You are here


The Changing Chaplaincy

The role of religious leaders on campus as the spiritual needs of students evolve.
University Business, Oct 2008

Yale University’s Sharon Kugler just hired a coordinator for Muslim life. Another of her program coordinators recently searched out a kosher-Chinese food restaurant in surrounding New Haven. One might expect tasks like those to fall under the job description of many a modern university administrator, but not necessarily for the holder of one of the oldest university chaplaincies in the country.

Welcome to the modern college chaplaincy. “We look different and the student population looks different,” Kugler says, reflecting on the changing criteria for choosing leaders of religious life at universities where the posts used to be formal, remote, male, and intensely Protestant. Kugler, a lay Catholic, came to her job as Yale’s chaplain last year after serving in the same capacity at Johns Hopkins University (Md.) since 1993. “People ask me, ‘Was it hard to be the first Catholic, the first layperson, the first woman?’” she says. “I call myself the ‘Nike chaplain.’ I just did it.”

Kugler and a new generation of university chaplains are answering the call for increased religious expression and spirituality on campus, a cultural turnabout highlighted in the results of a 2004 survey of 112,000 college freshmen nationwide. The study, entitled “The Spiritual Life of College Students” and carried out by the University of California, Los Angeles’s Higher Education Research Institute, found that 80 percent of those interviewed believed in God and had an interest in spirituality. A 2007 follow-up discovered that, as juniors, 55 percent of those students placed a premium on developing a meaningful philosophy of life and on attaining inner harmony, an almost 15 percent increase in both areas since freshman year. Sixty-seven percent added that they prayed daily.


Those numbers come as no surprise to Douglas and Rhonda Jacobsen, professors and researchers at Messiah College (Pa.), who earlier this year authored The American University in the Postsecular Age (Oxford University Press). “Religion is not disappearing in the way social theorists thought it would disappear. People are bringing their religion to campus,” says Douglas Jacobsen. “For a couple of decades, in the 1970s and ’80s, religion suffered from benign neglect. Schools are saying, ‘We need to start thinking about this again.’”

Jennifer Lindholm, the project manager of the UCLA studies, agrees. “There’s been a relatively strong disconnect between matters of the mind and the heart in higher education,” she says.

'People have realized in the past few years that religion provides meaning and sustenance, and that it has become an engine for a lot of really good things happening on campus.' -Mark Shiner, Colgate University

Mark Shiner, chaplain at Colgate University (N.Y.), says he’s seeing a different religious landscape than what existed for his predecessors for decades. “The faculty and staff tell me that religious life was really in a period of eclipse,” he says. “It was marginalized, and respectable people on the faculty didn’t talk about such things.”


Shiner adds that the UCLA findings surprised many of them. “A lot of the professors were just completely baffled. You could see the ground shaking under their feet,” he recalls. “But people have realized in the past few years that religion provides meaning and sustenance, and that it has become an engine for a lot of really good things happening on campus.”

The movement that is returning to campus, though, is a far cry from that old-time religion. For starters, a diverse set of beliefs is blossoming on today’s campuses, from Jewish and Christian to Muslim and Buddhist. The New York-based Social Science Research Council has done its own studies of religion on campus and has paid particular attention to the emergence of evangelical Christian groups. “The single most striking thing to me was the prominence of these groups at elite universities,” says SSRC president Craig Calhoun.

New York University, meanwhile, appointed Khalid Latif as its first resident Muslim chaplain last year, following schools such as Duke and many of those in the Ivy League in creating similar positions. Latif, who also served at Princeton, counts more than 2,000 members in NYU’s Muslim community, mostly American-born and largely African-American, along with those from Pakistan, India, and the Persian Gulf States. And he notes a growing tendency for these students to identify with their common religion above their national origins. Part of Latif’s mission has involved dealing with the perception of Muslims in the post-9/11 era. “There’s a lot of public relations involved because Islam is unique in how it might be covered by the media in this day and age,” says Latif, who regularly issues press releases on campus events and works with newspapers and TV stations.

The more diverse student body at today’s universities is also matriculating with a set of unprecedented needs. “There are an increasing number of students who are forthright in their religious practices and ask for accommodations, whether that means kosher options, Hindu vegetarianism, or in one recent case by a follower of Jainism, dining halls without any animal products at all,” reports Patricia Karlin-Neumann, a rabbi and Stanford University’s senior associate dean of religious life.

A number of schools also have installed foot-washing stations for devout Muslim students. And the SSRC’s Calhoun suggests that the influx of evangelicals may change some dynamics in residence halls. “They may be on the dorm floor trying to convert you,” he observes.

UCLA’s newly appointed dean of religious life, Varun Soni, oversees 35 religious directors who cover almost as many different religious constituencies. “The fact that I am Hindu is symbolic of this new diversity on campus and the desire to engage in interfaith dialogue,” he points out.

Many universities, in fact, are seizing on their new religious diversity to promote understanding across religions, and officials such as Latif and Soni are at the center of those efforts. “Many chaplains are seeing their role as much more of an arbiter to treat religions fairly,” says Rhonda Jacobsen. “On many campuses, the idea of interfaith dialogue is going to be more central to the chaplaincy.”

Latif maintains a close relationship with the NYU Jewish community. Last March a team of Muslim and Jewish students helped with rebuilding efforts in New Orleans. The trip was preceded by dialogue sessions led by Latif and the school’s Jewish chaplain, and the outcome was a new level of relationship. “Building and working together provided an opportunity for them to humanize one another,” Latif says. “They actually became friends.”

“One of the big surprises over the past three years has been a real desire by students for interfaith and multifaith programs,” agrees Shiner at Colgate. “We’ve been the engine for new thinking about collaboration on campus. We’ve given our religious organizations the space and money, and they consult with us and bring in their own speakers. The people in these communities now expect and understand that they are welcome. When people feel welcome, they’re willing to reach across religious and cultural divides.”

That willingness has resulted in plenty of collaboration, Shiner says, from joint Muslim-Jewish prayer services during the holidays to discussions between Catholics and Muslims about Pope Benedict’s messages about Islam. This fall, the dialogue was extended when Colgate opened its first interfaith house, designed to bring people of diverse religious beliefs into day-to-day contact with each other. “The idea is that there is a global imperative to get to know one another better and to emerge simultaneously more knowledgeable and compassionate,” Shiner explains. “That’s something really missing at universities that marginalize the chaplaincy. If you take the attitude of 20 years ago, you’re really missing a huge opportunity.”

Stanford’s efforts on the interfaith front include the new Center for Inter-Religious Community, Learning, and Experiences (CIRCLE). Offering an interfaith sanctuary, a student lounge, a seminar room, and a home base for campus religious groups, the facility is designated as “a safe haven for diversity, worship, ritual, meditation, reflection, and spiritual and intellectual growth.”


Stanford’s efforts are in line with a larger movement among higher ed institutions to accentuate the spiritual, rather than just the strictly religious, and to ask the big philosophical questions. Besides offering docent-led tours of the venerable Memorial Church, the Office for Religious Life has developed a campus tour called Sacred Stanford, which includes lesser-known spiritual locales such as the sculpture garden. The university also has restored the annual series “Harry’s Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life,” which was a fixture between the 1930s and 1950s and honored the legacy of the late professor Harry Rathburn by delving into values and beliefs.

There is a renewed awareness of the more personal role that campus spiritual leaders can play as well. “What students need sometimes are adults to accompany them and help them think through what matters in the world,” says Karlin-Neumann. “The opportunity to engage with this generation of students on their intellectual questions is an important part of what makes this work special and why we play an important part in this university.”

“The reality is that universities have to respond to the wishes of students to be mentored in spirituality,” says Rhonda Jacobsen. USC’s Soni sees “almost a spiritual marketplace on today’s campuses,” and even at traditionally religious institutions such as Roanoke College (Va.) the chaplaincy has taken a turn to meet the modern student. “The key phrase is ‘spiritual,’ not just ‘religious,’ ” says R. Paul Henrickson, who has been dean of the chapel for 26 years.

Students are also seeking a greater role in their lives for personal service and are turning to their schools’ religious leadership for help. “There’s more awareness of the world being a lot smaller than we thought it was,” says UCLA’s Lindholm. “There’s been a movement towards educating the whole person, and there’s a responsiveness at universities to what students are asking for and expecting.”

Karlin-Neumann sees a similar trend at Stanford. “There was a period when our regular surveys of students found that they were far more interested in making a good living,” she notes. “Now they are asking, ‘How do we help make the world a better place?’”

With the changes that have accrued to religious and spiritual life, universities have also faced the question of what to call those who minister to their constituencies, and not without some consternation. Starting in the 1980s, schools increasingly turned over those responsibilities to the newly named dean of religious life.

Besides holding that title, Karlin-Neumann is also president of the Association for College and University Religious Affairs.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion lately on how to train for the position of dean of religious life,” she says. “It’s not at all clear that the training you get in seminary has the vision and ideas to work in a university setting. It’s not a congregation.”

Colgate has debated over what to call Shiner’s office. “‘Dean of religious life’ makes sense to me given the pluralistic nature of what’s going on on campus,” he says. “Where I’m mildly suspicious is that at the core, what we do comes from a religious commitment, and I’m concerned that we don’t stray too far from religious faith.”

Yale’s chaplain Kugler says that while a deanship “opens the door even wider to the community, I’d fight like heck to keep the title of chaplain. There’s a richness and meaning to what that word means to people,” particularly, she adds, in the promise of refuge it offers.

And there are real administrative issues to consider as well, says Messiah’s Douglas Jacobsen, especially over whether to report to the university’s provost, the usual supervisor of the chaplaincy, or to the dean of students. “A number of chaplaincies are concerned about how their title affects their roles and how it is perceived in status and function,” Jacobsen notes.

Regardless of their titles, today’s religious leaders on campus share fundamentally the same mission, says Shiner. “The core of my job is what clergy have been doing for thousands of years—ministering to people who are suffering, leading worship, and encouraging people to go out and perform service.”

'If I were to hang up a shingle nowadays that said, "The chaplain is in," I'd be a very bored person. [Chaplains] used to have a more formal connection.' -R. Paul Henrickson, Roanoke College

But Shiner and his colleagues certainly follow a different schedule than their ancestors. “The old model was of an academic who was ordained and did Sunday chapel,” says Karlin-Neumann. “That approach only worked if everyone attended chapel. Most of the work we do today takes place outside the confines of the church. That’s where the students are.”

Henrickson at Roanoke College has experienced that change firsthand since he took his position more than 25 years ago, when attendance at chapel was required. “If I were to hang up a shingle nowadays that said, ‘The chaplain is in,’ I’d be a very bored person,” he concedes. “We used to have a more formal connection. Now we have to engage students.”

“The trick for a chaplain today is to position yourself to have good moments, not just in the pulpit but late at night,” offers Yale’s Kugler. “There are so many pulse points in religious life.”

Ron Schachter is a Boston-based freelance writer.