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Exploring BU's religious diversity

Jan. 20, 2010

By Caty Hirst
Staff Writer

If given the opportunity, Baylor would not hire Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft. Baylor would not hire James Watson, a co-discoverer of DNA, or Stephen Hawking, a leading physicist in quantum cosmology. Why? Because these great men are not Christians or Jews.

Some members of the Baylor community believe the lack of religious diversity in the faculty could detract from students' learning experiences. In contrast, others feel the faculty's unity on religion represents Baylor's mission as a Baptist university.

Dr. Chris Van Gorder, assistant professor of world religions and Islamic studies, believes students should have the opportunity to learn from professors of other faith traditions.

"It is problematic because students miss valuable opportunities to learn directly from people of other faith traditions," Van Gorder said. "And as Christians we have nothing to fear when it comes to seeking the truth."

San Diego sophomore Suzanna Nelson came to Baylor to join the equestrian team and regrets that Baylor offers so few opportunities to expand her global mindset.

"At the end of the day, I came to college to get a well-rounded education and by having an all Judeo-Christian faculty, I feel that I am missing out on other global perspectives that would be helpful to a well rounded liberal education," Nelson said.

However, Dr. James Bennighof, vice provost for academic affairs and policy, said Baylor desires to hire people from Judeo-Christian backgrounds to help to provide a Christian perspective on a wide variety of topics.

"I think that we view Baylor as a community, much of which is based on our faith identity," Bennighof said. "And for professors to have the ability to be in conversation with one another and with students about faith related issues is very important to us."

Bennighof stresses how important it is for professors to be able to walk students through difficult faith-related issues.

Dr. William Bellinger, chair of the department of religion, believes religious identity is vital to the growth of students and having Judeo-Christian professors to help students with their religious identity is a necessity.

Bellinger said the role of the university is not limited to ensuring students have a well-rounded education, but also in making sure they find their own identity. He believes Baylor does both.

"At the end of the day, education is about transforming persons and it seems to me that the university has made this a priority," Bellinger said.

Since Baylor offers a Christian perspective to American academia, and since Baylor's student body is primarily Christian, Dr. Chris Marsh, director of the Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, feels it is necessary for Baylor to have a predominantly Christian faculty.

"Baylor professors are given the responsibility of broadening the intellectual horizons of a student body that is predominantly Christian," Marsh said. "To do that, I think it is imperative that the professors and the students see eye to eye and the professors have trod the same path the students are now trodding."

In addition, some faculty members believe Baylor offers an uncommon form of diversity.

"I think we are religiously diverse," Marsh said. "There are two ways we are religiously diverse. One is who we are. Christian is a blanket term. For example, I am the first non-Baptist director of this institute. We also have on our faculty [at the Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies], a Catholic, a Lutheran and an Eastern Orthodox. We have great diversity in the Christian religion."

However, Dr. Marc Ellis, director for the Center for Jewish Studies, believes Baylor does not offer enough religious diversity, including diversity in Christian theology.

"We severely lack diversity in Christian voices," Ellis said. "We need to offer that diversity so that our Christian students can explore the many ways of being Christian in our globalized world."

Ellis said Baylor has few professors from a liberation theology background and women professors who profess to be feminists.

"Diversity is not just about Jews, Muslims and Hindus, but also the kinds of Christianity represented in the life of the university," Ellis stressed.

Even though Baylor only hires professors from Judeo-Christian faiths, Marsh believes Baylor can offer religious diversity because it has many experts on different religions.

"We ourselves may come from a strongly Christian and strongly Protestant background in our faculty, but we bring knowledge and respect to all other religious traditions to our students," Marsh said. "What better way for our students to be introduced to and shown respect for different - even exotic - religious traditions than by someone who shares similar religious beliefs with them?"

Honolulu graduate student Jon Mizuta is doing his work in church-state studies and has studied Islam, Buddhism and Shinto at Baylor. Mizuta believes it is helpful for Baylor students to learn about different faiths from Christian experts on the faith, because they had the same questions about it many students may have.

"I think it has its benefits when you learn it from Christian professors because they have wrestled with these issues as well and still come out with their faith," Mizuta said.

However, Mizuta does acknowledge there are downfalls to only having professors from a Judeo-Christian background.

"You learn the religion second hand," Mizuta said. "There is just something unique about learning a religion from someone who firmly believes it."

In addition, Bellinger believes Baylor offers a special area of diversity to the college spectrum across America. It is easy, Bellinger said, to find liberal arts colleges that value a religiously diverse faculty over a unified religious mission. In contrast, it is hard to find universities that offer a Christian education like Baylor.

Another con to limiting the religions Baylor can hire is that it restricts the applicant pool.

Bellinger said the religion department has its own problems, as it only hires Baptists.

"The truth of the matter, that does lead us to struggle sometimes in some areas in the terms of attracting a large pool of qualified applicants," Bellinger said. "But in my view, it is worth struggling with that to find just the right people who can contribute to the mission of the university."

In addition, many professors and students are drawn to Baylor because of its Christian mission.

One of the primary reasons Bellinger made Baylor his home was its Christian mission and Marsh believes the majority of faculty at Baylor chose it for the same reason.

Ellis said he was also attracted to Baylor's religious mission, but believes there should be changes.

"I think Baylor should have an expansive Christian mission," Ellis said. "It should be more inclusive of diverse Christian communities and perspectives. Baylor should represent a Christianity that embraces the people and religions of the world."

Bellinger said Baylor is upfront about its Christian mission, and faculty and students are aware of this mission before they decide to join the Baylor community.

"I see that the university has been very straightforward and announced its commitments," Bellinger said. "It says very clearly the Judeo-Christian religion is central to that."

Van Gorder feels there is a solution to the lack of diversity at Baylor while still upholding its Christian mission.

"I believe we should maintain a strong majority of scholars from a Christian perspective," Van Gorder said. "However, there are certainly classes where someone from another faith tradition would not negatively affect the learning experience of the student and there are probably some academic contexts where students would benefit from adherence to other faiths."

Random Facts: Box maybe?

Baylor can legally discriminate based on religion due to the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Baylor Policy for recruitment and employment states "Baylor University has the right to discriminate on religious grounds in the hiring of its employees. It makes a good faith effort to administer all recruitment policies in a manner so as to maximize the diversity of the applicant pool."

Out of Baylor's 903 faculty members, 393 are Baptist, 99 are Catholic, 60 are Presbyterian and 79 are Methodist. Other faculty members are Church of Christ, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Nondenominational, and various other Christian denominations.

The Baylor student body comprises 5,411 Baptist, 2,014 Catholics, 2,011 nondenominational Christians, 1,189 Methodist and 2,572 other Christians.