When President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, challenged the nation to "reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion," he offered a social commentary that has timely relevance in higher education. Asserting that such intolerance "makes it harder to achieve our goals... betrays who we are as a country," the president spoke to our national values, character and security.
America's campuses, too, have witnessed and begun to respond to the politicalizing of race and religion. Once centers of learning for a privileged few, colleges and universities today are incredibly diverse and inclusive communities, on their campuses and through their impact. Students and faculty come from all over the world, from myriad socio-economic, religious and cultural backgrounds, and with personal and professional ambitions that often enrich our nation. Many institutions have utilized such diversity to enhance the educational experience, to foster dialogue and awareness and to become more global in their outreach and service.
The raucous and contentious times in which we live demand that we do more. Virginia Wesleyan College has taken an important first step toward increasing tolerance for those who may be marginalized by the anger and activities of exclusion.
A response to increasing Islamophobia, xenophobia and divisive rhetoric, "Standing Together" was an initiative held January 24 by the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, Virginia Wesleyan's Center for the Study of Religious Freedom, and other community partners. We brought together diverse groups in Hampton Roads to speak out for and to stand with the Muslim community and others. With a goal of exploring themes of interfaith understanding, solidarity and community, the standing-room only program, held at Slover Library in Norfolk, featured a press conference by area clergy and an interfaith panel discussion.
Rev. Dr. Craig Wansink, the Joan P. and Macon F. Brock, Jr. Director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom, spoke at the event. "We are Virginians and we stand together," he said. "We need to act individually and in solidarity to uphold these values. We stand together with people who face persecution as Virginians, as Americans, and people of faith."
We were joined in this effort by over 140 Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, houses of worship, advocacy groups and institutions who endorsed a January 4, 2016, advertisement in The Virginian-Pilot calling for our community to "Stand Together" and resist religious prejudice across the globe. On our campus, I established a president's committee on inclusiveness. I also have urged my fellow presidents around the nation to speak out on vital issues of our time, such as social justice, in which higher education can offer influential perspectives.
The problems related to intolerance are larger than any one denomination or college can address. But momentum has been growing for several years. The President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge through the U.S. Department of Education's Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships seeks to "initiate or expand opportunities for students to participate in community service that includes interfaith engagement." One in every four private-college students attends an institution currently enrolled in the campus challenge.
Not every campus will find such activities mission-compatible. And integrating interfaith service into established college curricula can be time-consuming and -- no surprise to veteran educators -- controversial. Nevertheless, colleges have a unique opportunity to establish behaviors of tolerance and acceptance, to work for social justice and to build meaningful rapport with their communities by doing what they do best: teaching and illuminating. Those in our country who are dismayed by the crassness in some political campaigns can take heart that higher education, despite troubling campus limitations of free speech born of political correctness in recent years, has tried to foster a climate of greater social and cultural acceptance.
As Yale University President Peter Salovey writes in a piece for the Huffington Post (January 12, 2016), "Issues involving race and inclusion have always been difficult and painful, with no simple diagnosis or solution, and college campuses can be crucibles for overdue changes in society."
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Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach. Previously, Dr. Miller served as President at Bethany College in West Virginia (2007-15), Wesley College in Delaware (1997-2007) and Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee (1991-97).
He wrote this for the January 20 issue of The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA)