Introductory Remarks from Martha J. Kanter, Undersecretary of Higher Education, Department of Education at the White House Conference on Advancing Interfaith and Community Service on College and University Campuses

June 15, 2010

Interfaith Council
White House Conference on Advancing Interfaith and Community Service on College and University Campuses
Remarks of Dr. Martha J. Kanter, Under Secretary
U.S. Department of Education
June 7, 2010

Thank you for the opportunity to provide you with some introductory remarks this afternoon. On behalf of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the Obama administration, let me welcome you to the White House. It is an honor and privilege to bring such a distinguished group of scholars and religious leaders together to scale and strengthen interfaith collaborations at our colleges and universities. Many of you represent the best practices in doing so, but we need to find ways to scale what works, all for the purpose of increasing domestic and global partnerships that bring people from diverse faiths, cultures, histories and belief systems to a common ground that will benefit society.

Such partnerships are essential to what President Obama and Secretary Duncan call our “cradle to career agenda.” Currently, too many of our students are not adequately prepared for school at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. More than 25% of America’s children are not ready for kindergarten. Only 75% of American students are completing high school on time. And we estimate there are over 90 million Americans with basic or below basic literacy skills.  That includes everyone from high school dropouts to immigrants, ex-offenders and dislocated workers.  It includes inner-city and rural communities, as well as small and mid-size cities that are struggling in today’s economy. The meaningful contributions of interfaith partnerships can help us not only address these issues but also establish a broader understanding among students about why their success is important to their communities. At our 6000 college and university campuses we know that community service connects students to the larger agenda of the public good.

By this, I mean that a shared understanding of the value of collaborating across diverse backgrounds of race, culture and religion binds a country and, in turn, creates the social cohesion that is sorely needed for countries to prosper together.
Our universities, 4-year colleges and community colleges have long been regarded as centers for transformational change, places where America’s social movements often have their origins.
The Campus Compact which began 25 years ago is a great example of the kind of transformational change already underway. Campus Compact is a national coalition of more than 1,100 college and university presidents—representing some 6 million students—who are committed to fulfilling the civic purposes of higher education.

Started by the presidents of Brown, Georgetown and Stanford with the president of the Education Commission of the States, this organization has as its purpose campus-based civic engagement by sharing knowledge and resources with their communities, creating local development initiatives, and supporting service and service-learning efforts in areas such as K-12 education, health care, the environment, hunger/homelessness, literacy, and senior services.

More than 98% of Campus Compact member campuses have one or more community partnerships, and more than 90% include service or civic engagement in their mission statements, all with the goal to improve community life and educate students for civic and social responsibility.

Another organization that will be very helpful to your agenda is the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Last September, they released a report on civic responsibility that identified a wide gap between campus aspirations and student experiences of civic learning and action.

They noted that “as we witness daily the challenges of advancing civil dialogue on important public issues, it is encouraging that across all four of the campus groups surveyed, individuals on a wide array of college campuses strongly agree that civic engagement and learning should be an essential—not optional—outcome of a good college education…We have a long way to go, but we also have many good practices to build on to increase students’ civic knowledge and capacity.”

While 58 percent of students surveyed strongly agreed that contributing to a larger community should be a major focus of their institutions, only 41.5 percent strongly agreed that contributing to a larger community currently is a major focus at their college or university.

About half of all faculty and 45 percent of students who were surveyed strongly agreed that their campus promotes the value of contributing to the community.  However, only 37.7 percent of faculty and 40.4 percent of students strongly agree that their campus actively promotes awareness of U.S. social, political, and economic issues. This is definitely an area that is fertile ground for advancing the partnership and creating the transformational change that is envisioned here today.

Let me share an example of the systemic change that can happen when interfaith service partners come together with higher education. Karen Gross, president of Southern Vermont College who is in the audience today, leads an intimate liberal arts institution of 500 students. Sixty-one percent of SVC’s students are first-generation; 46% qualify for federal student aid and are Pell eligible. Last year, the faculty decided to redesign the comparative religions course by partnering with the local interfaith council. Seven members of the interfaith council co-taught the course with an SVC professor, addressing the requirements of the course from the perspectives of their individual religions.

On the first day of class, all of the members came in religious dress and began the course with a shared meditation, each sharing the respective meditations from their religions. The Buddhist priest sat on the floor; the Rabbi davoned; and so forth. During the semester, students traveled to see the “sacred spaces” of each religion represented. At the end of the course, in their evaluations, students said they gained a profound appreciation of the beliefs of different faiths and even the diversity within a single faith. They were introduced to different perspectives on how religious leaders view their mission and purpose; how they define the common good and build understanding within and across their religious communities and secular communities. Students also said they would have liked to hear more about the religious challenges facing the interfaith council members.

I call this an example of systemic change because the comparative religions course is not a one-time, short-term solution. Faculty are clearly invested in this course; students benefited tremendously; and the institution will offer the course in the future.

President Obama has set a goal for America to have the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020. To accomplish this goal, we will need to bring more than 8 million students into American higher education beyond the expected student population growth between now and then.

A great opportunity now exists to work in partnership that will enable students to expand opportunities for civic engagement and community service through the interfaith collaborations at our colleges and universities.

Thank you for your work to foster and deepen educational opportunities for students, especially those of the faith communities you all represent here today.

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