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College Surveys Students' Religious Affiliations

By Gabrielle M. Williams, Crimson Staff Writer

Undergraduates registering for the spring semester this past week were asked their religious identification and affiliation as part of an effort both to gauge the religious demographics at the College and connect students with appropriate Harvard chaplains.

Student names and contact information will be distributed to the various chaplaincies, who will then reach out directly to students with invitations for their respective religious or nonreligious communities, such as subscribing to email lists, according to Undergraduate Catholic chaplain Mark W. Murphy.

Results from the question will help improve the chaplains’ capabilities in providing advising, counseling, and support services to undergraduates, Murphy said.

Mennonite chaplain Alexander B. Hernandez-Siegel said the addition of the question is timely and appropriate, particularly in light of University President Drew G. Faust’s recent statements of the University’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Hernandez-Siegel said he worked with Debra Dawson, staff assistant to the Board of Ministry and Harvard Chaplains, to guide the question through the approval process and coordinate with the Registrar.

Inquiring about students’ religious affiliations is not a new initiative, Hernandez-Siegel said. In the past, the Harvard Chaplains have conducted their own questionnaires at events like orientations and fairs, though the distribution of paper forms has proven inefficient in the recent decade.

“It was time to have more of a unified and more formal method of collecting this information,” Hernandez-Siegel said. “This is more streamlined, and it also shows more of a University commitment…to religious diversity at Harvard.”

Along with assisting the chaplains in their quest to improve student outreach, the registration question will ideally increase undergraduate awareness of the existence and availability of the chaplains, Murphy said.

Humanist chaplain Greg M. Epstein said the question also encourages students to actively consider their views and beliefs when entering Harvard, regardless of their specific affiliation or degree of spirituality.

“All of the chaplains can really agree that it’s a good thing to think about where you fall, or where you would place yourself, on the spectrum of religious and nonreligious affiliation,” Epstein said. “It’s a process of self-reflection, really.”

Having a better sense of the religious demographic makeup of the undergraduate community benefits the Harvard Chaplains as well, Hernandez-Siegel said.

“I think the big picture will give us a stronger outlook in terms of support services we do like to provide, and how to design them based on the information that we have,” Hernandez-Siegel said. “This will give us a stronger foundation of knowing what we should be doing and where we should be heading.”

Epstein said the new registration question reflects an increased collaboration between the diverse range of beliefs in the Harvard chaplaincies, something that will ideally extend to the campus at large.

“No matter what you believe, it’s a good thing when communities of faith and conscience come together to understand one another better,” Epstein said. “I think that this change in registration will contribute to that kind of healthy environment on campus.”

While the overall idea of direct outreach to students was met with positive responses, some students suggested future that iterations of the questionnaire consider other factors, such as the distinction between heritage and belief in students’ religious identities.

“In the case of Judaism in particular, it might be beneficial going forward to just have an option for students to click to hear more about Jewish activities in general,” said Harvard Hillel president Edyt J. Dickstein ’17, who is an inactive Crimson editor. “Some people identify as Jewish culturally or want to hear more about the cultural aspect of it as opposed to one specific denomination or religious activity.”

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