Proposed chapel changes try to move beyond controversy


File Photo

The Harvey D. Grace Memorial Chapel

Jenna Farhat

The will of Mrs. Harvey D. Grace, whose donation to the University in 1964 made the Grace Memorial Chapel possible, states the chapel “will be open to all creeds and to all races of people.”

How that translates to reality on campus is a question a lot of influencers haven’t agreed on over the course of the last two years.

On Aug. 30, Student Body Vice President Taben Azad submitted a proposal outlining policies for chapel use and calling for improved lighting and security cameras, among other enhancements, for review by President John Bardo’s Executive Team.

Azad wrote the draft proposal after a series of meetings with university administrators, religious-based student organizations, and members of the Chapel Use Committee.

Rules in the draft state that different groups will remove any religious symbols or items from the space after use and forbids proselytization. Proselytization is the attempt to convert or recruit a person to a certain religion.

The proposal also includes the installation of lockers for the safekeeping of students’ belongings and signage identifying the chapel as an “Interfaith Prayer Space.” The policies are intended to ensure that the space remains religiously neutral and open to members of all faiths.

The executive team has until Oct. 1 to respond to the proposal, Azad said.

“The administration rolled out this … Strategic Plan — the strategic goals that they would like to conform to — and part of this requires addressing the diverse needs of the student body,” Azad said. “We’re not in the 1970s where the university is more than ninety percent white or Christian. We’re in 2016 where there’s plenty of other religions and backgrounds.

“(Administrators) think that we should address the diverse needs of the student population, and I think this is the perfect example of how we can do that.”

The proposal evokes the memory of an issue left unresolved in the minds of WSU students, administration and alumni.

Last year, students pushing for renovations to make the chapel more accommodating to people of all religious backgrounds were warned by university administration to tread lightly in light of the perceived political risk that would come with making such changes.

Andrew Schlapp, executive director of government relations, recommended students instead use a room in the Rhatigan Student Center if they found the chapel to be unsuitable.

Meetings took place over the course of several months with various religious groups on campus, key members of university administration, campus constituents and local religious leaders. They reached a consensus that the most suitable action was to remove the rows of pews that had occupied the chapel in the past.

Then-Student Body President Matt Conklin proceeded to submit a “Request of University Action” regarding what became known as the Interfaith Prayer Space Initiative to the president’s executive team. At that time, President Bardo supported the initiative.

“So long as the basic structure of the chapel is not changed,” Bardo said in an email to Conklin on March 23, 2015, “removing pews should not present a problem.”

Grace Memorial Chapel

And it did not seem to present a problem on campus — until several months after the renovations were made.

In early-October of last year, backlash erupted from unhappy alumni and donors, whose disapproval had university administration rethinking the decision to support the changes pushed by students.

President Bardo seemed to change his position on the chapel at that time.

“I don’t think that change was undertaken with enough consideration of the feelings of all elements of the campus and broader community,” Bardo said in a statement.

The administration geared up to look into renovating the chapel a second time in light of the backlash.

“(President Bardo) is backtracking on what he initially approved of and is trying to shift a lot of the blame towards other groups that were in charge of the chapel … He’s not taking ownership of what he approved of,” Azad said last week.

“The donors and the amount of money that they contribute to the university … mean more (to the administration) than the actual students who are in it,” he said.

Despite the negativity that arose from the chapel controversy, Azad remains hopeful these changes will serve as a precedent to get students to realize the weight their voices carry on campus.

“If there’s something that’s truly inhibiting the student body from progressing,” Azad said, “all it takes is for us to be unified and work together to establish a front and propose initiatives on campus.

“We shouldn’t back down when the administration isn’t on our side.”