Religion and “Belonging” at UVA

This graph shows the percentage of students identifying by various religions as responding that they Somewhat Agree, Agree, or Strongly agree with the statement, “I feel that I belong at the University of Virginia.”

by James A. Bacon

Hindus and Buddhists were the most likely of any major religious classification to say in 2022 that they feel like they “belong” at the University of Virginia, with Christians not far behind. Muslims and Jews were the least likely to say that they belong.

The graph was included with instructions issued by Provost Ian Baucom to members of the religious diversity task force formed in response to the Hamas-Israel conflict that began in October. The Jefferson Council requested the full instructions as well as agenda or minutes of any meetings held by the task force. As is their practice, UVA attorneys withheld almost everything as presidential working papers. However, they did release one of six pages in Baucom’s instructions — the one that contained the graph displayed above.

The underlying data comes from biennial surveys conducted by SERU (Student Experience in Research University) consortium.

In interpreting the graph, it is worth noting that Jim Ryan assumed the presidency of UVA in 2018 and made Diversity, Equity & Inclusion a top priority of his administration. The number of DEI administrators exploded, and “Inclusive Excellence” became a university-wide watchword. How has that worked out? Does the stress on racial, ethnic and religious identity make it easier for students to fit in?

In 2020, Jews felt a greater sense of belonging at UVA than any other religious group; 95% responded with varying degrees of intensity that they felt they belonged. By 2022, the percentage had plunged to 70%. How Jews will respond in 2024 after pro-Palestinian events and anti-Israeli rhetoric is anyone’s guess.

Surprisingly, Muslims were most likely at one point to feel a sense of belonging, peaking at around 92% in 2013 and 2014. The sentiment plunged to 55% by 2016 for reasons that are elusive to me. Perhaps readers can suggest what happened to explain the sudden change. Muslim sentiment has improved somewhat under Ryan but still remains significantly lower than average.

As a broad category, Christians are more likely on average to feel included at UVA. However, that doesn’t tell us much because Christian denominations — Catholics, old-line Protestants, evangelicals, Greek Orthodox, and others — are so varied in their beliefs. Fundamentalists are more likely to have views that conflict with administrative practice. For example, the University Health system refused to grant religious exemptions for the Covid vaccine unless they belonged to one of a handful of approved denominations. It now faces a class-action lawsuit from employees who were fired. Likewise, more than 200 students in the academic division were “disenrolled” during the epidemic for refusing to take the vaccine. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the vaccine objectors subscribed to fundamentalist beliefs.

One goal of the task force is to investigate the history of discrimination against religious groups. We can be assured that it will dig into bias against Muslims and Jews. Will the task force scrutinize UVA’s own history of discrimination against fundamentalist Christians in enforcing the vaccine mandate? I’m not holding my breath, but we’ll see.

Other questions are worth examining. There are divisions among Jews in the America, just as there are in Israel. At the risk of over-simplifying, there are secular Jews, reform Jews, and orthodox Jews. A former rabbi of the theologically and politically liberal Hillel House was appointed to the task force. The rabbi of the more theologically and politically conservative Chabad House was not. It’s worth asking if one group of Jews at UVA feels more “belonging” than the other.

As for Muslims, it does not appear that the Sunni-Shia schism that drives politics in the Middle East, is much of a factor in U.S. Some reform-minded Muslims are struggling for the soul of Islam in U.S. mosques, but they aren’t visible at UVA. The most vocal proponents of Islam, especially those who support the Palestinian cause, have merged with the woke left. My working hypothesis is that the decline in the sense of “belonging” among Muslims is most evident among militants who have built their identity around victimhood, grievance, and the oppressor/oppressed paradigm. I’m willing to stand corrected… but that’s not a topic that the task force is likely to address, so we may never know.

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Walter smith
Walter smith
4 months ago

My guesstimate on the Muslim low in 2016… The survey would be done in 2017 and the Muslim kids heard the non-stop mischaracterization of Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban,” which was aimed at terrorism, not Muslims per se. Nonetheless, Muslims need to address the terrorism problem (and jihad and intifada) if they truly wish acceptance and acclimation. I fear very many have been imported who do not wish that at all, so there really does need to be a struggle within Islam for how it wishes to exist in America.

4 months ago
Reply to  Walter smith

Following Bush, both Obama and Trump were committed to the war on terrorism. From the web: “Homegrown terrorism increased on Obama’s watch, with attacks in Fort Hood, Boston, Chattanooga, San Bernardino and Orlando.”
And Trump’s war on ISIS also increased the focus on Islamic terrorism.