Ethics and Religious Institutions of Higher Education: Beginning the Journey

Inaugural Convocation of Zaytuna College, Berkeley, CA given by James A. Donahue, Ph.D., President and Professor of Ethics, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley on August 23, 2010

Listen to the address


Watch the entire convocation. (Dr. Donahue's speech begins at 31 minutes.)


As-salaamu alaikum (or peace be upon you) and Ramadan Mubarak

It is an enormous honor for me to be here today. I celebrate with the Zaytuna community today—its faculty, students, board, friends, supporters—and congratulate you on this most important of occasions. When invited to give reflections as Zaytuna College marks its inaugural convocation, I was tasked with offering words of support, challenge and advice. What you are undertaking today—the inauguration of the first undergraduate college of Islamic learning in the United States seeking accreditation—is indeed groundbreaking and monumental. You are to be congratulated for your initiative. On behalf of the Graduate Theological Union and all institutions of higher learning, please know that we are supportive of your undertaking and assure you that we will be with you as fellow travelers as you embark on this bold journey.

As a Professor of Ethics I would like to focus my brief remarks tonight on what I will call the ethical commitments and responsibilities that you/Zaytuna, as a religious institution of higher education, will incorporate as a part of your self-understanding as you move forward. These will be the reference points that will call out to you as you make decisions in your future. I speak of ethical commitments because I do believe that institutions have the capacity and the obligation to be ethical in their decisions and actions. This requires a fair amount of self-understanding—an understanding of one of the first and foremost questions of ethics: To whom or what do I have responsibilities and what is the nature of those responsibilities.

I want to talk about these ethical commitments and responsibilities of Zaytuna in four contexts:

1.    The Mission Statement.     You have an elegant one.

2.    The Three Publics:

     a.    The Tradition

     b.    The Academy

     c.    The Community-at-large

3.    The American Context

4.    The Students

Perhaps I can share some advice with you along the way.

The significance and importance of this day cannot be understated. Today Zaytuna is setting out on a path that seeks to preserve the most treasured and valued qualities in all of human history (the truths of a religious tradition) and to do this at a time when the world needs so desperately the wisdom of these truths and at a time when these truths are under challenge and assault. Zaytuna has laid claim to the ground of preserving and passing on the truths of Islam and engaging in the intellectual and academic journey of understanding how these truths will be transmitted into new cultures, new times, new generations. A daunting task—this preservation, transmission, and engagement as the Islamic tradition reflects upon itself—and yet one that is so necessary for us today. Without it we will be severely diminished in our human capacity for human understanding, truth, and social justice, and ultimately in our search for God.

The journey that Zaytuna begins is one that has been undertaken by others before it, albeit in different religious traditions and in different times. I would like to reference my own experience as an example. I am a product of Jesuit education in the Roman Catholic tradition. From high school, through college and graduate school, and into my professional career as a professor of theology and ethics, I have been associated with Jesuit institutions of higher education. The Society of Jesus was founded by Saint Ignatius Loyola in the 16th century in Spain and was distinguished among other Catholic orders of the time for their primary commitment to the teaching ministries. Today there are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States, and they are among the most distinguished institutions in higher education: Georgetown, Boston College, Fordham, College of the Holy Cross, Santa Clara University, and the University of San Francisco locally.

Zaytuna shares many of the same commitments that are at the heart of Jesuit colleges:

  • a commitment to the scholarly transmission of the classical disciplines (for Jesuits, Latin, Greek, classical literature),
  • the preservation and transmission of the Catholic theological tradition, and
  • the formation of men and women for leadership in the contemporary world of which they are a part.

An essential tenet of all Jesuit education is the idea that the goal of this kind of education is to create “men and women for others.”

1.    Commitment and Responsibility to Mission

So too, Zaytuna College shares in these essential undertakings as articulated in your mission statement—an elegant and powerful mission statement:

“Zaytuna College aims to educate and prepare morally committed professional, intellectual, and spiritual leaders, who are grounded in the Islamic scholarly tradition and conversant with the cultural currents and critical issues shaping modern society.”

Your mission provides the first reference point for your ethical commitments and responsibilities. As an institution it will be imperative for Zaytuna to be faithful to these commitments. The core of this mission is the belief and the inherent challenge both to preserve a tradition and to translate that tradition in new ways to new audiences in new times. This, of course, is the challenge to all institutions of higher education, but most particularly to those religious institutions that seek to carry on a set of religious truths—some which find easy translation into the contemporary cultural context and others that do not. And of course we all realize that all points of view in the transmission of a religious tradition have advocates and detractors who are passionate and increasingly public about their views. It is one thing to carry on scholarly debate within the academy; it is quite another to carry on that debate on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News, let alone on the internet.

These distinctions and strategies are ones with which Zaytuna will be confronted in the future, if not already. Your mission statement serves you well to help frame and navigate these matters.

2.     Commitment and Responsibility to Publics

The second ethical commitment of Zaytuna as an institution is to what University of Chicago theologian David Tracy refers as the “publics” that provide the contexts for the academic religious enterprise—the Academy, the Tradition, and the Community-at-Large (Public).

The Academy. An ethical commitment to the Academy means that the framework for assessing decisions and quality of intellectual merit resides in the canons of discourse, reason, and legitimation that serve to organize the fundamental undertaking of the academic work of the college. This is as it should be, and needs to be, in any academic setting. There need to be standards of acceptability for what counts as arguments, evidence, and reasons for the establishment and advancing of intellectual ideas and claims. Knowledge and ideas are the currency of your work here. This might seem obvious to all in higher education, but as you might imagine these issues can become particularly conflicted when there are claims supported by the warrants of reason on the one hand and those supported by the warrants of faith on the other. How faith and reason are understood and held in mutuality is the key ingredient for the legitimacy of any religious college or university. So too with Zaytuna. There will be times when the interpretations of the texts and traditions will clash with the interpretations of the contexts of contemporary culture. The test of a university—and its primary ethical commitment—is to develop capacities for adjudicating such matters. This will not be easy. My advice is to learn from those who have been on this path before—those religious institutions for which these matters have been relevant.

This will also require paying attention to the demands and requirements of accreditation that all academic institutions in the US face. I know that WASC is enthusiastic about Zaytuna College and that there are already conversations about preparing for the accreditation process. I commend and encourage these to continue. The accreditation process, where one is asked to articulate learning outcomes, goals, and measures for assessment for programs and courses, can be very helpful for all academic institutions.

The Tradition. I do not need to tell this audience that the sacred texts, the values, the rituals, the prayers and practices, and all other forms of the Islamic tradition are the cornerstone of what it means to be a Muslim. The task of Zaytuna will be to define itself as a place where Muslims and others come together to engage in the conversations, research, and modes of inquiry that will assess what constitutes authentic Islam and provide models for enabling others both within and outside the Muslim community to make such determination.

Zaytuna is an academic institution—a college. It is not a mosque; it is not a community center; it is not a gathering space for religious rituals; it is not a cultural center—although elements of each of these will surely be part of Zaytuna. The challenge for Zaytuna will be to determine in what ways it will serve the Islamic tradition and how it can enable that tradition both to preserve and grow. Its task is what Eric Erickson refers to as “generative”—to preserve the tradition while passing it on to the next generations. The pressures for Zaytuna to be many things to many people will be significant. It is best served when it follows its academic core mission.

Zaytuna is a special kind of academic institution—one that serves the head as well as the heart, faith as well as reason, tradition as well as culture. I can say from my experience at the Graduate Theological Union, which shares many of the same commitments as Zaytuna, that this is exactly the kind of institution that is needed in our day and time when there is no artificial divide between the parts of the self and society; rather there is a thrust toward integration and holism that is required for living successfully in our world today.

The Community-at-Large (Public). Zaytuna will be a valued asset for the community. Obviously for the Muslim community, but also for the community of all serious-minded and engaged citizens who seek answers for our most profound challenges and complex issues. The fact that Zaytuna is committed to an interreligious and interfaith focus in its understanding of Islam is important. This will create a set of conversation partners and focus of inquires that will greatly enrich not only the students of Zaytuna but also the larger communities of faith, and civic communities as well. Again, I can attest from the perspective of the GTU that this will make Zaytuna an enormously valuable asset to the local, national, and international community.

3.    Commitment and Responsibility to the American Context

Zaytuna and the American Context.

Zaytuna’s decision to become the first indigenous Muslim college in the US puts it squarely in the American context. Because of this, its ethical commitments will also require understanding the nature of the roles and responsibilities that are entailed by this American commitment. While there is not one single measure that makes an academic institution uniquely American, there are several values that I will suggest for consideration. Zaytuna will need to determine how to incorporate these into its work:

Democratic Values: The idea of democracy is key to understanding American higher education, religious or otherwise. There are certain values inherent to democracy.

1.    Rights and Liberties
Natural, Civil, Political, Religious, Economic. This opens up a huge set of issues.

2.    Pluralism, religious and otherwise
Zaytuna committed to interfaith dialogue.

3.    Pragmatism
The practicality of the American consciousness, life, and faith, ideas (not utilitarianism necessarily)

4.    Institutionalization instinct
(good for Zaytuna to realize this by creating an institution)

5.    Democratic justice
Reciprocity, equality, laws / Sharia Law

6.    Novelty in interpretation (context, particularity) a challenge
This will perhaps be the greatest ethical challenge for Zaytuna.

4.    Responsibility to Students as Ethical Reference Points

The last but not the least of ethical reference points is the students of Zaytuna. This is Zaytuna’s #1 responsibility. This is the reason that Zaytuna exists—its students! As a former Dean of Students at Georgetown I can tell you that the energy, the ideas, the commitment, and the future—it’s all about the Students.

The task for Zaytuna: listen to the students. Support them, embrace them, inspire them. This will make the difference; this will make Zaytuna great. It will be so!

My comments are meant to inspire you students. You are embarking on a wonderful and amazing journey. Go forward with great enthusiasm, great confidence, and a smile on your face. You are not alone. Everyone in this room is beside and behind you on the journey.

As-salaamu alaikum.