Dear President Roth,
It is with deep concern that the Department of Religion and other scholars of religion at Wesleyan learn about the Administration’s decision to sharply curtail the size of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (ORSL). While not practitioners of pastoral care, as scholars of religious traditions and as members of the Wesleyan community, we are convinced of the critically important roles served by the chaplains to students as well as faculty and staff, and even members of the larger Middletown community. Although we understand the currently challenging financial situation and the inevitably painful budget cutting forced upon the Administration, we view any enduring diminishment of ORSL as counterproductive to the professed ideals and goals of Wesleyan.
In our view, the most compelling reasons for a robust, fully staffed ORSL include (but are not limited to) the following:
1). Religious/spiritual traditions play an important—for some, central—role in the lives of many individuals and groups at Wesleyan. They provide intellectual frameworks for understanding the world and its changes, ritual patterns offering rhythms of behavior and embodied responses to challenges, and emotional resources promoting resiliency, sharing, and community.
2). Given the particularly chaotic social, political, and epidemiological situation which our students (and faculty and staff) currently encounter, many rely more than ever on religious/spiritual traditions among other resources to endure the strains and anxieties that may be unprecedented in many individuals’ experiences.
3). The importance of religious/spiritual traditions may be largely invisible to many, perhaps even most, Wesleyan community members because many students keep quiet about their religious and spiritual lives. Over the years, scores have shared with us experiences in which faculty and fellow students have voiced opinions from rationalist, materialist, and secular ideologies (or simply blatant prejudice) that dismiss or even denigrate religious/spiritual traditions and involvement in them. Hence, many students consider campus an unwelcoming place for the public expression of religious/spiritual belonging. The decision to gut ORSL can only serve as a sad confirmation of these perspectives.
4). At a moment in history when Wesleyan has evinced a heightened commitment to supporting diversity among its community members, gutting the resources for religious/spiritual people on campus seems counterintuitive and sends an unwelcoming message. This decision to no longer have Protestant and Muslim chaplains appears to communicate that Protestants and Muslims specifically—and people of faith and practice in general—no longer warrant dedicated support by professional religious leaders after decades of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim chaplains. At a moment in the nation’s history when Islamophobic sentiment has peaked, the unwillingness to hire a Muslim chaplain specifically dismisses the concerns of Muslim community members at Wesleyan. We can only anticipate that these changes will negatively affect efforts to recruit students, staff, and faculty with religious/spiritual commitments, and particularly those from religiously marginalized communities.
5). The endeavor to outsource religious and spiritual care to the larger community is ill-advised for several reasons:
a). Many local temples, mosques, and churches with which we are familiar do not focus on the needs of traditionally-aged college students but rather primarily serve members who are parents and their minor-aged children. As such, they do not provide the age-appropriate and intellectual resources that university chaplains are trained to provide.
b). University chaplains create an environment which nurtures the questioning and openness consistent with a university environment, while some local religious/spiritual leaders and/or their communities may instead promote conformity and orthopraxy, and even be aggressive in their promotion of joining.
c). Given that some local religious/spiritual communities may not be welcoming of students belonging to certain marginalized groups (e.g., LGBTQ+), we anticipate that many students will be more hesitant to join or even approach off-campus communities than on-campus ones led by Wesleyan chaplains.
6). Those students who prefer to remain in religious/spiritual community on campus now must add religious/spiritual leadership—for which most are not prepared—to their responsibilities. Wesleyan should be providing services that support students instead of adding to their burdens, especially in this very difficult time.
7). Finally, we would underline the important pedagogical role that the chaplains in ORSL play on campus. While we as scholars offer intellectual avenues to explore religious traditions, the chaplains have served countless students who have been curious about specific traditions or religion/spirituality in general. Although their approach to answering those interests often diverge from ours, we honor and value the important work chaplains have done to help students learn about religiosity and spirituality in their own traditions, in traditions different from their own, and even when they were raised with no such traditions at all. We routinely send students to the chaplains when students evince such interests and consider the loss of the diversity of chaplains a loss for the educational mission of the university.
For all these reasons, we request that the Administration reconsider its decision to defund the Office for Religious and Spiritual Life and reduce its staffing to two and—ultimately—to one chaplain. We urge a return to previous staffing levels, as well as consideration of eventually making all four chaplaincies full-time positions.
Thank you for your consideration,
The Department of Religion