Under Review, Chaplaincy Faces Uncertain Future

Per the request of the presidents of the Claremont Colleges, the Claremont University Consortium (CUC) has put the chaplaincy under review to understand how the colleges can “best meet the spiritual and religious needs of all students, faculty, and staff,” according to an email sent by Pomona College President David Oxtoby.


CUC CEO Stig Lanesskog appointed Kenneth Wolf, a professor of history and classics at Pomona, as chair of the newly-formed Chaplaincy Review Committee late last fall. The committee met for the first time Feb. 27 and is comprised of students, faculty and staff members from the 7Cs.


The committee is considering various options for restructuring the chaplaincy, including hiring a Muslim chaplain. Wolf wrote in an email to TSL that the Office of the Chaplains submitted a request for a part-time Muslim chaplain last year, but the request was denied “for budgetary reasons.” According to an online petition, a group of Muslim students asked the Deans of Students of the Claremont Colleges to hire a full-time Muslim chaplain in March of this year.


On the other hand, some administrators have expressed interest in replacing the chaplaincy with an Office of Religious Life headed by a single dean.


Pomona Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum, a member of the Chaplaincy Review Committee, said that the committee has been reaching out to other college campuses to learn about possible models for the chaplaincy.


“There are a number of campuses that seem to have a really robust spiritual life office, and I’m interested in that, because I think that could be more responsive to student needs,” Feldblum said. “I certainly think Muslim students, for example, or Hindu students, or others who are saying, ‘I’m not quite sure if I see myself in what we have,’ those are important voices to hear.”


Wolf stressed that while there are benefits and drawbacks to both the administrative model and the three-chaplain model, the chaplaincy’s rich and innovative history should not be overlooked.


“People may see the chaplaincy as being too cumbersome to expand, but for 42 years, we’ve had this system, and it’s created communities that now have a life of their own,” he said. “I really want to make sure that people understand how unique and central they are to the community it is before anyone starts pulling the plug.”


Founded in 1949, the Claremont Chaplaincy was directed by a succession of Protestant chaplains until 1973, when then-chaplain Gordon Verplank PO ’62 proposed that the consortium hire full-time Jewish and Catholic chaplains in order to reflect the changing demographics of the Claremont community.


The three chaplains “very much tried to have equal responsibility,” Verplank said. “It was a bit of a challenge initially with the colleges. They were used to minding the chaplain, and they weren’t used to having a Catholic priest or a Jewish rabbi, particularly at Pomona.”


According to Wolf, the three-chaplain model allows the chaplaincy to support students from diverse religious backgrounds.


“Think of first-generation Latino students who many times come with heavy religious backgrounds and can find solace at McAlister,” he said. “The Jewish community is the same—the rabbi is approached many times by parents of prospective students.”


Pitzer College Mathematics Professor Judy Grabiner, a member of the Chaplaincy Review Committee and the Committee on Religious Affairs, believes that the chaplaincy should maintain its interfaith structure while expanding to meet the needs of students. She said that adding a Muslim chaplain would be a powerful statement for the colleges to make.


“It would make a statement about what the Claremont Colleges mean by diversity, a very different kind of statement than if we do not have one, and a different statement than if we decided we really can’t afford a Muslim chaplain, why don’t we pull out the rug from the whole thing and have a Dean of Religious Life,” Grabiner said.


Adriana di Bartolo, director of the Queer Resource Center, also sees many benefits to the interfaith chaplaincy model.


“I rely on the Chaplains’ Office all the time,” she said. “As somebody who works with queer and trans students, I am highly sensitive of where I send students to make sure they get the support they need, and I know that if I send them [to the Chaplains’ Office] they’re going to get exactly what they need.”


Chase Way, a student at Claremont Graduate University and member of the Chaplaincy Review Committee, said that the chaplaincy is an essential component of a liberal arts education.


“The chaplaincy is a huge part of helping students take what they learn about history, politics, sexuality, gender, etc. out of the classroom and integrate it authentically into their lived experience as moral actors,” Way wrote in an email to TSL.


But while Verplank’s model for the chaplaincy strikes many as inclusive and vital to the community, others see it as an increasing expenditure. Wolf said that some 7C administrators are concerned about the financial consequences of hiring another chaplain.


“Like other student services provided by CUC, the Office of the Chaplains is funded by the colleges using a formula based primarily on the number of students at each college,” Bonnie Clemens, Assistant to the CEO of the CUC, wrote in an email to TSL.


Furthermore, some have expressed concerns that with the current model, it would be difficult to hire a chaplain to represent every major religion on campus.


“The way the chaplaincy is organized right now is really bureaucratic,” said Jose Ruiz PO ’16, a member of the Chaplaincy Review Committee. “Having one single dean would be more beneficial to get things done faster, have more resources available for people of various faiths, and be able to direct to the resources they need a lot faster than what we could do under the current system.”


Ruiz also thinks that while the chaplaincy might seem inclusive because of the three-chaplain model, many times it is not.


“A lot of people use the Chaplains’ Office to find other centers around campus that might relate to their community in a better way than the McAlister Center can offer,” he said. “For example, a lot of Latino Catholics go to a church right down Bonita Avenue that has a mass in Spanish, making it more familiar to Latino students than say going to McAlister for mass, which is just in English and the music is a little less upbeat.”


Fellow committee member Umar Farooq CM ’17 disagreed with this sentiment, stating that while it might be unfeasible to represent every religion, the chaplains do a great job bridging those divides, something that a single dean might not be able to do.


“I think it would be worse to service no faith in particular,” he said. “The work that the chaplains have been doing for other communities, such as the Muslim community, who don’t have designated staff support, is outstanding. The answer isn’t to remove support for the McAlister Center, I think the answer is to give more support.”


Grabiner, who has found the chaplaincy to be a valuable resource for students, faculty and community members during her thirty years at Pitzer, expressed concerns about the ability of a Dean of Religious Life to meet the spiritual and religious needs of students, especially those from underrepresented religions.


“If there’s one person, that person either represents one religion or represents zero religions,” Grabiner said. “I see a problem there, and I see a problem in farming it out to people who are not set up to work with college students as intellectually sophisticated young adults.”

According to Clemens, the Chaplaincy Review Committee will hold forums in the fall to offer students the chance to provide input on the chaplaincy. CUC will also hire an interim chaplain to replace Brad Tharpe, who resigned from his position as McAlister’s Protestant chaplain last semester and moved to Pitzer’s Career Services Office to be its Interim Director.

The current chaplains, Rabbi Daveen Litwin and Father Joe Fenton, did not respond to interview requests by the time of press.

Julia Thomas, Cai Glencross, Sean Gunther and Kevin Tidmarsh contributed reporting.

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