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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Reflecting, with Gratitude, on My Years at the Boisi Center

BY ERIK OWENS, MAY 2018

Erik Owens headshot

As I head into the final weeks of my job here at the Boisi Center, I am immensely grateful for the opportunity I have had these past twelve years to shape and be shaped by the work we have done at the intersection of religion and public life. A few thoughts come to mind as parting words.

First, I believe in our mission, now more than ever:The Boisi Center is committed to fostering rigorous, civil, and constructive conversations about religion in American public life, in pursuit of the common good of a religiously diverse society. We bring exceptional scholarship into dialogue with engaged citizenship and the creative arts, in order to produce meaningful exchanges that inform, challenge, and inspire. In so doing we support Boston College's Jesuit and Catholic commitment to education that shapes minds and souls alike for service to others.

I’m proud of the work we have done over the last twelve years amidst turbulent events around the world, across the United States, and here in Boston. We have tried to humanize the global refugee crisis, bring voices together across racial divides, examine Catholic intellectual traditions, reflect on the Boston Marathon bombing and the tenth anniversary of 9/11, talk about citizenship and civic virtue in the age of Trump, reinvigorate the role of religion in liberal arts education, and so much more. (Since I arrived in 2006 we have hosted more than 225 public events, including conferences, lectures, panels, lunch colloquia, and town halls; published the Boisi Center Papers and a book from our conference on gambling; hosted a dozen seminars for BC faculty and/or grad students; and taught our usual roster of grad and undergrad courses.) At our best, I think we accomplish the mission we set for ourselves, at least for that moment, before we must try to do it again and again, in a consistent pattern that eventually forms generative habits of scholarship and citizenship.

Second, I believe in the importance of academic centers as sites for public scholarship and civic engagement. It has been one of my great pleasures here at the Boisi Center to connect with scholars doing related work at other centers on religion and public life around the world. The traditional academic ecosystem is under serious strain, and centers like ours are well-situated to do work that impacts many publics inside and outside the academic community. This is why we hosted the first international summit of centers on religion and public life here at Boston College in 2017, and established a network of such centers that will continue in the years ahead. And as tenure-track faculty positions continue to decline, there will be more and more scholarly work generated from interdisciplinary academic centers that can host visiting faculty, postdocs, professors of the practice, etc. Combined with a mission to advance the common good, I think academic centers like ours are crucial.

Finally, I have loved working with my many colleagues over the years at the Boisi Center. Alan Wolfe had the place humming with activity long before I arrived, but we ramped things up and kept building over the next ten years before he retired; I really appreciate his support and encouragement throughout it all. Susan Richard has been a consistently fun and expert colleague—her bureaucratic jiu-jitsu has made so many good things happen here—and I look forward to trading stories with her about our families and pets for many years to come. Mark Massa has been a generous colleague this year as he has taken the reins and set a new course for the Boisi Center’s very bright future. I have also deeply valued my relationship with our founding patron, Geoff Boisi, whose passion for this work got the whole enterprise started. Perhaps the best part of my job, though, has been working with and mentoring a host of amazing graduate and undergraduate research assistants over the years (including our Dream Team in 2017-18!). I now join the Boisi Center alumni club that we started so long ago to keep in touch.

When I was invited by the dean to become director of BC’s International Studies Program, I knew it was a great opportunity to shape the future of a program I love and have served as a core ethics faculty member for ten years. My focus in that role will naturally shift toward the student experience, our new curriculum, our growing faculty, and the university’s global engagement initiatives. But you’ll still find me in the front row of Boisi Center events in coming years, a believer in its mission, a supporter of its work, and an admirer of its terrific staff and student workers. I leave with deep gratitude to them and to all the scholars who have contributed to our work.