Tucker’s Divorce: Religion at Dartmouth

The Tucker Foundation: the cornerstone of spiritual life at the College

The Tucker Foundation: the cornerstone of spiritual life at the College

For decades the William Jewett Tucker Foundation has focused on “ethical leadership, rooted in service, spirituality, and social justice.” According to its website, Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees in 1951 charged the organization with “supporting and furthering the moral and spiritual work of the College.” In the past, the organization has provided opportunities for students to engage in community service activities while also exploring spirituality. One of their more popular programs has been the Alternative Spring Break (ASB), a program in which students get to spend spring break serving a needy community. Some of these programs also have a focus on spirituality, allowing students to engage in interfaith dialogue. Programs like the ASB have generally been very popular, as has been the Tucker Foundation itself. Jackson Storm ’17, a student involved in Tucker who attended the last ASB (which focused on faith), stated that the nearly all students involved in the organization and its programs “love Tucker.”

However, last June, the College’s Board of Trustees approved a new structure for Tucker: a split into two separate entities, the Tucker Center for Religious and Spiritual Life and the Dartmouth Center for Public Service. According to Theresa M. Ellis ’97, interim dean of the Tucker Foundation, the separate organizations will likely continue to cooperate with each other. Since the announcement, little information has been given as the structure or governance of either organization.

Many see the divorce as troubling for the future prospects of religious groups. The split between secular and religious organizations at Dartmouth is already all too apparent. Evangelistic religious groups have been effectively barred from entrance into Dartmouth’s Council on Student Organizations (COSO), as attested by COSO’s repeated denial of Christian Union at Dartmouth (CU), currently one of the campus’ largest student organizations. When leaders in CU first sought recognition from the College in 2012, then Dean of the Tucker Foundation Richard Crocker explicitly told them to apply for recognition under COSO. However, soon afterwards, a COSO representative told them that groups of a religious nature were not welcome in COSO. Over the past few years, Christian Union has been denied recognition into COSO three times, each for different reasons. COSO does, however, recognize a limited number of religiously affiliated student groups, though they do not have the evangelistic focus that Christian Union has.

On the other hand, no secular groups have shown any desire to seek college recognition under the authority of the Tucker Foundation- for good reason. Apart from the novelty of such a move, no secular group would willingly put itself under Tucker’s authority when less restrictive governance under COSO is available. The governmental differences between the two organizations are stark. Under Tucker, religious groups must operate under the auspices of a college-approved campus minister who has ultimate authority over the group, while COSO groups are student led and require no such intervention by the College in order to operate. In addition, recognition under Tucker entails stipulations that could hinder the ability of religious organizations to reach out and attract new students. COSO groups are comparatively free to seek new members. In the same vein, one ’17 affiliated with a non-Christian religious group at the Tucker Foundation described the process of receiving funds as “convoluted and unnecessarily difficult.” By contrast, COSO regularly and easily doles out funds to organizations under its authority. In short, there is incomparably more bureaucracy under the Tucker Foundation’s authority than there is under the authority of COSO.

The separate governing structure has doubtlessly lessened the degree to which religious and non-religious campus groups interact. Ideally, any changes under the Tucker Foundation would be in conjunction with COSO, allowing religious groups equal standing among secular groups. However, the split in Tucker seems to be one more unfortunate step in the separation of religious groups from the general campus population. It is unclear exactly why a student group’s religious affiliation necessitates its separation from other student groups. Some have argued that the religious nature of a group calls for a separate governing structure that can better protect its freedom. However, President Hanlon’s rescinding of Bishop James Tengatenga’s nomination to become Dean of the Tucker Foundation indicates that there is little intention of increasing the protection of religious believers’ freedom of conscience at Dartmouth (Incidentally, Hanlon rescinded the nomination after Tengatenga had already quit his former job as Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Malawi). Others have argued that the separation has allowed the school to better serve religious groups. However, COSO’s actions belie such an argument, as student organizations are currently denied equal treatment because of their belief in a higher power.

With the ambiguity surrounding the current structural changes in the organization, Tucker groups have little conception of either the structure of the organization that will govern them or any potential new rules that might be applied once the changes are made. Despite the uncertainty and the disparity between governance of religious and secular student groups, there continues to be a strong religious community at Dartmouth. It appears that neither a lack of affiliation with the College nor a potentially encumbering authority structure has been able to stop the proliferation of membership in faith-based groups. For example, last Friday, Christian Union’s Weekly Lecture Series (colloquially known as “the Vine”) boasted about 120 student attendees, a truly impressive turnout for any event, religious or secular.

The Christian Union case is particularly astounding. Apart from the fact that the group has been denied COSO recognition three times and remains completely unaffiliated with the college, the group is very young relative to other religious groups at Dartmouth. Nevertheless, its membership has grown exponentially every year it has been active. When the group first came into existence in the fall of 2011, it was composed almost exclusively of freshmen, about 20 to 30 in total. Each year the group added a new freshman class to its organization, with this year being the first in which all four classes boasted a substantial number of members. Now, with over 150 students enrolled in Bible Courses, CU’s growth is nothing short of astonishing.

President of CU, Kevin Zhang ’16 says that in the past year, the organization “has really developed and consolidated well apart from Tucker and COSO.” The key, according to Zhang, is CU’s strong sense of community and the organization’s faith in God. As he explains, “People long to be understood and to be able to talk deeply with each other, to be real. That’s one of the things people find in CU: a community.” It is not uncommon for students involved to meet their best friends in events hosted by the organization. CU offers a variety of opportunities for students apart from its Weekly Lecture Series, including weekly Bible Courses, social events and regular prayer and worship meetings.

Students in Agape share a similar story of community. Jonathan Huang ’17, Agape’s Chair, said of the group: “We love people because of the love of Jesus Christ. There is a strong sense of community here.” Huang recalled his experience as a freshman joining the group and the ease with which he was able to get plugged in and make friends. “There were some 14s who were willing to sacrifice their time and take the effort to make me feel welcome. It was incredible.”

Agape operates under Tucker’s authority, though Huang was not concerned with the structural changes being made. He reported that the group’s friendship bonds and their common faith and trust in God would sustain them through any transformations of their governance. Agape’s activities include a large group meeting every Friday evening, a Teahouse every term featuring bubble tea, apple picking and corn maze trips every fall, a thanksgiving banquet, a retreat each winter term, and a senior sendoff, among others. Currently, the group has about forty dedicated members, with many more often coming to its social events. Though some students are affiliated with both CU and Agape, many choose instead to commit to either one group or the other, further underscoring the extent of student involvement in Christian organizations across campus.

Non-Christian religious groups have had solid membership, as well. Membership in the Jewish community has grown significantly in the past few years. Historically, Dartmouth was known as the anti-Semitic Ivy. The Freedman administration and the building of the Roth Center for Jewish Life helped improve the experience of Jews at Dartmouth. Furthermore, the arrival of Chabad and Rabbi Grey transformed Jewish life at the College. There are now around 400 Jews at Dartmouth.

Jewish religious participation on college campuses is often different than that of other religions. Jewish life on campus tends to center around Shabbat meals and their accompanying services, as well as other communal and non-religious programs. Jewish religious life on campus is therefore more social and less religiously oriented, and many students active in Jewish life may not even consider themselves religious. Hillel, located in the Roth Center, is the largest Jewish organization on campus. Their services tend to be Reformed, and they sometimes work with the Upper Valley Jewish Community. Chabbad is part of the Lubavitcher sect of Hasidic Orthodox Judaism, and tends to attract more religious or conservative Jews. Around 20-50 people attend Hillel every week, while around 10-30 attends Chabbad. Students attend Shabbat meals for a variety of reasons. Some attend because it was an essential part of their family life, while others began attending Shabbat meals for the first time after coming to Dartmouth, often for the sense of community they experience. Many Jewish students go to Hillel or Chabbad to meet new people and to help them adjust to life at Dartmouth.

Indeed, neither the structural differences between the governance of religious and secular groups at Dartmouth nor the ambiguity surrounding the future changes to the authority over religious groups has seemed to hinder the involvement of students in such groups. It will be interesting to see the Tucker Foundation’s reorganization, particularly the difference between its authority and that of the current incarnation. However, if past experience is any guide to the future, religious life will continue to flourish at Dear Old Dartmouth.

Sandor Farkas also contributed to this report.