Junior Maddy Starr was sitting inside the Chabad House when she heard a loud bang. Observing the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, she was breaking the fast surrounded by students and community members of the same religion. Starr was horrified to find out the bang was a gunshot that hit a car parked directly in front of the house. This memory, though two years old, still follows her as a Jewish student at Elon.
“I was pretty horrified,” Starr said. “I was pretty scared not necessarily as a Jewish woman, more of like I felt scared going to events held by Chabad and Hillel.”
But Starr wasn’t the only person who felt this way.
In the 2022 Preliminary Report, students, faculty and staff — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — recollected this incident on various surveys sent out by the Multifaith Strategic Planning Committee in fall 2021. Released in January, the survey highlights Elon University’s religious, spiritual, secular, ethical and cultural identities. Concerns over this incident back in 2019 were reflected in that report.
According to chair of the Department of Religious Studies and co-chair of the Multifaith Strategic Planning Committee Geoffrey Claussen, the preliminary report is part of the Boldly Elon strategic plan to support multifaith engagement at the university.
The first part of the committee’s charge was to compile a report which analyzed Elon’s current state of diversity, equity and inclusion. The second part of the charge will take place by the end of the spring 2022 semester, where the committee will create a final report detailing recommendations in actions to be taken by the university to ensure DEI.
“It’s both disheartening and encouraging to know that this has stayed in people's memories. Disheartening, of course, because it was a really horrible incident,” Starr said. “But it's encouraging to know that people recognize that it was an act of antisemitism, and that people recognize that it's something that needs to be addressed — not only antisemitism, but any sort of prejudice or discrimination against any religion on campus.”
Data collection comes from various surveys sent out over the course of the fall 2021 semester: one to all junior and seniors and one to a mix of 390 freshmen, sophomores and graduate students who indicated a minoritized religious identity. Elon faculty and staff also received a survey request. Out of the 3,090 surveys sent out to the junior and senior class, only 434 students completed it. As for the survey sent to the remaining student population, only 18 responded. A total of 276 employees also completed the survey.
To understand respondents' personal backgrounds and identities, the committee also surveyed the community in various identity categories — including race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.
Claussen said the most prominent aspect of the report to him was the fact that more than half of the students surveyed — 55% — reported that their religious, spiritual or secular identities were “moderately to extremely important to them.”
Sophomore Alena Jain, another student on the Multifaith Strategic Planning Committee, said she was also surprised by this result. Although Jain would classify her religion as very important to her as an international student, she didn’t realize how important religion was to others in the community.
“I come from a culture where religion is given immense importance,” Jain said.
Similar findings in the report revealed that antisemitism was overwhelmingly the top area of concern for survey respondents when asked about bias at Elon. Anti-Muslim bias and Islamic ignorance were also expressed in the survey, although they were reported more frequently by faculty and staff than by students.
As a student, Starr was most surprised by the differences of opinion surrounding “Christian privilege and anti-Christian bias” present in the report. According to Starr, while only a few students had reported instances of anti-Christian bias on campus, there were many more reports from faculty and staff members.
“It leaves a really powerful message, to us at least, about how we move forward in a way that engages all religions and not just minority religions,” Starr said. “But engaging minority religions also, in a way that makes them feel included but not in a way that makes Christians feel excluded.”
Claussen said the different identities of students portrayed in the report presented a noteworthy divide. Concluded in the report, Christian students reported “especially high levels of belonging, welcome, inclusion, safety and feeling understood” when it came to their religious identities.
“Students from minoritized religious groups … tended to feel much less included and safe and welcome on campus,” Claussen said. “Not unwelcome, not unsafe, not excluded. But it's interesting, I think, that there's a gap there.”
Areas for growth
Another portion of the report focused on evaluating Elon’s religious diversity, co-curricular programs and academic departments, comparing them to other educational institutions that are engaged in informative or pioneering work in diverse engagement.
Originally selected based on committee members’ prior knowledge and experience, the report analyzes institutions such as Oberlin College, Binghamton University, College of Charleston and University of Southern California.
The committee came to the conclusion that many areas on campus do not reflect a consideration of religious, spiritual and secular identity when considering issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. The report also stated that while Elon’s co-curricular programs parallel those of the other institutions studied, Elon does not lead in the intersection of race, religion, identity and spirituality.
Claussen also said that about half of Elon’s religion courses are taught by part-time faculty every year, and while the department teaches issues of religion and race in the classroom, there is no faculty member whose primary expertise is in the area of religion and race.
“That's an issue that's really important for understanding the category of religion in the United States, and in the world today,” Claussen said. “That's one particular priority.”
Adjunct professor of religious studies Sumeyye Pakdil — who identifies as a Muslim and whose expertise is in Islamic studies — teaches political, gender and sexuality Islamic courses at Elon.
Pakdil said she believes that accepting religious diversity comes from education and safe spaces to ask questions. She estimated her classes are often 90 to 95% Christian, and she does her best to foster this environment.
“There is no right or wrong answer for any questions about religion, because even though it's a sensitive topic, I want them to feel as free as possible, especially in class because that is the place that they could learn,” Pakdil said. “They could learn how to respect other ideas, but by telling their own ideas, their own opinions and hearing other opinions.”
To Pakdil, one of the most important things she stresses on is educating other students about the various religions.
“I try to show them, when I teach other religions, they have very big similarities, they share those similarities even though they have differences,” Pakdil said. “I wanted them to see … diversity in different religious faiths and what they share with other groups.”
While Pakdil said she wasn’t surprised by the student, faculty and staff feedback issued in the report, she did not expect to learn that other universities did not require students to fill out a religious observation form in order to be excused for their religious holidays. Instead, the other institutions generally direct students to let their instructor know about religious holidays in advance, so instructors will regard their absences as excused.
Based on the report, Starr said that the committee will begin to hold focus groups — representative of faculty, staff, undergraduates and graduates alike — throughout the spring semester in order to garner recommendations from smaller groups who have read the report.
Both Claussen and Starr welcome community feedback as they construct their final report for May 2022.
Pakdil and Jain also said that continuing to educate the community will play a prominent role in expanding DEI efforts.
“A lot of people don't realize some comments are perceived as discriminatory,” Jain said. “A large part of what we're working toward is really spreading awareness on the work that we're doing to bring people together and really understand different cultures and religions.”
Jain said that providing more spaces on campus for people to practice their religion will also help in making minoritized groups feel more included.
Pakdil also said she believes inviting guest speakers to Elon who could talk both about religion and about how current events correlate with religion would greatly benefit the Elon community.
“Whether you are majoring in finance, whether you are majoring in math, biology, sociology, anthropology — religion is always there and you need to know more about religion because religion is all about people,” Pakdil said. “If you know religion, you would know more about people, about culture, about society, so that is what I have been trying to do.”