Interfaith Cooperation at Public Institutions: Promising Practices
There are currently 8.2 million students enrolled at public universities in the United States, with the majority of college-educated Americans holding degrees from state-supported institutions. A healthy interfaith culture at public universities is essential to building a nation of interfaith cooperation and understanding. The purpose of this resource is to provide information and recommendations to build interfaith work at public institutions of higher education. The strategies and practices in this resource are a good place to begin, and we hope you will share your continued learning and best practices with us along the way.
This resource is not meant as a ‘best practices’ resource, but a collection of promising practices, as interfaith programs at many public institutions are still emerging. Interfaith cooperation initiatives take many different forms at public universities, and professionals in the field are developing innovative approaches to interfaith work in state-supported institutions. If you are a professional or student at a public institution unsure of where to focus your interfaith efforts, the approaches in this document can hopefully provide you with some inspiration.
Interfaith at Public Schools 101
Interfaith work at public institutions presents a set of unique challenges. Public institutions are typically larger and more decentralized, making organizing for interfaith action on a wide scale more difficult. There are also limitations to the extent to which public institutions can endorse religious education and still maintain a separation of church and state. While religious education is different from interfaith cooperation, many lack the language to articulate why interfaith is “okay” on a public campus. Complex structures of organization and reporting can also make “cutting through the red tape” of organizing an interfaith presence a challenge.
While limitations do exist, there are many opportunities available at public universities. State schools often have high levels of diversity within their student, staff, and faculty populations – including religious and worldview diversity. Building a culture of religious pluralism is dependent on the intentional engagement of different religious and secular identities, and the diversity of public universities is arguably their greatest asset. In addition, public institutions often have some formal commitment to diversity, global citizenship, and service to the community within their missions. Land Grant institutions in particular draw upon a history of service to their region, and hold relationships with philanthropic and service organizations. Religious and intentionally secular student organizations can also provide avenues for collaboration around community service and shared values.
There are robust interfaith initiatives happening at a number of public universities, each with a unique approach. The following are examples of the approaches a few institutions have taken to build interfaith cooperation on their campuses.
Strategy 1: Build Student Ownership of Interfaith Initiatives
It takes the right combination of challenge and support to let students lead the way, and the good fortune to find the right student leaders. Students leading interfaith activities keep the focus of programs appropriate to the interests and concerns of their peers and indicate to campus administrators that interfaith cooperation is a priority of the student body.