WASHINGTON (RNS) — Like most college presidents, Ari Berman and Hamza Yusuf care about giving their students the best education possible in the classroom.
They also want to support their students' rights as people of faith.
Faith-based schools help students “to contextualize our lives in a greater mission, to have a sense of holiness about everything that we do,” Berman, president of Yeshiva University in New York, told a gathering of Christian college presidents in the nation's capital last week (Feb. 1).
The Yeshiva University president's comments prompted an “Amen” from an audience member.
Berman and Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College in California, took part in an interfaith panel focused on what faith-based schools from diverse backgrounds have in common. The panel, which also included presidents of Mormon, Catholic and Protestant schools, took place at the end of the Presidents Conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, an evangelical consortium of more than 180 schools.
Like their counterparts, both Zaytuna College and Yeshiva University aim to reinforce their religious traditions to a younger generation as they educate them in fields of study ranging from liberal arts to law, their presidents said.
They defended their institutions as alternatives for students of faith who may be met with hostility from college professors at secular schools who consider their religion to be superstition or fellow students who don’t understand their beliefs.
“For me, just having safe places where people that actually are devotional can come to and not be offended,” said Yusuf, “I think that’s extremely important.”
Brigham Young University President Kevin J. Worthen also spoke of the connection between faith and learning.
“Our goal at Brigham Young University is not simply to prepare students for their first job — though that is not unimportant to them or us,” he said. “And it’s not even to prepare them for their last job. It’s to prepare them for their eternal destiny.”
Although attendees hailed the unusual gathering as historic, more than one panelist noted that connections between great thinkers across faiths dates to medieval times.
Regis University President John Fitzgibbons, the leader of a Catholic school in Denver, and Yusuf noted that Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas benefited from the teachings of Muslim philosophers Averroes and Avicenna, who interpreted Aristotle’s theories.
Berman provided a fresher example of academicians making connections across faiths.
Soon after he became president of Yeshiva in 2017, he sought out Worthen — as well as the presidents of Fordham University and Catholic University of America — to compare notes with colleagues of other faith-based institutions.
“That’s why I’m here,” he said at a media lunch after the discussion of his acceptance of CCCU’s invitation. “It was from those conversations that, when I was invited, I thought this is the kind of room that I want to be in.”
Yusuf told RNS that he has attended religious freedom events sponsored by evangelical Christians.
“Religion’s under siege right now, and religious liberty is being challenged,” he said in an interview. “I think Christian colleges and Christian institutions are realizing the necessity for alliances.”
Fitzgibbons welcomed Yusuf’s description of religion-related colleges being needed as safe spaces for people of faith. But he added that he believes they also should be places where all questions are allowed, including debates related to LGBTQ rights.
“We are all created in the image and likeness of our God — all of us. So how do we get there?’’ he asked. “If that conversation doesn’t happen in the university, then that university should not exist. I say that humbly, but I really mean that.”
Shirley Mullen, president of Houghton College, a Wesleyan Church-sponsored school in western New York state, said she thinks all of the presidents should work to affirm the value of faith-based education within the overall offerings in higher education.
“All of us today in our own ways have spoken about this kind of education that does not require students to leave behind their fundamental moral and spiritual conviction as they deepen their intellectual understanding,” she said.
Other college presidents — on the panel and off — said that, in a polarized country, it was beneficial to focus on where people leading faith-based colleges and universities can agree despite their different theologies.
“There’s far more that we have in common,” Fitzgibbons told RNS in an interview after the panel discussion. “It doesn’t mean the differences are not really important. They are. They need to be reverenced by everybody. But we’re all looking for true meaning. We’re all in that search.”