October 26, 2020
In late August Wesleyan’s administration indicated that it would be significantly scaling back the Office of Religious & Spiritual Life (ORSL) on campus. This news is both surprising and troubling and should be a concern to all members of the Wesleyan community, especially students. From what I am told, this move represents a “pivot” from providing a full range of religious and spiritual services “on campus” to one of requiring students to go “off campus” to local synagogues, churches, temples, and mosques for these services. Instead of having four chaplains, one for each of the four major religious traditions—Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim—there would only be one chaplain who would monitor the religious and spiritual life of the entire University community. That chaplain would direct students to off-campus services and resources for their religious and spiritual needs, and, when necessary, bring clergypersons (rabbis, priests, ministers, imams, et al.) from the surrounding Middletown area to campus for specific events or services on an ad hoc basis.
In my opinion, this decision by the administration is more of a “divot” than a “pivot.” It is ill-advised, misguided, and its timing could not be worse. It comes after ORSL recently lost the part-time services of the Protestant and Muslim chaplains, neither of whom will be replaced. As a result, the number of staff chaplains on campus has now been cut in half, from four to two, leaving only the Jewish and Catholic chaplains. There are currently no permanent chaplains to lead the Protestant and Muslim communities. Moreover, this decision comes in the midst of an unprecedented period of anxiety, isolation, and loneliness caused by the pandemic; a period of time when chaplains are especially needed to assist those who are struggling with such uncertainty and ambiguity; a time, when, to use President Roth’s words, “We need all the community and learning we can get” (“What’s a Safe Enough Space On Campuses Right Now?” by Michael S. Roth, “Inside Higher Ed,” September 10, 2020).
While one can certainly understand the need to make temporary cuts to personnel and resources during a fiscal crisis, the decision on the part of the administration not to replace chaplains who resign, retire, or are terminated, save one, represents a drastic and permanent policy decision that eviscerates ORSL as a department and will have long term consequences on the religious and spiritual life of the community well into the future. It is a decision that was made without input from, or collaboration with, members of ORSL, and, in comparison to other departments in student services, appears to represent a disproportionate reduction in personnel from a department that is already small.
With a University-wide budget gap projected to be $10 to $15 million, the dollars saved from the near total permanent elimination of ORSL is de minimis, but comes at a much higher cost to both the spiritual, mental, and academic life of the community. It contradicts data that has shown that “students who were part of spiritually practicing communities and had healthy spiritual experiences on campus—who felt safe and belonged—had higher retention rates, better graduation rates, higher civic engagement, and higher student satisfaction and lower instances of mental health [issues] than their peers” (“Chaplaincy Support Can Boost Students’ Academic Success,” by Sara Weissman, September 24, 2019. “Diverse Issues in Higher Education”).
Particularly troubling about this decision is that it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of ORSL and chaplains on campus, and the important contributions they make to the Wesleyan community. ORSL is a critical reflection of the significant role of religion and spirituality in both education and society and plays a vital part of the institution’s diversity. It seeks to ensure and promote the religious and spiritual well-being of the University community through mutual respect and understanding of a variety of different faiths and traditions and by actively promoting dialogue within the broader community.
The chaplains of ORSL do more than simply provide religious services (Shabbat, Mass, Jummah, Bible study, etc.) once or twice a week. Chaplains engage in offering counseling, guidance, and direction to students on a regular basis and can be of immense help in assisting students navigate the twists and turns involved in making the transition to college, to more rigorous academics, to new relationships, and to the important work of self-discovery.
Chaplains explore with students, in a non-judgmental manner, not just the realm of religion or spirituality, but real-world issues and challenges on topics related to success, happiness, job, profession, career, etc. They raise ultimate questions and help students sort through the ambiguities of life: “What do I believe?” “What do I want to do with my life?” “How will I contribute to this world?” Chaplains serve as moral exemplars and often have distinctive perspectives about job opportunities, careers, and personal spiritual world views that can be extremely beneficial. Chaplains are “team players,” but are not “company men or women.” They are not adverse to calling things as they really are and serving as prophetic voices. They can, and will, animate, activate, and “stir the stew” when appropriate.
Chaplains can be particularly helpful to students in times of crisis, sometimes through direct intervention, and sometimes by simply serving as a sounding board when dealing with relationships, the pressures of being a student, difficulties with a roommate, or just figuring out life, or how to get out of bed in the morning. In times of sickness, injury, and death they serve as instruments of healing, encouragement, consolation, and hope to victims, families, and friends. They can also serve as advocates on behalf of students who have made poor choices and suddenly find themselves involved in a difficult academic, social, or disciplinary situation. Chaplains “have your back,” particularly when times are tough, and things suddenly go “side-ways.”
Chaplains provide opportunities for discussions about interfaith relations and ecumenism, science and religion, ecology and faith, art and spirituality, meditation and mindfulness, success and happiness. They also provide opportunities to engage in social service projects and social justice work, work that transcends any one faith position or tradition, but is directed to the wider goal of advancing the common good and creating a more just and beautiful world. Through field trips, table fellowship, retreats, and other social and spiritual events, chaplains build community, foster relationships, and help create lasting and memorable friendships. They are often key figures when it comes to alumni who have benefited from their friendships and services.
Chaplains educate. They teach values and eternal truths; values and truths that will help people become not only successful, but, more importantly, become people who are happy, grounded, and eager to give back to society in order to help society become more just, inclusive, and compassionate. The Greek philosopher Aristotle said it best: “Education of the mind, without education of the heart, is no education at all.” I remind students of this axiom all the time. “Don’t just educate yourself from the ‘neck up.’ Educate yourself from the ‘neck down,’ as well.” Educate your heart; focus on all those other qualities that make us human and ultimately give us meaning and purpose. That is what a truly liberal education will do. While our excellent faculty are charged with educating minds, chaplains are charged with educating hearts, a task that in many ways is more important, consequential, and enduring.
The administration’s gradual phase-out of the chaplains on Wesleyan’s campus seriously undermines the opportunities and services that chaplains provide. It is hard to imagine a single chaplain who could provide all of these services on his or her own to a diverse student body of approximately 3,000. It is even harder to imagine an “off-campus” clergyperson, with little or no personal experience, expertise, or involvement in the life of the Wesleyan community, providing these kinds of services even on a limited basis.
Cost-cutting measures in response to a financial crisis are often necessary, painful, and unsettling. When warranted, they need to be fair, measured, and, done in a manner that minimizes the long-term harm or cost to the broader community. The decision by the administration to phase out the role of the chaplains and the ORSL department falls short of that standard. It is “penny wise and pound foolish.” In the midst of a world-wide pandemic, when the incidence of anxiety and depression are at an all-time high, especially among young people, this decision eliminates some of the very resources used to combat the real consequences of these “plagues” or crises. Having healthy spiritual personnel and resources on campus has significant academic and civic benefits, benefits that far outweigh their minimal cost savings. When the Titanic has hit the iceberg, throwing the ship’s chaplain overboard is not going to save the ship or make the passengers feel more secure.
The financial impact of COVID-19 on Wesleyan’s financial position needs to be addressed. Dismantling ORSL and eliminating the presence of chaplains on campus will not affect the financial stability of the University but will adversely affect the well-being of our first priority—the students we serve. Wesleyan can do better. I welcome your thoughts and suggestions.
Blessings of protection, peace, and love,