Study: Muslim Students Set Their Eyes On Catholic Campuses Catholic campuses had a higher population of Muslim students than the average four-year institution in 2009, according to a recent report by The Washington Post. Students cite the appeal of shared values. However, tensions can rise when Muslim students want to carve out their own space through Muslim prayer rooms, Muslim chaplains and student organizations. Host Michel Martin speaks with John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America about the influx of Muslim students enrolling in Catholic colleges.

Study: Muslim Students Set Their Eyes On Catholic Campuses

Study: Muslim Students Set Their Eyes On Catholic Campuses

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Catholic campuses had a higher population of Muslim students than the average four-year institution in 2009, according to a recent report by The Washington Post. Students cite the appeal of shared values. However, tensions can rise when Muslim students want to carve out their own space through Muslim prayer rooms, Muslim chaplains and student organizations. Host Michel Martin speaks with John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America about the influx of Muslim students enrolling in Catholic colleges.


Next, we have news from the world of education. There's word from the Higher Education Research Institute that Catholic colleges and universities are seeing an increase in enrollment by Muslim students. Last year, Catholic campuses had on average a higher rate of attendance by Muslim students than other four-year institutions in the U.S. Well, this has created opportunities for new awareness on both sides. It also poses certain challenges for the campus. Questions arise about adapting its rules to students of different faith.

For followers of Islam, questions emerge about how to maintain their faith traditions and the kind of support that will be offered in the form of chaplains or spiritual advisers, or the creation of a student association.

We wanted to talk more about this phenomenon and more broadly about current issues in education. So we invited John Garvey to the program. He is the president of Catholic University. It is considered the flagship American University of the Roman Catholic Church, for example. The selection of the new president must be approved by the Vatican.

And according to The Washington Post, Catholic University also has one of the largest increases in the number of Muslim students in recent years. And President John Garvey is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JOHN GARVEY: Thank you for having me, Michel. It's nice to be here.

MARTIN: And we should also say, welcome, because, in fact, you are new to this post. This is your first year as president. Your selection was announced over the summer.

GARVEY: I just started in July.

MARTIN: All right. So, welcome.

GARVEY: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, just to put it in perspective, though, the actual number of Muslim students at Catholic University has gone from 41 to 91, but there are almost 7,000 students, you know, on the campus. So, it's not a huge number, but it is a significant increase. I was just wondering why you think that might be.

GARVEY: I think that there are a couple of reasons. One is, of course that we're in Washington, where the embassies are and we work closely with the embassies and the cultural missions to - in the same way we would with high school guidance counselors to attract students.

But I think another - an important reason for us at Catholic universities is that the Muslim students, especially those who are observant, feel comfortable and safe at the institution. It's a place where their own faith practices are mirrored by our own. And they feel both welcome and understood at the campus.

MARTIN: And so, you think in terms of the living environment is part of it. That the students, for example - the dorms are not co-ed, which seems to be a trend on a number of secular campuses. So that there's a sort of a modesty or a social conservatism that is appealing for people who are also - adhere to the faith traditions in that particular way.

GARVEY: I think that is part of the appeal. Did you notice there was a story in the paper this morning about difficulties that Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Sikhs and others have in going through airport security.

MARTIN: I found it.

MARTIN: I found a new life in Jesus Christ. And her response was, oh, sorry. Not that she'd embarrassed him, but that she didn't want to intrude on his private space. Well, at Catholic universities, people would be not just understanding, but appreciative of somebody else's faith differences.

And so there's a kind of invitation or welcome that you don't feel in the ordinary kind of environment.

MARTIN: Has the university taken any special steps to support Muslim students in their faith traditions? For example, can they get Halal meat? Are there prayer rooms set aside for them?

GARVEY: We don't set aside prayer rooms, although we make our space available so that students who have daily prayer needs, Muslims who are observant pray five times a day, they can pray. We make classrooms available, or our chapels are places where they can pray. We don't offer Halal meat, although there are always meals that conform to Halal regulations, that allow students to do what they want.

And there are other kinds of differences that people notice on a Catholic campus that they may not notice elsewhere. Prayer is one example. It's something that we do frequently as well. There are daily masses, but also many of the professors will start class with a prayer. There are differences in dress. You may have noticed how in France recently they're wearing veils, or especially full veils has become a very sensitive issue. And in the schools in France wearing veils is something that's not permitted. Well, on Catholic campuses, there are a lot of religious nuns, friars, priests who wear unusual sort of garb and people feel much more at home doing that sort of...

MARTIN: And they feel more accepting of that, but they don't cover their faces, do they? I mean, that's the issue. The issue is not so much covering the hair, it's covering the face.

GARVEY: Well, there are two different laws in France. One is about the full veil, which applies in public. And the other is about even wearing a hijab in public schools.

MARTIN: In public institutions. And so that would be - that is tolerated, as it were. What about this whole question of chaplain or a student association? It was reported by The Post that Catholic University does not support either idea. Whereas there are other Catholic institutions, like, for example, Georgetown, that does in fact have a Muslim chaplain on staff to support the faith needs of those students and does allow a Muslim student association. It's been reported that Catholic does neither. Why is that?

GARVEY: There are differences among schools and how we see our - the hospitality that we offer to our students. The fact is that most of our Muslim students live off campus so the needs of theirs that we need to attend to are for daily prayer or for meals and fasting and dress and that sort of thing. But needs that are less urgent are ones that we satisfy by connecting them with local ministers.

Our campus ministry works with them to make sure that they know where they can attend the mosque in Virginia or the District of Columbia. Most of our students, as I said, live off campus and so they attend mosque.

MARTIN: But what would be wrong with a Muslim student association? I mean, a number of groups - this is often a sensitive issue when groups that are new to a campus, arrive on campus, you know, in the '60s, having a black student association was controversial in some campuses, but it's now become a fairly standard thing. Although it is newly controversial on some campuses because there are those who still feel that these kinds of associations are divisive, ethnic student associations are divisive. But I would like to ask, what is the reasoning there?

GARVEY: Yeah, wrong is certainly the wrong word to use in describing our attitude toward it. On the contrary we are happy to invite these students to the campus and to provide them the services that we do. Our view of it is about the extent of our obligation of hospitality to students who are not members of the sponsoring faith of the institution.

So we welcome them at all of the events that we provide on campus and provide any sorts of assistance through our campus ministry to them and connecting with other members of their own faith. It's just not something that we view as an activity that we want to sponsor because we're a Catholic institution rather than Muslim.

MARTIN: So if the kids want to get together, young people - some of these aren't kids - if the young people want to gather privately, they can do so, but you don't feel that as an institution the institution should be sponsoring an organization that is not Catholic.

GARVEY: That's right.

MARTIN: So, let me ask you this more broadly. Now that this country is becoming much more diverse, it's always been a diverse country. This is the same question that I think arises for - it's not a perfect analogy, but it's close. Like, institutions like the historically black colleges and universities. Many of these institutions were birthed at a time of discrimination against certain groups where they were not permitted or not welcome, really, at institutions that serve the general population and that these institutions serve to both offer opportunity and to affirm the culture and the dignity of persons of these particular groups.

But now that students are welcome in any institution, there is an ongoing question about, what is the role in this day and time? So I'd like to ask, for an institution like Catholic University, it's like I said, it's not quite the same as an HBCU, but what do you the role of a Catholic university is in this day and time?

GARVEY: Our interest is in allowing people to connect their faith, their religious principles, they're own intellectual interests with the daily life of their Catholic faith and to live it out not just in the classroom, but outside the classroom in their meals, recreation, interaction with other students, student activities. And I think that that's a big part of the appeal that Catholic University has for these Muslim students.

MARTIN: Finally, I did want to ask about the whole question of education and access to education in this country. As of course you must know that many districts are very profoundly squeezed by current economic circumstances and tuitions are rising at many state institutions. And that Catholic University is still relatively affordable, even though the tuition is upwards of $30,000 a year, but...

GARVEY: Yes, that's true.

MARTIN: ...comparatively speaking, that is still in contrast to a number of institutions considered relatively affordable. I do have to ask whether you feel that there is any moral imperative to continue to offer educational opportunity to people who cannot afford it in these difficult times. And how do you go about offering that?

GARVEY: I think it's really important that we continue to offer an affordable education to - particularly to members of the American Catholic Church. One of the interesting things that we have become aware of is that in the American Catholic Church, of all American Catholics under the age of 25, more than half are Hispanic or Latino. That's the population that we appeal to for offering our education.

And often those young people are less able to afford an education than others who have had more advantages in life. So I think it's really important for us to be able to do that. What we need to depend on is the generosity of our alumni and other benefactors to help make up the difference between what it costs to run the university and what people can afford to pay.

MARTIN: Perhaps we can talk more about that when you come back and see us next, and we hope you will.

GARVEY: I'd be delighted. Thank you very much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: John Garvey is president of Catholic University of America. It's located right here in Washington, D.C. We've been talking about the fact that his university has seen the sharpest increase of Muslim student enrollment of any Catholic college in the country, according to The Washington Post in recent years. He's newly installed in this position. And he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

President Garvey, thank you so much for joining us, and Merry Christmas to you.

GARVEY: Thank you again, and Merry Christmas to you.

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