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Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life Mark Orten gives his inaugural address at the Robert A. Jones ’59 House on November 17.

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New Dean Envisions Growth in Spiritual, Religious Engagement

November 21, 2016

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — Mark Orten, the dean of spiritual and religious life at Middlebury College since July 2016, delivered his inaugural address on November 17 at the Robert A. Jones ’59 House.

The speaker made a strong case for encouraging the growth of religious and spiritual engagement at Middlebury, and set forth his vision for the future here—a vision that includes the creation of an interfaith house for students, i.e., “an intentional living-learning community…a model for how we might live [together] in the world.”

Orten, who also serves as the director of Middlebury’s Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life, opened his 40-minute talk with some illuminating statistics from a seven-year, longitudinal study of 15,000 students conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute.

The research showed the majority of college students “maintain a strong interest in spiritual and religious matters.” Four out of five students surveyed “have an interest in spirituality” and “believe in the sacredness of life”; and more than three-fourths believe in God and report feeling “a sense of connection with God/Higher Power that transcends my personal self,” said Orten, quoting directly from the study published in “Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives” (Jossey-Bass, 2010).

It also showed that “large numbers of higher education faculty report that they are either religious, spiritual, or both,” he said. More than half of faculty consider themselves to be “both spiritual or religious to some extent,” and slightly less than 20 percent indicate that they are neither spiritual nor religious. This, the researchers said, offers “convincing evidence that the work activities, self-concept, and personal values of college and university faculty are closely related to their spiritual inclinations.” 

To Orten the data “tells a story different than the dominant assumption in and about academic culture: that faculty are essentially godless, and that students are disinterested” in religious and spiritual matters. The “psycho-social profile of students and faculty today” combined with the “historical context” for the role of spiritual and religious life in higher education in America “go to the heart of what being human and educating humans is all about. Educating, among other ways of seeing it, is itself a spiritual exercise.” 

After building the foundation for religious and spiritual life at a secular institution such as Middlebury, Orten turned to the questions: What then is our responsibility, we who are charged with the care for spiritual and religious life? How do we do this?

He addressed the questions through the dimensions of facilities, staffing, and programming, and it was through the third element, programming, that the new dean talked about his vision in terms of intrafaith development, interfaith experiences (such as an interfaith house for students), and the well being of the community.

The chaplains and staff of the Scott Center need to be strategic and do three things collectively: be more visible, be more conceptually central, and be more relevant, he said. “These three things, as strategic goals, essentially comprise our vision at its core.” He discussed the steps being taken in all three areas and concluded:

“I want us to imagine, and to work toward, a campus environment where the vast array of religious observances is an expected phenomenon, without infringement on any person’s own daily choices, and in a way that cultivates curiosity through hospitable invitations for learning and engagement.

“Imagine living and learning in a place where the profound accumulated wisdom of the world’s great spiritual teachings and practices were accessible and employed regularly in our life together. It is not impossible to imagine,” Orten affirmed. 

Dean of the College Katy Smith-Abbott introduced the new dean at the outset of the program and added, “I am especially thrilled to lift up the Scott Center and its staff for the creative, thoughtful, and responsive work they do every day to help find common ground, to deepen our understanding, and…to call us to our better selves.”

Smith-Abbott also read a message from President Laurie L. Patton, who was out of town traveling on Middlebury business. The president extended her “heartfelt congratulations” to Mark Orten and said, “We can all agree these are challenging times, and Mark’s energy and light and grit and graciousness are what we need to have with us right now.”

Reporting by Robert Keren, photo by Todd Balfour

3 Comments

“Imagine living and learning in a place where the profound accumulated wisdom of the world’s great spiritual teachings and practices were accessible and employed regularly in our life together. " It strikes me that striving for anything less is at least inadvisable and more like unacceptable. Having said that, I applaud the notion and direction of this statement as identifying potentially the greatest opportunity a college experience might bear on the quality and purpose of lives during and following four years of study, socialization and exploration. Those who might object that the objectives here are hard to define and measure could miss a/the point that discovering and creating what is important spiritually and what religions might teach us transcends desires for more immediately available results attainable from established secular disciplines. What is at stake here for those in the Middlebury community and beyond might well be satisfaction (though probably never contentment) in one's sense of purpose and an inner peace that (with apologies saying this with a cliché) the journey is the destination. I and I suspect many others appreciate that Mark Orten's discussions/pursuits/directions are being shared with the greater Middlebury College community (e.g. alumni) and look forward to this continuing in print, maybe video(?), and experientially(?) for the times we alumni can be back on campus.

by David Minot '74 (not verified)

Being a product of Middlebury in the Forties, I did a double-take at the adjective describing Middlebury as a secular institution. But of course it is. Old Chapel and Mead Chapel, the latter reminding us daily that "The Strength of the Hills is His Also" as we attended required chapel services at 10 a.m, actually exist parallel to the spirit of the "one nation, under God" phrase of our Pledge of Allegiance to the Nited States of America. Personally, I cannot separate spirituality in my case tinged with religion, from life itself. My Middlebury experience included membership in The Interfaith Group, as a group photo in a yearbook is identified. Mead Chapel sufficed for all of us. I question the mentioned goal of an interfaith center. These four walls have long been cordial to interfaith spiritual meditation of all Middlebury hearts and minds. Let us give thought to recycling the use of existing spaces before launching yet another building campaign. The congeniality of Battell Breakfast of leftover rolls made into cinnamon toast at Battell Cottage after daily Chapel is a tradition worth reviving in one of the present day dining rooms. A time and place to gather and consider campus unity "under God." So maybe, on second thought, a building where both food for the body and soul can be served is a worthy interfaith goal.

by Mary Elizabeth ... (not verified)

When I reflect on my academic choices at Middlebury (Class of '69), I regret I did not take a variety of religion courses. Wikipedia suggests there are more than 4,000 religions worldwide. Each of these, in order to nurture the souls and secure the loyalty, if not patronage, of its adherents, assures them that their faith is Truth. [Not even Donald Trump can manage that many versions of Truth.] Few courses of study could be more interesting than striving to comprehend how Truth has so many conflicting manifestations. Dean Orten says, “Imagine living and learning in a place where the profound accumulated wisdom of the world’s great spiritual teachings and practices were accessible and employed regularly in our life together." That proposed outcome, "employed regularly in our life together", has eluded humanity since the inception of the second religious faith. If it can be achieved through the creation of an interfaith house built at Middlebury College, then break ground now.

by greg lewis (not verified)

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