The University Record, October 31, 1994

More than 100 participated in ‘Day of Dialogue’

By Julie Peterson
News and Information Services

The University needs to reintegrate elements of religion, ethics and values into campus life, agreed participants in a day-long conference titled “The Role of Religion and Ethics in Transforming the University.”

More than 100 students, faculty, staff, administrators and community members attended the public session, held Oct. 26 in the Michigan League. Len Scott, liaison for ethics and religion in the Office of the Dean of Students, chaired the planning committee that organized the session, billed as a “day of dialogue.”

Panelists speaking at a morning presentation were Regent Laurence B. Deitch; Maureen A. Hartford, vice president for student affairs; and Ralph Williams, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of English. Responding to the panelists were Jodi Bushdiecker Atwood, co-minister at Guild House Campus Ministry and president of the Association of Religious Counselors; Michael Brooks, executive director of the Hillel Foundation; graduate student Maria Bergstrom and undergraduate student Bill Plevan. Members of the audience also were invited to ask questions and make comments following the panel discussion.

President James J. Duderstadt, in opening remarks, noted that the University has had a long history and tradition of embracing religious studies and discussion, dating back to its founding in 1817 by a Presbyterian minister and a Roman Catholic priest.

But, said Hartford, more recently the University has struggled with the role of religion in the classroom and in campus life. The outcome of the 1960s, she said, was a world that became uncomfortable with the word “values.” She added: “We see societal problems that we may have enhanced in the process. We’re partially responsible for the ‘me generation’ of the 1980s; in the ’70s, we turned out graduates with little sense of social responsibility.”

That lack of moral guidance is particularly problematic for students who are “on the cusp between childhood and adulthood,” Hartford said. “This is a very vulnerable time in their lives. It’s also a time when many students become disconnected from their traditional supports.”

Said Deitch, “Our University is a place where both knowledge and values can be taught ... where people grow and learn spiritually and personally as well as in all the other ways we think of.” He echoed the words of the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, who visited the U-M campus as the spring Wallenberg lecturer: “Human beings can’t survive without affection; the brain and heart go together.” “I agree,” Deitch said, “that we put too much emphasis on technical prowess and not enough on spiritual development and human needs.”

Several participants cited the need for more study and discussion among students, both within and outside of the classroom, of the world’s religions. Williams asserted that although students have an opportunity to investigate other religions in their coursework, they feel pressured to do so with intellectual detachment and not to express their own, strongly felt personal beliefs. “It’s a useful and humanizing thing to know of others’ religions,” he said. “But we can go one step further.” Rather than simply presenting information about a religion, it is necessary that “we feel its warmth, its force.” Yet, he acknowledged, “this is a hugely dangerous area because it is the site of division as well as union.”

Williams emphasized that such exploration must take place without creating the impression among students that they are being directed toward any one set of beliefs.

“The principal obligation of this Uni-versity is to provide a place where one may explore optimally—with greatest openness—what one may choose to think and not what one is forced to believe,” he said. “We need to present ideas ... and have them be received as an invitation to reflection and not an intellectual or moral coercion.”

Agreed Bergstrom, “Students need opportunities to explore in-depth their own traditions. The University can encourage that and see it as a valid thing to do without being partisan.”

All three panelists identified the existence of a core set of values that can be upheld independent of one’s individual religious beliefs and traditions.

According to Hartford, the University’s values are a “distillation” of the teachings of the world’s religions.

Deitch noted that such values should be kept simple. “Everything you need to know about decent personal living,” he said, “is probably set forth in the Ten Commandments.”

Williams’ concept of core values revolves around the notion of duty: “duty to be kind, duty to be willing to see other free, duty not to murder, duty not to do inappropriate violence.”

Deitch also referred to the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, which he termed “a moral and ethical guide” for students. The statement, he recommended, should be given to incoming students as a contract under which they agree to a common set of values and standard of behavior.

Vince Keenan, chair of student rights in the Michigan Student Assembly, responded that any code of ethical behavior must be agreed upon by those affected, rather than imposed from above.

Keenan added, “The ethnicity requirement doesn’t keep us from being racist. It’s the debate that occurs outside of class that makes the difference.”

Hartford described her view of a new model of education: a holistic approach that takes into account the lives and needs of students both in and outside the classroom. She sees her staff as “nontraditional faculty” who are just as involved in students’ educational experiences as those faculty teaching courses.

She cited two specific programs that reflect this changing view. Leadership 2017, a program for student leaders over the summer, provided leadership training and then asked participants to “think big” about how they could make the University a better place for students. A number of creative proposals came out of that program—among them the Community Plunge, a program to immerse incoming students in a day of volunteerism and community service.

Churches and other organizations also should view themselves as part of the students’ learning process, Hartford emphasized. “The challenge is to develop a cadre of people who see themselves as nontraditional faculty, and to extend the educational experience to many more corners of the University.”

Other suggestions offered by participants included:

  • Expand the scholarly study of religion and ethical values; establish a doctoral program in religious studies.

  • Provide increased financial support for student religious organizations.

  • Make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of students. Deitch promised to work toward adoption of a formal policy that alternative dates be offered to students if exams fall upon religious holidays.

  • Allow religious organizations to play a greater role during new student orientation.

  • Restore staffing of the Office of Ethics and Religion to at least one full-time person.

  • Revive the Student Council on Religion, which existed during the 1940s, as a group that provides a vehicle for students to speak to the administration in an advisory capacity.

  • Sponsor more events that encourage interfaith dialogue.

    Following the panel presentations, about half of the participants split into working groups and brainstormed further about actions the University could take to revive the inclusion of religion and ethics.

    According to Scott, about 20 participants committed to follow up with a meeting to develop a set of specific recommendations.