Anywhere But Earl
The Hazy Role of the Office of the University Chaplain
On a Wednesday night in February, twelve people sit around a table in the choir room in the basement of St. Paul’s Chapel. They gathered for Common Meal, a semi-regular event run by the Office of the University Chaplain (OUC), meant to unite students of various faith traditions to discuss the role that religion and spirituality play in their lives. There are three problems, though: 1) the topic of the dinner has little to do with religion or spirituality, 2) of the twelve people, more than half work for the Chaplain’s office, and 3) Chaplain Jewelnel Davis is absent.
Introduction to the Office
Appointed in 1996, Jewelnel Davis is Columbia’s University Chaplain and director of the Earl Hall Center. The first University Chaplain since the office was disbanded in 1969 (which Professor Robert McCaughey theorizes is due to the office’s support for student activists in 1968), Chaplain Davis has had the luxury and responsibility of creating her own job description. An Associate Provost, her only superiors are Provost John Coatsworth and President Lee Bollinger, which grants her a great deal of institutional authority and freedom. Unfortunately, though, it seems that over the course of her long tenure, this has yielded a sense of passivity, limiting her engagement with students and preventing the development of consistent, centralized interfaith and intercultural programming facilitated by her office.
The Earl Hall Center comprises three main organizations: Community Impact, the Religious Life Advisors, and the Office of the University Chaplain. Community Impact has its own director and staff, and the Chaplain’s role there is simply advisory. Religious Life Advisors (RLA) from twelve faiths advise student religious groups, including a Buddhist campus ministry, Chabad, Hillel, Columbia Catholic Ministry, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and others. These advisors are paid by outside organizations—for example, the rabbis are paid by Hillel and Chabad, and the Catholic priest by the Diocese—and most do not work on campus full time. Finally, the Office of the University Chaplain, which includes the Chaplain herself and a small staff of paid professionals and students, promotes interfaith and intercultural awareness on campus. They do this by running Common Meals and occasional Chaplain’s Teas, and by issuing grants for programs run by student groups that explicitly promote its ultimate mission of interfaith and intercultural awareness. Chaplain Davis is also responsible for the operations of St. Paul’s Chapel, including the Music at St. Paul’s weekly program.
I have been involved in religious life on campus since the moment I stepped foot at Columbia. An Orthodox Jew, I immediately affiliated with Hillel, which has been the focal point of my religious and social experience on campus. And yet, at the beginning of my senior spring, I realized that the extent of my interaction with the Office of the Chaplain has been walking around Earl Hall to exit campus from the 117th street gates each day. At first, I assumed that the reason for this is the existence of the Kraft Center. But from conversations I’ve had with students of other faiths, I realized that Hillel is not the only religious group to have little interaction with the Chaplain. While other religious groups interact with their specific religious life advisors, most students have little to do with the Chaplain herself.
Karina Robles CC’ 18, a former board member of Columbia Catholic Ministry (CCM), also questions the role of the Chaplain in facilitating religious life on campus. Although she has been involved in religious life her entire time at Columbia, Robles’s one interaction with the Chaplain’s office was a trip for Catholic students to Chile, sponsored by a Ford Foundation grant for taking students to a majority Catholic country. However, beyond that one spring break, Robles’s religious life here has been facilitated by Father Dan O’Reilly, the Catholic RLA who is also pastor of Corpus Christi parish nearby. Owing to the lack of available space in Earl Hall, O’Reilly hosts most of CCM’s programming at his church rather than on campus. Jen Gu CC ‘18, a dedicated member of Veritas and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, identified with this sentiment as well. Aside from entering the building a few times for events hosted by the CCM, she has no idea what the Office of the Chaplain does.
Much ink has been spilled on the topic of student discontent with the OUC, most notably the years-long effort by the Muslim Students Association to obtain a religious life advisor, and—most controversially--claims of the Chaplain’s mistreatment of Muslim students and employees. Last spring, The Eye covered the struggle of several religious groups—including the Hindu Students Association and the Bahai Students Association— to find appropriate spaces to pray, since space in Earl is so limited. Many religious organizations end up just meeting to pray in classrooms.
If religious students do not know what the Office of the Chaplain does, and so many have expressed deep concerns about the way that it is run, then whom is the office serving? How does the office conceive of its mission and its relationship to students on this campus? I decided to meet with the Chaplain so that I could ask her these questions myself.
Meeting the Chaplain
My first move was to walk into Earl Hall to stop by the Chaplain’s office to say hello. After searching for a few minutes, I learned that the Chaplain’s office is actually located in Lerner, a spot Davis claimed when the building first opened. I emailed her to set up an interview for this piece. After a few days, she responded, “Let’s meet first as student and chaplain and go from there.”
From our hour-long conversation, I was able to understand how Davis landed the role she has been given. The Chaplain is incredibly charismatic and a great conversationalist, answering every question with an extended, thoughtful response, usually including several anecdotes. We spoke about her decision to become a chaplain and the challenging and fulfilling aspects of her job. Though her denominational background is Baptist, Davis’s main mentor in her initial study of religion— the person who convinced her to become a chaplain—was the prolific Jewish academic Jacob Neusner, a religion professor at Brown University, where Davis spent her undergraduate years.
In our conversation, she came across as a deeply open-minded, spiritual thinker who became a chaplain so that she can help students nurture their spiritual lives while enriching the life of the mind. She hopes to accomplish this through individual counseling (she also holds a Masters in Social Work from University of Connecticut) and through the major programs of her office: Common Meals and Chaplain’s Teas. In addition to these programs, the office also runs winter and spring break trips to a Columbia Global Centers, sponsored entirely by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft CC ‘63. The admission process is extremely selective, and all decisions are made by the Chaplain, who also accompanies the students on the trips. Usually, the trips focus on questions of religion and spirituality in the countries that they visit.
At the end of our discussion, the Chaplain told me to arrange a follow up interview with her secretary, and we scheduled a meeting for just before spring break. Twenty minutes before we were supposed to meet, I received an email from Caroline Adelman from the University’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs saying that something came up and the Chaplain had to cancel. Adelman had not previously been included in my interactions with the Chaplain. When I asked why they canceled and whether we can reschedule, no one responded. I continued to reach out to no avail for weeks until I finally received an email from a different university spokesperson, Robert Hornsby, who told me that his office was declining my inquiries on behalf of the Chaplain. This came as a complete surprise given the pleasantness of my interactions with her, but reflects the fraught state of the Chaplain’s public relations these days. Because of all of the negative reporting on the OUC over the past few years, the University is obviously keeping her press engagements—even with student reporters—on a tight leash.
The Current State of Interfaith programming
A glance at the OUC website may make one think that there is a well-established, popular interfaith program at Columbia. However, while interfaith and intercultural events do take place on campus, they are infrequent and are not facilitated by the Office of the Chaplain. Rather, individual student groups organize interfaith work and then apply for a micro-grant from the Kraft Family Fund for Intercultural and Interfaith Awareness—disbursed by the OUC—for additional resources. Eytan Penn, a student employee of the OUC, says that the office looks to ensure that the student groups who apply for funding are getting most of their money elsewhere. The grants distributed by the OUC usually make up a minor source of the event’s budget. Additionally, the programs they fund are necessarily one-time events, explicitly meant for collaborations between two different groups: for example, the Hindu Students Association and Hillel ran an event together. This is not meant to belittle the effects of those programs, which are often quite meaningful, but to heighten the question of how exactly the OUC staff and the Chaplain herself spend their time and resources.
The Office’s Common Meals on Wednesday nights and seasonal Chaplain’s Teas in the Chaplain’s home are barely advertised and therefore poorly attended. The students who work in the Chaplain’s office often create Facebook events for Common Meal, but only people who already like the the “Office of the Chaplain” Facebook page see them (a total of 200, most of whom are no longer students here). The OUC’s email invitations are also hard to find. With the exception of the final Common Meal of the semester, no Common Meal I attended had more than eight current students there. The rest of the people in attendance were either OUC staff or other staff members of the University. The Common Meal themes are — at best— loosely related to interfaith and religion. Some selections from this spring’s roster include, “Take a Break! International Game Night,” “Spring Arts & Crafts Night,” and “Potted Plant Party.”
The problem with the OUC is twofold. On the one hand, there is the lack of an active, engaged student cohort to implement regular interfaith programming in addition to the occasional events partially funded by the Kraft Fund. On the other, the regular programming that the OUC does organize—specifically the Common Meals—are barely advertised, poorly attended, and function more as study breaks than as meaningful interfaith discussions. Both of these issues stem from an institutional problem. Aside from the Chaplain and her assistant, the other people working for the office are Religious Life Fellows (RLFs) who come to Columbia for a two-year residency before leaving for other campuses. The combination of the quick turnover rate of the staff and the Chaplain’s inconsistencies—who either works from home or in her office in Lerner and rarely attends OUC events— make it difficult to gain a meaningful understanding of student dynamics and to facilitate regular programming. The RLFs leave Columbia by the time they adjust to its student body and culture. If the Chaplain were more engaged in creating programming on a day-to-day basis, she might be able to be the well of institutional memory and the liaison to students. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.
The Downtown Model: NYU’s Office of Global and Spiritual Life
When I realized that much of the shortcomings of the Office of the Chaplain have to do with its bureaucratic structure, I traveled to New York University to see the way that its Office of Global and Spiritual Life is organized. NYU is renowned for its interfaith and intercultural programming, most notably for the close relationship between the Jewish and Muslim communities there (as depicted in the documentary, Of Many) and so I thought theirs would be a perfect model to study.
The difference in culture is stark. While Earl Hall is quiet during the day, with the hallways bare and staff members tucked away in their offices, the NYU’s Office of Global and Spiritual Life is bustling with students. Its couches and open floor plan create a loungey environment. Each staff member’s office also had a student in it. I met with Ariel Ennis, Assistant Director at the Office, who explained that unlike the set-up at Columbia, where the OUC is its own department under the sole supervision of the Chaplain, the Office of Global and Spiritual Life at NYU belongs to the Student Affairs Office and thus has a lot more interaction with student life. The office is not led by a single chaplain of a particular religion. Rather, two administrators run the office. The office hosts over 70 religious life advisors, each representing a different faith community at NYU, as well as several interfaith organizations, including a multifaith advisory council that meets once a week and runs many events throughout the year, a Muslim-Jewish student group, a Christian-Muslim student group, a minority interfaith group, and an interfaith group for graduate students. Each club was incubated with funding from the Office of Global and Spiritual life and then became accredited a standalone student organization. The office created a curriculum for religious-sensitivity training that they teach to RAs and run by request. Perhaps this model—one with clearer room for student involvement and with more formal collaboration with specific religious groups as opposed to individual students—would work well at Columbia.
Seeds of Hope
The OUC organizational chart will probably not be changed, nor will the Chaplain be demoted from her position as Associate Provost in order to tuck the OUC under the Office of Student Life. However, changes already underway at the OUC may actually make it look more like NYU’s interfaith operation. This semester, the University hired its first Muslim Life Coordinator, Amina Darwish, who is here indefinitely, not just for a two-year stint. Through her close work with MSA and involvement in OUC programming, Darwish will have the opportunity, unlike most Earl staffers, to form close relationships with students and to gain an understanding of student culture at Columbia. Additionally, the enthusiastic new RLFs Abby Rampone and Andria Stewart, who also started this semester, are genuinely interested in expanding Common Meals and improving them based on student feedback. In fact, at the final Common Meal of the semester, students were encouraged to share ways that they would like to see the OUC improve in the future, and efforts were really made to spread the word.
Most excitingly, students have revived the Interfaith Collective, an official, centralized interfaith student group at the OUC that has existed intermittently over the past 22 years. Hillel President Talia Rubin and MSA President Maryam Rostoum, two graduating seniors, recruited freshmen to succeed them and to increase long-term student involvement. They plan to work closely with Amina Darwish and Hillel’s Rabbi Yonah Hain to create a regular group of committed students who will prepare consistent interfaith programming in the years to come. Chaplain Davis has not been directly involved in the planning of this group, but it is something she has expressed genuine excitement about.
Over the past few weeks, our campus has seemed more divided than ever. From the toxic nature of CCSC election campaigning, to the BDS referendum at Barnard, to the Graduate Students Union strike, disagreements among students and between students and the administration have flared to intense proportions. The Office of the University Chaplain has the opportunity to represent an alternative to the divisiveness on campus and to be a space where differences are celebrated in meaningful ways. Hopefully, a combination of staff improvements and student engagement can yield fruit from this underdeveloped and untapped resource.
//LEEZA HIRT is a senior in Columbia College and is Editor in Chief of The Current. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo courtesy of Bohao Zhao.