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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

February 2, 2002 Saturday
Religion Journal:
Seeking a Role for Religion on Campus

BELCHERTOWN, Mass., Feb. 1 - David K. Scott believes the modern university has lost its way in a world crying out for attention to values and spiritual concerns.

Mr. Scott said he feared that constitutional prohibitions against promoting religion had been used to effectively banish religion from public universities, or at least to "ghettoize" religion in departments where it can be safely ignored by those who do not study it.

A former research physicist who until last spring was chancellor of the University of Massachusetts flagship campus in Amherst, Mr. Scott, 61, comes to this view from an unusual background.

His boyhood in the Orkney Islands off Scotland gave him an instinctive feel for some of the big questions people have always grappled with, he said in a recent interview at his home here, next door to Amherst.

"If you grow up on a small island, there is a sense of everything being connected," Mr. Scott said.

His career includes studying and teaching at Oxford, directing scientific research at two leading nuclear science laboratories and, as provost, overseeing academic affairs at Michigan State University.

Since stepping down from his chancellor post, Mr. Scott has devoted some of his time to compiling essays coming out of a conference he held two years ago called "Going Public with Spirituality in Work and Higher Education."

Diane Chapman Walsh, the president of Wellesley College who held a similar conference two years earlier, said Mr. Scott "has become a leader in a growing movement that believes that we need to redefine the role of religion and spirituality in higher education."

Mr. Scott, who is on leave, will join the Massachusetts faculty in September. His writing and activism in trying to create what he calls the "transrational" or "integrative" university raised some hackles, said David Schimmel, a professor of educational policy. Those opposing his ideas included people who felt that they wasted time and resources and people who felt that any weakening of the barriers between church and state was dangerous.

As one of the more vocal skeptics, Professor Schimmel was invited to join the organizing committee of Mr. Scott's spirituality conference, where the professor successfully lobbied to invite the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, Nadine Strossen, and Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum, a nonprofit group that promotes press and religious freedom.

Mr. Scott acknowledges that anyone seeking to introduce a spiritual perspective into public education will encounter resistance.

"It takes some nerve to bring these matters up," he said, "but I found that if you do, there is a tremendous reservoir of people within academia who are looking for these ideas."

His only regret, he said, is that he did not start talking about them earlier in his career. "You would never have heard me use the word 'spirituality' at Michigan State," Mr. Scott said. "Maybe it was a failure of nerve or maybe I felt it would have been counterproductive."

Now Mr. Scott talks about ideas like turning an abandoned chapel in on campus into "a center for a new community." He envisions it as a place where people of different faiths could gather to "find out what they have in common and to explore how to incorporate these ideas into the curriculum."

Mr. Scott helped establish a campus office, financed by a grant, devoted to what he calls promoting contemplative practice, which he compares to meditation or prayer. He says he can foresee a day when entire departments gather for extended periods of silent meditation.

For more than a year now, meditation sessions have been offered on campus twice a week.

Mr. Scott said he would like to see universities revamp the general education requirement to include courses and activities that challenge students to think about "how to live, how to be with each other, how to be in the universe."

His own beliefs are influenced by his Presbyterian upbringing, and he is currently concerned with identifying and appreciating commonalities among the world's religions. A yearning for a deeper sense of spirituality was building on the campus for a long time, said Mr. Scott, who added, "I provided it some legitimacy through the imprimatur of the chancellor's office."

Mr. Haynes, of the First Amendment Center, said recently that as a constitutional scholar he had no quarrel with the idea that "religion has a place in the public square." But he said he was concerned when he heard people use "slippery and confusing definitions of spirituality to do an end run around some of the tough questions raised by the Constitution."

There is a danger, Mr. Haynes said, that when a public institution seems to be embracing religion, people within it will, in effect, say, "Let's let in the kind of spirituality that we like and keep out the dogmatic people who might spoil the party."

He said he worried that "when government gets into the religion business," people who already have strong religious convictions stand to be excluded from "the marketplace of ideas" intended by the Constitution.

Mr. Scott responds that by clinging to a view of the Constitution that interprets a prohibition against fostering particular religions as a prohibition against fostering any kind of religion, universities tend to drive people into extreme camps with rationalists on one side and fundamentalists on the other.

Instead he said he would like to see public universities embrace spirituality as an antidote to the polarizing and fragmenting effect of shunning religion altogether.

Mr. Scott's wife, Kathleen, a scholar of medieval texts, could probably be included as one of the skeptics when it comes to her husband's ideas about religion and the university.

"I'm a bone dry academic," she said. "It will be interesting to see where he goes with all of this."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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