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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education

Event Recap

On November 8-9, 2012, the Boisi Center helped to organize a major academic symposium on “Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education,” in honor of Boston College’s Sesquicentennial. Co-organized by Boisi Center Associate Director Erik Owens and Boisi Professor of Education and Public Policy Henry Braun, the conference gathered fifteen influential scholars for rigorous reflection on the nature of the academy, the place of religion, and the future of liberal education.

Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University, set the conference tone with an opening keynote that argued for a space for religious institutions in the middle ground of higher education. Both prescriptive and descriptive, his talk challenged conference participants and the whole BC community to recommit to the liberal arts.

The first panel discussion, moderated by author and Vanity Fair editor Cullen Murphy, offered an historical overview of the shifts away from religion and liberal education in the academy. Historians Andrew Delbanco (Columbia University), Mark Noll (University of Notre Dame) and Julie Reuben (Harvard Graduate School of Education) contributed expertise in different periods of American history and provided their own visions of a fruitful future for religious reflection on college campuses.

Mark Massa, S.J., Dean of Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, moderated the second panel, which brought together three current college presidents, John Jenkins, C.S.C. (University of Notre Dame), Jane McAuliffe (Bryn Mawr), and Philip Ryken (Wheaton College). All three reflected on the distinct ways in which their institutions’ religious communities contributed essential resources to the project of liberal education, often at the most fundamental levels. Each also spoke about the unique challenges of attending to religious diversity within a context of religious commitment.

Richard Morrill, former president of the University of Richmond and current president of the Teagle Foundation, delivered a lunchtime keynote address that focused on defining the value of the liberal arts in more than just economic terms. He called for a greater attention to life’s “big questions” at colleges and universities, rejecting as incomplete any tendency to dismiss the potential answers found in religious traditions.

The final panel, moderated by New York Times columnist Mark Oppenheimer, explored the ongoing tensions inherent in pursuing the aims of liberal education alongside religious commitments. Author Susan Jacoby joined Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel and Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff to consider ways to balance the particularity of faith convictions amid the diversity of a pluralized academy and world, outlining opportunities for religious institutions to contribute to the common good.

Boston College president William P. Leahy, S.J. delivered the closing remarks. Emphasizing the crucial need for vision, mission and leadership at religious universities, his comments laid the foundation for a continuing implementation of the conference’s insights at Boston College.