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  September 25, 2000

Resurgence of Religion Challenging
Secular University, Says Speaker

The secular university is under challenge, as society experiences a resurgence of interest in religion, says Alan Wolfe, professor of political science and director of the Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

Wolfe spoke Tuesday at St. Thomas Aquinas Center about the role of religion and spirituality on the secular campus.

The issue is an important one for a public institution such as UConn, said the Rev. Richard Gross, introducing the speaker. "Private institutions have been able to initiate a variety of programs that promote values education and encourage religious expression and practice," Gross said. "Public institutions, however, confront difficult questions and challenges if they move in this direction."

Yet, he added, "spirituality is systemic to the growth and development of a young person."

Wolfe said the secular university is "the product of a series of compromises over the last 20-30 years." When he started teaching at the former women's college of Rutgers University - the state university of New Jersey - in 1967, for example, all students were required to attend chapel.

He pointed out that although academic institutions began in cathedrals, public universities in particular have now become almost entirely secular.

But even as efforts to define the separation of church and state in the context of universities continue, he said, a challenge to the secular university is beginning in many forms around the United States.

First, religion is becoming more important in American society, beginning with the civil rights movement and expanding with the emergence of the religious right. The recent selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an orthodox Jew, as the Democratic candidate for vice president both reflects and promotes the re-emergence of religion as a factor in politics, he said.

"Lieberman's kind of talk would not have been possible 20-30 years ago," Wolfe said. "The templates of society are shifting in relation to religion and politics, and it's going to happen in our universities as well."

In the academic world too, the emergence of a more aggressive posture among religious scholars is posing a challenge to the secular university, he said.

"Traditionally most departments of religion have been populated by people who don't believe in God," noted Wolfe, a self-described non-believer, and religion has been studied the way one might study classics.

Scholars such as the evangelical protestant George Marsden, a historian at Notre Dame, however, are "turning the language of the contemporary university against itself," Wolfe said. Marsden and others argue that proponents of diversity who favor recognition of, for example, African American or feminist points of view, should accept that there is a religious point of view too.

Wolfe said colleges with a religious affiliation are experiencing a revival. In 1999-00, Wheaton College, for example, had a higher rate of rejecting applicants than the University of Chicago, and the average SAT score of those it admitted - 1310 - compares favorably with that of students at the University of Virginia. Yet colleges such as Wheaton do not allow for diversity of religious opinion, he said.

The concept of the secular university is also weakening because it is becoming stale, Wolfe suggested. "Universities reward people who are considered on the cutting edge," he said. "Secularism has been a fad for a long time.

Still, there are circumstances at academic institutions - including tenure - that militate against responding to the forces that challenge secularism, Wolfe said: "Universities are generally among the most resistant to change of any institutions in American society."

He said he expects change will come from the current generation of students. "The students I teach at Boston College find ways to keep their faith and also have an extraordinary thirst for learning.

"I'm sure the old compromise we have called the secular research university will change," he added. "I don't know what form that change will take, but if the students I meet have anything to do with it, I have a feeling it's going to be pretty good."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu