Season 6 - Episode 604
Baylor’s Faith and Character Study has yielded insights into student spiritual development that have led to greater understanding and tangible changes to better serve students. Kevin Dougherty, professor of sociology and co-director of the study, takes listeners inside the study on this Baylor Connections, sharing what factors really make a difference in helping students grow spiritually.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are talking about the spiritual life and development of students as we visit with Kevin Dougherty. Kevin Dougherty serves as professor of sociology and graduate program director in Baylor's department of Sociology. An award-winning teacher and researcher, Dougherty's research experience explores religious affiliation, religious participation, racial diversity in congregations, congregational growth and decline, the impact of religion on other realms of social life and much more. He serves as co-director along with Sarah Schnitker and Perry Glanzer of the ongoing Baylor Faith and Character study, which has provided scholars with data about the spiritual life of students and has led to tangible actions at Baylor to serve students' spiritual development. A lot going on, a lot of really fascinating projects that we've got to talk to you about in the past. And now again today, Dr. Kevin Dougherty, thanks so much for joining us today.
Kevin Dougherty:Pleasure to be here.
Derek Smith:Always good to have you here. And as we talk about the spiritual development of students, obviously at a university with a faith foundation like Baylor, that's certainly an important topic, but it's not just Baylor that you look at as we'll talk more as time goes on. But to you, how fascinating of a topic is that? What aspects of it really intrigue you as you dive in?
Kevin Dougherty:Well, I'm interested in students as whole people, mind, body and spirit, not just a brain on a head that is in my class. And so helping students to grow in their faith is profoundly important to me and to Baylor University. And so it's just a unique opportunity for me to bring my worlds together in terms of my teaching and my research and being at Baylor to do something that is both interesting and meaningful for me and for the university that I serve.
Derek Smith:This isn't something where you can measure a number or this is not data that is just easily accessible. What do you enjoy about the challenge of trying to mine into that?
Kevin Dougherty:Well, it is, it's a unique challenge because unlike other things that we measure at universities like academic performance and retention and graduation and donor dollars, the growth in a student's spiritual life and religious development, how they change in terms of character and virtue, these are much harder to measure but also very important to measure correctly. And so what we've done is create a mixed method approach to where students are giving us a variety of sources of information. So we're not just having them check boxes on a survey form, although that's part, we're also speaking to students when they arrive at campus, their first semester, after they've been here for two years, as graduating seniors and then again after they've been out from the university as alumni over a period of time. And so that combination of their responses on survey instruments that are carefully crafted as well as the interview data that we collect really give us a rich source of information to understand what's happening in their lives.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Kevin Dougherty, talking about the Baylor Faith and Character study. And take us back a bit, if you would. Where did this study come from? How did it develop?
Kevin Dougherty:Well, the early conversations about the Baylor Faith and Character study began in the fall of 2017, and it was commissioned by the Baylor Board of Regents. And so I was one of several faculty members that had been doing research on American religious life, Christian higher education that were brought together, and Dr. Perry Glanzer was the director and continues to direct the project. And then pretty quickly myself with Dr. Glanzer, we had a new faculty member that joined us, Dr. Sarah Schnitker in from the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience that also came and participated in the development of the project. So we started conversations in the fall of 2017 and started developing our research design, decided on doing multi method with survey and interviews. Dr. Glanzer's expertise is qualitative research interviews, and by the fall of 2018, we started data collection. So part of what makes this so valuable is that Dr. Glanzer's training is in moral education. He's in the School of Education at Baylor. He's one of the leading experts in the world today on Christian higher education. Dr. Schnitker is a psychologist. She studies character and virtue formation, particularly in adolescence. And I'm a sociologist of religion. I study religious organizations, expertise in surveys on religion. So the combination of our skills and our backgrounds made for a really unique and valuable team to drive this project. And the results have been terrific, not only for us as scholars, but for Baylor University.
Derek Smith:How much fun is it for you to be able to sort of mine their areas of expertise that are different than yours? And I'm assuming they enjoy the same as well as they visit with you?
Kevin Dougherty:Yes, our conversations are interesting because we look at faith development from different angles. So Perry Glanzer in terms of the faith formation as a part of a larger moral development of people. And I'm interested in as a sociologist in groups and structures. So what is it about a place like Baylor University or the congregations that our students are involved with as groups that lead to changes in their identity? And then Dr. Schnitker, Sarah, she's delightful in all sorts of ways, but she has such a rich background and understanding of matters of character and virtue. And so the conversations that we have are enlightening to me as well as valuable for moving this project forward.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Kevin Dougherty. And when you think about this project, when you think about higher education and the research that's available on a topic like this, how much of a void does this fill? How much is there out there for you to begin with?
Kevin Dougherty:Well, Baylor is a very unique university, a research one, high activity research level university, but one that also retains its historic connection to a faith tradition and faith development of students. So there are not a lot of universities doing what we're trying to do, and that makes the project both exciting but also pioneering. And so what we have attempted to do with these mixed methods is start to trace students over time to see what happens not only in the four years they're with us at Baylor, but in the years after they're gone in terms of the way they think about their faith, the way they practice their faith, how character develops and changes. And so as I'd mentioned before, universities measure all sorts of things. Very few measure faith and character to the extent that we do. And so what we're doing is a pioneering effort that we hope other faith-based colleges and universities will learn from and replicate on their campuses.
Derek Smith:Kevin, let's dive into some of the questions, the approaches. Take us inside. Obviously we've only got about 20 minutes. I'm sure there's a lot of directions you could go, but what are some of the ways that maybe stand out to you as being those inroads to get to understand where students are coming from?
Kevin Dougherty:Yes. Well, so on the survey instrument, we have students do two surveys and we have them do them at three points in time. So there's a very short religion survey that new students take in their first week on campus at Baylor. And it asks questions about religious beliefs including core Christian beliefs about God, Jesus and the Bible. It asks questions about religious practices. How frequently you do you attend services at a place of worship? How often do you read the Bible? How often do you pray? And also questions about religious identity. How do you identify your faith? With what religious group are you affiliated? That is one section. And the students... And that survey is done online, eight to 10 minutes, and has had a very high response rate. At the end of that survey is a question that said, "Would you be willing to participate in a longer survey on issues of character?" And a subset of students every fall of those new student, they do. And that is a much longer survey instrument using psychological scales, measuring character and virtue, including scales for gratitude, humility, patience, forgiveness, trying to tap into those character elements that we're also interested in. So we administer that to new students in their first week on campus, juniors in the summer before their junior year, seniors in their final semester at Baylor, and then alumni who have graduated and been away from the university for 10 years. And up until now, those have been separate groups. But this spring for the first time, that fall 2018 incoming class that took that first religion and character survey, we now have data from them as juniors and seniors as well. So we're able to start looking not only how do the first year students look different than seniors or alumni, but how do students change, the same students during their time at Baylor?
Derek Smith:How valuable is that longitudinal aspect going to be to you?
Kevin Dougherty:It's critical for what we want to know and to see what happens. Because we're not only interested in how students change, we're interested in why. What are the aspects of Baylor University? What parts of campus life contribute to these changes in faith formation and character development? Which are positive and which are negative. These are all important parts of this project.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Kevin Dougherty, professor of sociology and graduate program director at Baylor's department of Sociology, talking about the Baylor Faith and Character study. And Kevin, on the character side, you gave us a few questions talking about students and their faith background, where they're coming in. Any questions that come to mind, if I were filling out the survey, that you might ask to try to determine my character formation during my time at Baylor?
Kevin Dougherty:Well, the character survey takes about 30 minutes to complete. So there are a lot of items on there about a range of virtues, and then also questions about wellbeing, anxiety, depression, and so those are valuable. But we've also, over time from what we've seen in these surveys is we've changed our interview script. So some of the things that the interviews are able to get at for us is what is it about attending a local place of worship that makes that a valuable experience in terms of faith and character development for students? So allowing students to talk about within a place of worship within a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, what is it that they're getting that really impacts their soul and character in meaningful ways? And then from the interviews as well, we just have a series of really fascinating questions on how students think about purpose and the good life. And we've learned so much about how students define that coming into Baylor and when they leave. And also we've identified some potential gaps in Baylor's education on some of those fronts.
Derek Smith:With that, I know we've seen tangibly, Baylor has taken some of this data and used it to impact the way they serve students. Chapel being one. When you do this survey, how much of that was that applied thing and how much of it's a scholarly side because there's both as we'll talk about.
Kevin Dougherty:That's right. Well, from the start, the research was intended to feed decision making at Baylor University. How can we do a better job in living out our mission as a university? But also as scholars, as researchers, we were interested in not only sharing this with Baylor administrators and regents, but in communicating with others that are doing research in these areas what we're learning about faith and character development at Baylor in the broader intellectual community. And now chapel, that was interesting. Early on in the first survey, year one, year two, in general, students are pretty pleased with most parts of their Baylor education and were pretty positive in terms of how a different aspects of Baylor shaped their faith and their character. Chapel stood out as one that a sizable percentage of students said, "This is actually detrimental to my faith development." And you might think, "Well, that's students that come to Baylor that don't have a religious background and they're unhappy about having to go to a religious service." Yes, those students expressed that, but so did our religious students. For them, chapel wasn't religious enough. And so for those students that were religious, and those students that were not, chapel was not meeting their needs. Now, with that discovery year after year, we're seeing that a quarter of seniors telling us that chapel was negatively impacting their faith development. Also, at that same time, covid happened. And we could not gather together all of our first year students in Waco Hall for mass meetings in a safe way with social distancing. And so the combination of those two things, the information we were getting from seniors on our survey and also in our interviews with covid, led to a radical restructuring of chapel. And so now instead of one large universal, one size fits all chapel experience, we have a whole range of breakout chapels giving students choices on how they encounter faith and spiritual growth, and then putting them in smaller groups to do that. And the early evidence about chapel and the negative backlash that we'd seen, we haven't heard any of that since the roll out of the breakout chapels. They've been very well received and the impact, we anticipate being very positive.
Derek Smith:Kind of a small group approach in some cases where they have common interests or they're going into the same jobs or the same profession or the same callings down the line. And I guess there's that more interaction, a little more engagement in that kind of setting. Is that right?
Kevin Dougherty:Yeah, that's right. And in reality, that's part of what makes religious life in the United States so fruitful and why we have as a country, higher levels of religious participation than many other countries in the world. It's the sheer number of religious options that are available. Living in Waco, Texas, if I'm Baptist and I don't like the Baptist church that's near my house, no problem.
Derek Smith:There's one or two others, right?
Kevin Dougherty:There's 125 other options. And so having choices in finding a place to plant yourself and to grow spiritually turns out to make a big difference, not only in our choices of a place to worship when we're adults, but also for our students in choosing how to grow spiritually while they're at Baylor.
Derek Smith:Well, I imagine as you dive into the nuances of students' faith backgrounds, where they come in, I think when we look at Baylor now and you see how much more of a national university it is, it's still plenty of students from Texas and Baptist backgrounds, but it's not as high a percentage. But I'm assuming you even go back when you talk to students who people might think of as having a homogenous background. There's still a lot of little nuances and ticks and differences that speak into that idea that one size doesn't fit all.
Kevin Dougherty:Absolutely. So our students come from a range of backgrounds. As Baylor has grown and the reputation of Baylor's grown, our population has changed. We have fewer students now from Texas than we had before, although Texas is still our bedrock in terms of where we're taking students from, but also the reasons that people come to Baylor. Baylor is not a Baptist liberal arts college. We're a national research university in the Christian tradition. And so our students come for that, but they also come for the strength of the academic programs. And maybe they'll tolerate the faith commitment because they want to go to med school or law school, and they know that Baylor will help them get there. For all of those students, we want to be a place that they grow spiritually, and that'll look different for each student depending on where they start. But finding a way to help these students from diverse backgrounds think about their faith and grow in their faith in a way that's meaningful and authentic and transformative is always going to be a challenge for Baylor, particularly as we grow as a research university.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Kevin Dougherty, talking about Baylor's Faith and Character study. And Kevin, there's the aspect that's very tangible here at Baylor that we've discussed, and I'm sure there'll be other ways Baylor can implement that down the line. There's also a scholarly aspect to it. This is data that, as we talked about earlier, hasn't been out there. What are some of the ways it's being used either by your students, by other scholars, outside? What are some ways that this is going to be useful?
Kevin Dougherty:Well, from the very beginning, we've had students involved with this project. Students have participated in data collection, data analysis, and writing the results and presenting the results at academic conferences. So students are not only the subject of our study, but they're also the participants in the process of executing the study. The research that we've generated already... And it's ongoing, so we haven't finished data collection. We're continuing every year to collect data from new students and seniors and alumni... Have produced two master's theses, two doctoral dissertations, eight journal articles, and of those eight journal articles, five are co-authored with students, undergraduate students and graduate students and two books. And so on the scholarly front, we are eager to share what we're learning at Baylor University on how do you impact a student's faith and character. But as we talked about with chapel and with a variety of other ways, what we're seeing, we speak regularly to the student life staff, to the chaplain's office, to the president's cabinet, to the Board of Regents on what we're learning about Baylor students' faith and character, and what we can do better in terms of shaping both in positive directions. So it is as it was from the beginning with focused on an applied and a scholarly side. It continues to be shaping not only the ideas and how we understand faith and learning among emerging adults in universities like Baylor, but also what can we do better at Baylor to live out our mission.
Derek Smith:As you look ahead here for the study, I'm sure you find something that leads to another question, another path you can take. What are some questions that have risen from that, whether you or Dr. Glanzer, Dr. Schnitker, that y'all are excited to follow next? What do you see when you look ahead?
Kevin Dougherty:Well, there's lots of exciting potential for the future. Like any research project, you start and then you develop as many questions as you go on, as you end up answering. So I am particularly interested in issues of belonging. Who finds belonging? How is belonging cultivated at Baylor University? That's one area. We also have a new project in the works studying the impact of Baylor fraternities and sororities in virtue development. And that is one that we're in conversations with other colleges and universities, including many that are not faith-based about what the role of virtue development in their fraternities and sororities. The Baylor Faith and Character study has already made a big splash, not only at Baylor, but it was the origins of a large project now that's being extended to other universities, faith based and non-faith based, looking at how can colleges universities positively impact their students in terms of their religious life, in terms of their virtue formation. And so we're part of a larger project now funded by a large grant from the John Templeton Foundation to extend our work that started here in Waco to campuses across the United States to see what we can learn together.
Derek Smith:Well, that's going to be exciting as you see that grow. Is this something, I assume there's not just an end date. You could get multi-generational as time goes on. You could probably go a lot of different ways for comparison and contrast.
Kevin Dougherty:Absolutely. We've set something into motion that doesn't have an expiration date, and so we will continue to collect data. We make these data available to other scholars. We have people that are engaged with us now, students at Baylor, but also outside in helping us analyze, but also to take what we've learned and the instruments that we've created and to put them to use on their campuses. And so we would love to see, particularly other faith-based universities use those same instruments and then let us pool the data that we've collected to find out how is Christian higher education in the United States of America impacting students? Are there particular types of colleges and universities based on size or a region of the country or religious affiliation that are doing a better job? These are all things with more data that we'll be able to answer, and we're excited to be a part of that type of ongoing project.
Derek Smith:Well, we'll look forward to seeing that grow. It's exciting to see some of the ways it's had an impact already. I know it's going to provide plenty of topics that we can have you and your colleagues on the project and elsewhere, others who utilize this because we've seen that come and talk about it. So thanks so much for taking the time today. Really excited to share this.
Kevin Dougherty:Pleasure to be here.
Derek Smith:Thank you very much. Dr. Kevin Dougherty, professor of Sociology, graduate program director in Baylor's department of Sociology, and the co-director of the ongoing Baylor Faith and Character study, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections. You can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.