Initial Grant Period Fall 2006 - Fall 2008
First Round of Workshops Fall 2010 - Spring 2011
Second Round of Workshops Spring 2013 - Spring 2014

Overview Statement

In our initial grant, the collaborating institutions devised and tested new understandings of secularity in liberal arts education as a means of engaging students in questions of meaning and value. Established in the late 18th or 19th centuries, when Protestantism was assumed to be integral to teaching, learning and service at a college, all four institutions have over time come to reflect the secular and secularizing trends in US higher education. These institutions value secular ideas as a means to promote tolerance and critical thought, and to create democratic institutions and civic engagement, but they also wonder whether uncritical secular assumptions are in various ways stripping some students and faculty of fundamental aspects of their identity. They wonder, in other words, if secularity is truly "neutral." Exploring how current understandings of secularity both help and hinder efforts to integrate questions of value and meaning into the curriculum as well as the co-curriculum, faculty and administrators on each campus will develop initiatives specific to their needs. The partners share the goal of developing leadership on their campuses to ask whether and how secularity is an enabling condition of liberal arts education. The initial Teagle Foundation grant period for this project began in the fall semester, 2006, and concluded with our conference, November 13-14, 2008 (see "Conference").

To expand the circle of campuses engaging the question--"what do we mean when we call ourselves secular?"—we developed a Teagle workshop, "Reconceiving the Secular Liberal Arts," and issued a Call for Proposals during 2009. In 2010-11, we visited eight of the fifteen campuses that applied for the workshop: Beloit College, Dartmouth College, Haverford College, Monmouth College, Occidental College, Union College, University of Richmond, and Wofford College.

Now the Teagle Foundation has agreed to support a second round of the "Reconceiving the Secular Liberal Arts" workshop, to be offered beginning in the spring of 2013, continuing through the spring of 2014.

Group Activities

The working group collaborated on a joint series of initiatives, including faculty-administrator seminars, new course models, faculty-student research projects, campus forums, visiting speakers, institutional research assessing student, faculty, and administrators’ experience of secularity and how it frames students' questions of meaning and value, a white paper, and, at the conclusion of the second year, a multi-campus public conference (see links for more conference information). In the second year, the partners continued the first year activities, compiling our qualitative research, implementing co-curricular and teaching development initiatives, writing the White Paper and Working Group Papers, and planning the conference.  See the White Paper for a detailed description of our group activities and findings.

Campus Activities

Summaries of the activities of each campus’s faculty-chaplain/religious administrator study groups are included in the Working Group Papers, Appendix C.

Inter-Institutional Activities

Full Working Group meetings were held each fall and spring semester over the two year grant period, with each campus serving as host. Two smaller group inter-institutional meetings have also been held to develop and discuss our qualitative research design and results.

The first meeting in October, 2006 at Bucknell University was a day-long Working Group discussion of our goals, interests, plans and resources. We paid particular attention to the dilemmas our secular contexts present for integrating what faculty and students care about-- what we're calling questions of meaning and value -- with their learning and teaching. We began discussing how the four partners can work together to assemble baseline data on student engagement in big questions. We plan to develop shared instruments for a qualitative assessment across our campuses of how students and faculty experience secularity, with institutional research to begin during the spring, 2007.

Our second meeting in February, 2007, was a meeting at Williams College of members of each campus institutional research team to finish the shared interview and focus group questions we used on our campuses. We drew up plans and a timeline for training and implementation of our research.

Our third meeting in May 2007 brought together the full Working Group at Vassar College to re-evaluate our goals for the project, brainstorming and developing the planned sessions for our conference, including speakers to invite, and a new project timeline.

Our fourth meeting in August 2007 was a meeting at Vassar College of student researchers and their institutional research supervisors for initial reports by the students about our qualitative research.

Our fifth meeting in October 2007 brought together the full Working Group at Williams College, with student, faculty and chaplain researchers presenting first drafts of our qualitative research reports, and further planning of our white paper and conference.

At our sixth meeting in April 2008 at Macalester College we reviewed and discussed the first draft of our White Paper, with Jonathan VanAntwerpen, from the Social Science Research Council, serving as respondent. VanAntwerpen is an SSRC research fellow, program officer for Council projects on Religion and the Public Sphere, and editor of the SSRC blog, "The Immanent Frame: Secularism, religion, and the public sphere."

Working Group Members

For more information, contact Samuel Speers, Project Coordinator, ( or any of the other members of our Working Group (see below).

  • Dan Balik, Director of Institutional Research, Macalester College
  • Rena Blumenthal, Assistant Director of Religious & Spiritual Life and Rachlin Advisor to Jewish Life, Vassar College
  • Randolph Cornelius, Professor of Psychology, Vassar College
  • Stuart Crampton, Barclay Jermain Professor of Natural Philosophy, Emeritus, Williams College
  • Lucy Forster-Smith, Associate Dean for Religious and Spiritual Life and Chaplain, Macalester College
  • Serena Fujita, Jewish Chaplain, Bucknell University
  • Jonathon Kahn, Assistant Professor of Religion, Vassar College
  • Kenneth Livingston, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science, Vassar College
  • Paul Macdonald Jr., Assistant Professor of Religion, Bucknell University
  • Joseph Murray, Associate Professor of Education, Director, College Student Personnel Program, Bucknell University
  • Ian Oliver, Pastor to the University Church and Senior Associate Chaplain for Protestant Life at Yale University (prior to July 2008, Rev. Oliver served as University Chaplain, Bucknell University)
  • Richard E. Spalding, Chaplain to the College and Coordinator of Community Service, Williams College
  • Samuel Speers, Project Coordinator and Director of Religious and Spiritual Life, Vassar College
  • Clay Steinman, Professor of Humanities and Media and Cultural Studies, Macalester College
  • Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Program Officer at the Social Science Research Council, served as a consultant to the project, attending Working Group meetings and participating in our joint deliberations.
  • Elizabeth Dunn, Administrative Assistant in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Vassar College, served as Administrator for the grant activities.