Dear members of the Wesleyan community,
We write to you regarding a development on campus concerning the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (ORSL). This summer, the Office of Student Affairs, which ORSL is under, surprisingly announced that it would be virtually dismantling ORSL by permanently scrapping the part-time chaplain positions for both the Muslim and Protestant communities. The plan will eventually phase out all the chaplain positions altogether, leaving only one of the current chaplains as a general Director of Religious and Spiritual Life for all faiths. Ostensibly, these eliminations are the result of COVID-19 budget deficit, following which the Office of Student Affairs was tasked with permanently reducing 10% of its budget. Notably, however, 60% of the Office of Student Affairs’ reductions came from ORSL, whose budget was cut in half. Further, the former imam has stated he was let go unwillingly, which is especially concerning. The current Protestant Chaplain is a graduate student at Yale Divinity School who is not compensated for her work, which undermines the stability of this position for future generations of Protestant students. Our communities are deeply troubled by these developments, which renege on the inclusiveness Wesleyan has provided to our communities in the past.
Wesleyan’s religious students come from diverse backgrounds, and it can be difficult to find our way on a secular liberal campus. Muslims, Protestants, Jews, and Catholics all rely on chaplains to bring our communities together, to provide spaces to call our own, and to provide the guidance necessary to be successful at Wesleyan. The chaplains served as counselors, organizers, and retained institutional memory for our communities. All of this was difficult for the part-time chaplains to do, but they managed to make do and we were all grateful for the inclusiveness Wesleyan demonstrated by providing us with their presence in the first place. Now, however, it is clear the administration seeks to take things in a different direction. The intended plan for each of our communities, which exist on a fully-residential campus, is for us to go to mosques, churches, and synagogues in Middletown for services. This is obviously not possible amid a pandemic, but it is also not feasible as a long-term shift for a myriad of reasons, especially since the vast majority of services described above which our chaplains provided cannot be received by attending Middletown congregations.
Scaling back ORSL would be detrimental not only to the personal development of religious students, but to the Wesleyan community on a larger scale. A Wesleyan education teaches us that learning does not just occur within the narrow confines of our academic discipline, but rather that we must strive to make connections between and beyond our classes. The chaplains encourage and support growth in our religious identities and learning, push us to think critically about fundamental life questions, and challenge us with different perspectives. They are mentors, here to support us as we develop from teenagers leaving home for the first time to full-grown, independent adults. In some cases, they even provide career counselling and serve as references for jobs or graduate programs. Eliminating the chaplains could likely negatively impact the diversity of Wesleyan’s student body, as religious students would not feel that Wesleyan offers the resources necessary to support them, and would therefore be dissuaded from applying. Wesleyan would be revoking its commitment to inclusion for these students, which could reflect negatively on the institution.
Further, at a time when so much is keeping us apart, it is more important than ever to have the resources to fight isolation, support one another, and build community. Chaplains serve an important role as mental health resources, and are uniquely equipped with the culturally-specific knowledge necessary to support their communities. This is particularly important given the fact that religious intolerance and attacks on houses of worship are growing worldwide. Several such attacks took place during our time at Wesleyan, and the chaplains of the affected communities provided a unique sense of understanding and source of comfort for grieving students. It is not possible to recreate this sense of intimacy with an adult removed from campus, and though student leaders are capable of much, this emotional responsibility is too great for any one student to bear.
The permanent scrapping of the part-time chaplains has freed up minimal resources for the University while profoundly disrupting our communities. We believe that the disproportionate reduction of ORSL is against Wesleyan’s commitment to diversity of thought, opinion, and background. We urge the University to uphold, not diminish, inclusivity, to live up to its progressive ideals, and to maintain crucial resources for religious students to thrive at Wesleyan.
The Student Leadership of:
The Wesleyan Muslim Student Association
The Wesleyan Christian Fellowship
The Wesleyan Jewish Community
The Wesleyan Catholic Student Organization