamez is a graduate student of the KU Department of Philosophy. Jane Zhao is an Associate Professor of the KU School of Business. They were all members of the planning committee of the KU 2020 Multi-Faith Dialogue online.
It is often difficult to talk about faiths openly in public universities, but in April 2020, the University of Kansas launched an online multi-faith dialogue that involved multiple disciplines, community faith-based organizations and federal agencies.
The initiative took more than eight months to plan, and two weeks before the event, the format had to change from a one-day conference on campus to an online forum due to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the time and hard work involved, it was a worthwhile effort. It was the first official event at our university that recognized the possibility for faculty members, students, community members, and governmental officials to discuss publicly the importance of faith, spirituality, and worldviews as part of the university’s diversity, equity, and inclusion mission, and to highlight how different worldviews have a significant role in shaping public policy, business practice, and community development.
We also had a respectful and informative panel discussion about the meaning of a “good” society and Covid-19 from different faith perspectives (Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and Zen Buddhism). Faith experience is also personal. Therefore, we asked students with different backgrounds to share their personal experiences about culture shock and ways to develop more cultural sensitivity.
To wrap up the online forum, Brian Anderson of the IFYC presented the national trends of interfaith dialogue and lessons from different campus. We also had a faculty-student-official panel discussion on what else public universities can do to embrace a view of diversity that not only recognizes ethnicity and gender issues, but also religious, cultural and worldview differences.
Our experience shows that:
- A multi-sectoral, multi-faith dialogue needs faculty leadership and willingness to break down disciplinary silos.
- Inviting and coordinating speakers from different faith backgrounds not only requires time commitment and persistence but also sensitivity for the fact that faculty members and students of faith may feel reluctant to talk publicly before a video camera about their beliefs. Trust building and networking are important.
- Depending on the purpose of an interfaith dialogue and the target audience, narrowing the conversation to doctrinal, historical, or textual analysis of religions may lose a non-specialist audience. A balance is needed to have a multi-disciplinary, multi-sectoral dialogue of faiths and worldviews.
- If different people are interested in different topics, it is perhaps important to allow for different panel discussions or for a series of talks that can embrace this diversity more effectively.
- The support of university leadership is especially critical to the ultimate success of an event. With leadership support, an event is more likely to have staff and student support, meeting space availability, financial support, and technical assistance. University leadership support may also incentivize faculty participation and help find the right faculty to join the dialogue. For this particular event at the University of Kansas in April 2020, support from Interim Vice Provost for Diversity and Equity, Dr. Jennifer Ng and Associate Vice Provost for International Affairs, Dr. Charlie Bankart, was critically essential. For other universities, university support may come from the office of student affairs or from a multi-cultural center.
As a significant majority of the world population has some forms of faith or spiritual worldview, and as many U.S. local communities are getting more religiously diverse, how people of faith and those without any faith commitment may work together to foster greater mutual understanding and respect and to build more effective collaboration to advance public good is becoming more important. As a place whose mission is to prepare future leaders, public universities have the responsibility to provide more opportunities for cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural and cross-worldview understanding and discussion for our students so that they can develop an awareness of and respect for a wide range of perspectives. Our campuses should be examples of tolerance, peaceful dialogue and cooperation to advance the public good despite and even because of our different viewpoints.
This core belief has propelled us to organize the 2020 KU Multifaith Dialogue despite all odds, and we hope that more events like ours will happen not only at our university but also at other universities worldwide in the future.