Preliminary 2022 Report Reveals Areas of Concern in Elon University’s Multifaith Engagement

Junior Maddy Starr sat inside the Chabad House when she heard a loud bang. Observing the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, she broke the fast surrounded by students and members of the community of the same religion. Starr was horrified to discover the shot was a gunshot that hit a car parked right outside the house. This memory, although two years old, still follows her as a Jewish student at Elon.

“I was pretty horrified,” Starr said. “I was quite scared, not necessarily as a Jewish woman, more like I was scared to go to Chabad and Hillel events.”

But Starr wasn’t the only person feeling this.

In the Preliminary report 2022, students, faculty, and staff – Jewish and non-Jewish – remembered this incident in various surveys sent out by the Multifaith Strategic Planning Committee in the fall of 2021. Released in January, the survey highlights aspects Religious, Spiritual, Secular, Ethical, and Cultural Studies of Elon University. identities. The concerns raised by this incident in 2019 have been reflected in this report.

According to Department of Religious Studies Chair and Multifaith Strategic Planning Committee Co-Chair Geoffrey Claussen, the preliminary report is part of Boldly Elon’s strategic plan to support multifaith engagement at the university.

The first part of the committee’s mission was to write a report analyzing Elon’s current state of diversity, equity and inclusion. The second part of the charge will take place by the end of the Spring 2022 semester, where the committee will create a final report detailing recommendations for actions to be taken by the university to ensure DEI.

“It’s both discouraging and encouraging to know that this has stuck in people’s memories. Disheartened, of course, because it was a really horrific incident,” Starr said. “But it’s encouraging to know that people recognize that this was an act of anti-Semitism, and that people recognize that this is something that needs to be addressed – not just anti-Semitism, but any kind of prejudice or discrimination against any religion on campus.”

Data collection comes from various surveys sent during the fall 2021 semester: one to all juniors and seniors and one to a mix of 390 freshmen, sophomores and graduate students who indicated a religious identity. minoritized. Elon’s faculty and staff also received a request for an investigation. Of the 3,090 questionnaires sent to junior and senior classes, only 434 students completed it. As for the survey sent to the rest of the student population, only 18 responded. A total of 276 employees also responded to the survey.

Results analysis

To understand the personal backgrounds and identities of the respondents, the committee also surveyed the community across various identity categories, including race and ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.

Claussen said the most important aspect of the report to him was the fact that more than half of students surveyed – 55% – said their religious, spiritual or secular identity was “moderately to extremely important to them”.

Sophomore Alena Jain, another student on the multi-faith strategic planning committee, said she was also surprised by the result. Although Jain would rank her religion as very important to her as an international student, she did not realize how important religion was to other members of the community.

“I come from a culture where religion is of immense importance,” Jain said.

Similar findings in the report revealed that anti-Semitism was overwhelmingly the top concern of survey respondents when asked about biases at Elon. Anti-Muslim bias and Islamic ignorance were also expressed in the survey, although they were reported more frequently by faculty and staff than by students.

As a student, Starr was very surprised by the differences of opinion surrounding “Christian privilege and anti-Christian prejudice” present in the report. According to Starr, while only a few students had reported instances of anti-Christian bias on campus, there were many more reports from faculty and staff.

“It leaves a very powerful message, at least for us, about how we move forward in a way that engages all religions and not just minority religions,” Starr said. “But also involving minority religions, in a way that makes them feel included but not in a way that makes Christians feel excluded.”

Claussen said there was a noticeable divide between the different student identities described in the report. The report concluded that Christian students reported “particularly high levels of belonging, welcoming, inclusion, security, and a sense of being understood” when it comes to their religious identity.

“Students from minority religious groups … tended to feel much less included and safe and welcome on campus,” Claussen said. “Not intrusive, not dangerous, not excluded. But it’s interesting, I think, that there’s a gap there.

Areas of growth

Another part of the report focused on evaluating religious diversity, extracurricular programs, and academic departments at Elon, comparing them to other educational institutions engaged in informative or pioneering engagement. diversified.

Originally selected based on the committee members’ prior knowledge and experience, the report analyzes institutions such as Oberlin College, Binghamton University, College of Charleston and University of California du South.

The committee has come to the conclusion that many areas on campus do not reflect a consideration of religious, spiritual and secular identity when considering issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. The report also stated that while Elon’s after-school programs parallel those of the other institutions studied, Elon does not lead to the intersection of race, religion, identity, and spirituality.

Claussen also said that about half of Elon’s religion classes are taught by part-time faculty each year, and although the department teaches religion and race issues in the classroom, there are no members. faculty whose primary expertise is in the area of ​​religion and race. .

“It’s a question that’s really important to understanding the category of religion in the United States and in the world today,” Claussen said. “That’s a particular priority.”

Assistant professor of religious studies Sumeyye Pakdil — who identifies as a Muslim and whose expertise is in Islamic studies — teaches Islamic classes on politics, gender and sexuality at Elon.

Pakdil said she believes acceptance of religious diversity comes through education and safe spaces to ask questions. She finds that her classes are often 90-95% Christian and she does her best to foster that environment.

“There’s no right or wrong answer to any question about religion because even though it’s a sensitive subject, I want them to feel as free as possible, especially in class because it’s where they could learn,” Pakdil said. “They could learn to respect other ideas, but by telling their own ideas, their own opinions and listening to other opinions.”

For Pakdil, one of the most important things she insists on is educating other students about different religions.

“I try to show them, when I teach other religions, that they have very great similarities, that they share those similarities even though they have differences,” Pakdil said. “I wanted them to see…the diversity of different faiths and what they share with other groups.”

Although Pakdil said she was not surprised by the comments from students, faculty and staff published in the report, she did not expect to learn that other universities did not require students to complete a religious observance form in order to be excused for their religious holidays. . Instead, other institutions usually require students to notify their instructor in advance of religious holidays, so instructors will consider their absences excused.

Plan ahead

Based on the report, Starr said the committee would begin holding focus groups — representing faculty, staff, undergraduates and graduates — throughout the spring semester to gather recommendations from small groups. groups who have read the report.

Claussen and Starr are welcome community feedback as they prepare their final report for May 2022.

Pakdil and Jain also said that continuing to educate the community will play a key role in expanding DCI’s efforts.

“A lot of people don’t realize that some comments are perceived as discriminatory,” Jain said. “A lot of what we’re working on is really bringing awareness to the work that we do to bring people together and really understand different cultures and religions.”

Jain said providing more spaces on campus for people to practice their religion will also help make minority groups feel more included.

Pakdil also said that she thinks inviting guest speakers to Elon who can talk about both religion and the correlation between current events and religion would greatly benefit the Elon community.

“Whether you major in finance, whether you major in math, biology, sociology, anthropology – religion is always there and you need to know more about religion because religion is about people,” Pakdil said. . “If you knew religion, you would know more about people, about culture, about society, so that’s what I tried to do.”

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