Recent Events on Campus – Prayer at Widener Ceremonies

Prayer at Widener Ceremonies: SHSP Deans’ Luncheon Conversationmedina-valley-high-school-graduation-PRAYER

On November 26th, 2012, thirteen faculty members attended the SHSP Dean’s Diversity Luncheon to discuss the issue of prayer at Widener ceremonies, and in particular, the prayer that occurs at both Freshman Convocation and at Commencement ceremonies – typically invocation and benediction prayers led by the university chaplain or an external religious figure. This issue had emerged out of committee discussion at the Diversity Council and so Dean Silver invited SHSP faculty to discuss the issue at the luncheon.

The conversation began with discussion about how public and private universities may differ on the issue and how separation of church and state is ambiguous even in public settings – as one participant pointed out, sessions of Congress often open with ‘prayer.’ This led to an interesting and important discussion of how prayer is defined – does a moment of silence qualify? Does mentioning of a supreme being or asking for a blessing involve prayer? Some faculty members present were interested in examining the actual text used at graduation. Others pointed out that the benediction at graduation has in the past been led by an Islamic cleric, other times by a Christian (the university Chaplain), but that it has referred only to a creator rather than any specific doctrine or creed.

This led to a vibrant dialogue about inclusion. How do members of our community who are atheist feel at such events? How do members of religious faith feel generally in the Widener community, where discussion of religion and spirituality tends to be under-emphasized or ignored in many other university settings? What does it mean to be inclusive and tolerant given these different constraints?

Another line of discussion involved the decision-making process related to these aspects of commencement and convocation. Who determines that these are important aspects of these events? Are they for parents or students? Does the board or administration mandate their inclusion? This led to reflection of whether faculty ought to take a position and whether SHSP ought to put forward a position as part of the faculty governance process. While there were differing perspectives held by faculty on whether prayer at university events was positive, negative, or necessary, there appeared to be a consensus that this issue requires additional dialogue. A discussion of the purpose, decision-making authority, and faculty role in shaping such ceremonies was suggested as a next step, and that the results of the luncheon discussion be shared with the university Faculty Affairs committee. There was also discussion of surveying faculty opinions more broadly and understanding how to best represent the views of SHSP faculty.

As a follow-up, since the discussion last fall, President James Harris has clarified that the content and format of commencement is determined administratively through his office, although there is a campus committee that is involved in planning. Additionally, the university Faculty Affairs committee has undertaken a university faculty survey (sent out by Dawn Gulick to SHSP faculty) to understand better the position of all faculty on this issue.

The discussion at the luncheon was vivacious and energetic, with lots of engagement between those present. What are your thoughts?