Perspective: Higher ed doesn’t need to devolve into cultural battles
We can still live out our beliefs while working at a public institution, and we should be careful not to rush to judgment
After shopping at Costco one day, I was waiting to go through the security checkpoint with three large bags of candy. An older couple approached me and said something about me having enough treats for a big party. I explained that I was a music professor at Utah Tech University and that we were having a recruiting fair for potential students.
Immediately the woman said, “You’re not a socialist, are you?! They are all socialists over there!”
I was shocked by the accusation, but calmly said, “No, I’m not a socialist. Have a nice day.” I left the store marveling over the speed at which a person can jump to conclusions in our society today.
But the woman’s view is one that many people share, even though it is demonstrably untrue.
Academia brings together a very diverse, national and international community of researchers, philosophers, scientists, artists, teachers, writers, theorists and thinkers. Placing all of us into one category, then, is clearly myopic. Additionally, when one works at a public, state-funded school like I do, the mission of that school is shaped by the vision of the government, administration, faculty, community, donors, alumni, students and many others.
I consider myself as a faith-minded believer and follower of Jesus Christ who teaches at a state school. This statement alone may conjure images for some that may or may not be accurate. Yet once again, please take a step back and learn a little about me before you make a snap judgment. You never know, you and I might become dear friends someday. It’s a small world.
Diversity and assumptions
For the past 20-plus years I have been teaching music in the public schools at both the secondary and post-secondary levels. I taught band and choir in beautiful Bear Lake County, Idaho, then returned to school at the University of Utah (here we go again, please don’t judge me yet) where I studied choral conducting. After earning a master’s degree, I moved with my wife and our children to Tallahassee, Florida, so I could work on a doctorate in music education at Florida State University. This experience was life-changing, not only because of the educational benefits, but the opportunity to live among a diverse group of people.
My oldest daughter attended kindergarten at an elementary school where she was the racial minority. Her principal, her friends, the faculty and staff were very committed and caring. We were so grateful that she was able to learn from an early age that people don’t always look, believe or think the same, but they are amazing, competent, smart, professional, loving and fun to be around.
While we were living in Tallahassee, my wife went to Walmart with four of our children. A lady walked right up to her and asked, accusingly, how many children she had, making broad assumptions about our religion. My wife made the best of the situation, but was shocked by the abrupt manner in which she was approached by a total stranger and interrogated.
My first college teaching job brought us to beautiful St. Joseph, Missouri, where I also taught in a public, state-funded institution. While living there, one Sunday afternoon, after watching the General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I received a work email letting me know about the scheduling of a recital on a Sunday afternoon.
I knew that if I didn’t share my beliefs in response to that email, I would regret it, and gradually my Sundays would be filled up with more and more work obligations. I hit “reply all” and wrote a response to all of my colleagues in the music department about my feelings on observing the Sabbath. Some of my colleagues were agnostic or of other faiths, but their responses were very kind and respectful, and I was able to serve in my church callings and spend time with my family on Sundays.
We can still live our religious beliefs while working in a public institution without worrying about crossing the line between church and state. We can still hold firm to our beliefs and speak about our religious lives with colleagues, students, staff and administration.
‘Are you praying down there?’
One final experience: As a person with a history of anxiety, I occasionally find myself struggling to move forward, feeling fear and uncertainty. My specific area of expertise is conducting choirs, and I often kneel down and offer a quick prayer before leaving my office.
One day, after a particularly difficult, but successful rehearsal had concluded, I was so happy and grateful at what we had accomplished, that when I entered my office, not seeing anybody in the hall, I quickly knelt down and offered a 15-second prayer of thanks.
Although my prayer was hardly long enough for me to kneel and get back up again, my next-door colleague suddenly knocked on my door. I was startled and got up quickly, and he said jokingly, “Are you praying down there?”
He thought that I was just picking up something from the floor. I was a little embarrassed, but I told him that I was actually praying to express gratitude for a rehearsal that went much better than I had expected. We laughed, and there was an understanding felt between us.
My students, no matter their background, know what church I belong to and what responsibilities I have in my congregation. I share fun experiences from my missionary service in Argentina, explaining where I learned Spanish when we sing in that language. I have taught students from all walks of life — Black, white, old, young, male, female, agnostic, Christian, members of the LGBTQ+ community, first- and multi-generational college students. If “living my religion” has ever caused a negative experience, it has been inconsequential and very rare. Mostly, people respect me and know that I care about them as a human being.
During this time, I’ve also had many associations with wonderful, thoughtful and kind people of many different religious persuasions — as well as people of no faith. If you look carefully, the goodness of humanity is everywhere. As my family used to sing growing up, there really is “beauty all around.”
In summary, let’s be confident that we can speak and live openly and happily as people of faith amid those with very different views. And let’s all be careful when observing others. You may not know who they really are based on their affiliation with an organization alone — or even what they’re doing at the cash register with an armload of candy.
Roger H. Hale, Ph.D., teaches in the music department at Utah Tech University and serves as the director of choirs. He and his wife, KayDe, and their five children live near the beautiful red cliffs of Ivins, Utah.