Leadership & Governance

Campuses Are the Place for Difficult Conversations About Faith

Eboo Patel, founder and president, Interfaith Youth Core

February 03, 2017

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz


Eboo Patel, author of a new book, Interfaith Leadership: A Primer, says religion — and the contributions of believers — should be an integral part of diversity efforts.



JENNIFER RUARK: I'm here today with Eboo Patel who is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core and the author of a new book, Interfaith Leadership: A Primer. Welcome to The Chronicle.

EBOO PATEL: Great to be here. Thank you.

JENNIFER RUARK: So you were active in interfaith activities as a college student back in the '90s. And then you founded the Interfaith Youth Core some 15 years ago, after 9/11. As 9/11 has receded further into the distance, have you seen a change in the climate around interfaith conversations?

EBOO PATEL: I was involved in a lot of diversity activities when I was in college in the early to mid-1990s. And at that time, there weren't a lot of religious-diversity programs, at least at the University of Illinois where I was. And one of the reasons that religion and diversity started coming together, for me, was precisely because there wasn't a lot of it. And it was clear that in the world, religious diversity was a major issue. And oftentimes, that turned into conflict.

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And so it clicked in my mind at some point, given the amount of religious diversity, violence, conflict in the world — given the importance of interfaith cooperation in U.S. and world history, why doesn't the diversity conversation in college include more religion? So in a way, it was precisely because it lacked it that Interfaith Youth Core emerged in my mind.

And actually, IFYC emerges prior to 9/11 for me. And I run a couple of interfaith projects in different parts of the world, when I'm a graduate student especially. But it's only after 9/11 that I think to myself, this should be more than an ad hoc series of events or a society of people organized unofficially. This should be a formal nonprofit institution that seeks to make interfaith cooperation a social norm.

And I think since 9/11, I've not been the only person who's felt that — that there have been a number of people on campuses who think that religious-diversity issues ought to be engaged more positively and proactively across the institution in strategic ways.

JENNIFER RUARK: So what does IFYC do when you go to a campus?

EBOO PATEL: So IFYC's mission, so to speak, is to help U.S. higher education become a launching pad and a laboratory for interfaith cooperation. So we do a whole range of things. We work with what we call the entire campus house. We will do, with administrations, interfaith strategic plans. We've done several dozen of these where the administration will actually hire IFYC to help them craft an interfaith strategic plan.

We work with faculty to develop interfaith courses and interfaith minors. We have grants from the Luce foundation and the Teagle Foundation to help faculty do that. We work with student-affairs staff to integrate religious diversity into their training. Student-affairs staff get training on a range of diversity matters, but often religion is left off the table.

And we run institutes that train college students to become interfaith leaders; hence the title and purpose of my new book, Interfaith Leadership.

JENNIFER RUARK: You've said in our pages that sometimes campus leaders are a little bit skittish about bringing up the interfaith conversation or adding that to, for example, their diversity training. Why do you think that is?

EBOO PATEL: I think that there's a variety of reasons for it. One is I think that there's been this sense in the late 20th century that religion ought to be privatized. And so pray in your dorm room kind of thing, but it should not be part of the campus conversation or on the quad, when, of course, the reason that a significant number of U.S. colleges exist, including seven of the eight Ivy League schools and a bunch of other places like Notre Dame and Georgetown, is precisely because people made their faith public. And they built from that faith an institution of higher education.

I think the second reason is, there is a sense that religion and religious-diversity issues are too hard. And my response to that is, and race is so easy? Gender and sexuality are so easy? Which is to say that higher education, to its great credit, has been that sector of American society that has said, we will take on the really hard issues. We will have deeply uncomfortable conversations. We will do the painstaking research. We will help to shape a new generation of people who are able to deal with these issues.

And as America becomes what Diana Eck at Harvard says is the most religiously diverse society in human history, and it's clear that religious diversity can just as easily become conflict as it can become cooperation, why wouldn't higher education think it is our role and our opportunity to engage these matters very deeply as well?

JENNIFER RUARK: You talk about the role of "appreciative knowledge" in interfaith understanding. Can you say a little bit about what that means?

EBOO PATEL: Sure. So in my mind, appreciative knowledge is an understanding of what a tradition or a community has contributed to the breath of human civilization. So in high school, for example, I had no idea that there was such a thing as African-American literature.

I think back to my high-school English curriculum. I believe I did not read, outside of a poem or two by Langston Hughes, a single black writer. It was in college that I become aware that there is this magnificent thing called African-American literature. And of course, that's only one part of what I learned about the contributions of different racial and ethnic minorities to the United States.

JENNIFER RUARK: So what's the analogue with religious understanding?

EBOO PATEL: So what Muslims have contributed to the United States or to human civilization — so, for example, probably the most iconic athlete in American history is the Muslim Muhammad Ali, of course. But also, the person who designed skyscrapers was a Muslim, Fazlur Rahman Khan.

JENNIFER RUARK: And not many people know that.

EBOO PATEL: And not many people know that. Right. I'm not saying this is the only thing that one should learn about Islam. But we shouldn't only learn, quote unquote, "just the basics" or "just the facts": These are the five pillars of Islam. We should also be learning, just as we do with African-Americans or lesbians and gays, what's the contribution of this community to the society in which I live?

JENNIFER RUARK: Is there room for atheists in the interfaith conversation?

EBOO PATEL: Not only is there room for atheists or humanists or spiritual seekers or agnostics, I would say it's about a quarter of the makeup of a typical IFYC program. In other words, a typical IFYC Interfaith Leadership Institute has demographics that are roughly similar to the demographics in key sectors of higher education.

And so the language that we use is, We engage a range of people who orient around religion differently. You can orient around religion as a Catholic or as an evangelical, as a Sufi or a Shia or a Sunni, or as an atheist or as a seeker. So the key thing is how you orient around religion.

JENNIFER RUARK: Well, Eboo Patel, thank you so much for coming to see us.

EBOO PATEL: Great being here. Thank you.

Jennifer Ruark is a deputy managing editor at The Chronicle.