In order to better accommodate the ever-changing religious community at the University, officials have assembled a Committee on Religious and Spiritual Life at Yale. Formed at the request of Yale President Richard Levin, the group will make recommendations to him and the Yale Corporation this spring about how the University can best support students’ religious interests.
“There is support for this committee and its recommendations at the highest level of the University,” Deputy Secretary Martha Highsmith said.
Highsmith, who is in charge of staffing the committee, said that it includes religious leaders from universities around the country and was formed to examine organized religion and spirituality in general at the University. The last time a committee investigated religious life at Yale was in the early 1990s, Highsmith said.
“President Levin thought it was time to have another view, particularly in light of changes in the religious diversity of the student body,” she said.
University Chaplain Frederick Streets, who was interviewed by the committee, said he was excited about the perspective the committee could offer.
“The religious life here is far more robust than that of many comparable Universities of our size,” he said. “I think the thrust [of the committee’s recommendations] is going to be on how to take advantage of this robust religious life.”
Streets said he hopes the committee will find a way to help “foster a sense of community among religious groups” and find more space for student religious groups to utilize. The development of a religious student life center might be a good way to accomplish both goals at once, he said.
“While we have these pocketed areas, one way to strengthen religious life would be to have a way to work together and a facility that promotes that,” Streets said.
In this vein, Highsmith said the committee has considered suggesting that Battell Chapel be made a center for all student religious groups. Sarah Heiman ’05, one of the students interviewed by the committee, said the Battell issue was one focus of her meeting.
“They wanted to know what students thought of the use of Battell and whether it was really multi-faith,” she said.
She said many students felt that Battell is not used primarily as a religious space because of its frequent use for lectures and talks.
So far, the committee has held two meetings, Highsmith said, during which they interviewed students as well as faculty from the Divinity School, Religious Studies Department and Chaplain’s office. The committee will start shaping its recommendations at its next meeting, scheduled for the end of October.
Highsmith said the meeting with students commenced with a dinner of about 30 people, where topics were discussed in a larger setting. For discussion, the group then split into small groups, each with several students and once committee member.
Highsmith said the committee has also taken tours of St. Thomas More and the Slifka Center, where they sat down with students and workers to talk more specifically about the facilities.
“I think the committee came away with an idea of how committed students are to an expression of their faith,” she said.
When staffing the committee, Highsmith said she sought religious authorities from around the country who could neutrally observe religious life at Yale. She said the people with whom she talked were very enthusiastic at the prospect of joining such a committee.
“The only people who declined had schedules that would not permit travel,” she said.