A Position Statement from The Initiative for Authenticity and Spirituality in Higher Education


We, the undersigned, believe that higher education offers a unique opportunity for students, faculty and staff to pursue deeper questions of authenticity and identity, of meaning and purpose, or spirit and spirituality. These questions become even more urgent in these current times. Although important discussions of these larger questions are being explored already by various communities on diverse campuses, so far such discussions, for the most part, have remained on the periphery of higher education. With greater recognition and support these communities could offer not only higher education, but also the larger society, innovative solutions to myriad problems that need our immediate attention.

We recognize that although substantial obstacles impede the resolution of current problems, we believe that individual and collective efforts can make a difference. We share our thoughts to encourage others to do likewise and to act wherever they can in their own institutional settings.

At the outset we want to share a quote which captures what we mean by “spirituality.”

“Being religious connotes belonging to and practicing a religious tradition. Being spiritual suggests a personal commitment to a process of inner development that engages us in our totality. Religion, of course, is one way many people are spiritual. Often, when authentic faith embodies an individual’s spirituality the religious and the spiritual will coincide. Still, not every religious person is spiritual (although they ought to be) and not every spiritual person is religious. Spirituality is a way of life that affects and includes every moment of existence. It is at once a contemplative attitude, a disposition to a life of depth, and the search for ultimate meaning, direction, and belonging. The spiritual person is committed to growth as an essential ongoing life goal. To be spiritual requires us to stand on our own two feet while being nurtured and supported by our tradition, if we are fortunate enough to have one.” (Teadale, W. The Mystic Heart, New World Library, 1999, pp. 17-18.)

We believe that spiritual growth, in the sense described above, should be an important concern for higher education.


Higher education’s ideals and realities, espoused values and values in use, are inconsistent. We are trapped in conflicting epistemological paradigms. Material accumulation overrides student learning and civic engagement. Professional and student relationships grow weaker.

Ideals and Realities
A growing schism exists between what higher education is becoming and what it needs to be. There is a growing gap between the purposes and values that drew us to this calling and the current cultures of many of our institutions. We feel skeptical about the system’s values, its lack of focus on students, and its market driven mentality. An emerging leadership model prizes instrumentality and rationality, which forces leaders to suppress or efface their inner selves. Many of us, and many of our colleagues, feel “out of sync” and inauthentic in resource driven, competitive, higher education environments. We are rewarded for focusing on the external aspects of our professions, severing awareness of our inner selves and larger social purposes. We have, in effect, subordinated fundamental inner questions of value, meaning, and purpose to external considerations of material acquisitiveness and reputational enhancement.

As the higher education system has expanded so have its resource needs. A central focus on acquiring funds views administrators, faculty, and staff as instruments for production, and students as consumers. We, our colleagues, and our students, are not viewed as meaning making human beings with personal purposes and needs. Greed and material accumulation displaces a humanistic, caring ethic. Higher education is becoming an industry where knowledge is a commodity, dispensed by administrators, faculty, and staff, to varied customers and “stakeholders.”

These changes reflect the larger society, increasingly consumed by individual achievement, competitiveness, and materialism. Colleges and universities, instead of serving as a context for self reflection, for personal and professional development, for dialogue, thoughtful analysis, and alternative perspectives, mimic these trends.

Conflicting Paradigms
We believe higher education is dominated by objectivity and rationalism, largely in the service of materialism and economic productivity, at the expense of other important civic and human values. This empirical rationalism implies the existence of natural laws and of an objective reality. It only allows room for this kind of knowing.

This orientation rewards doing rather than being. One-way knowledge transfer is the mode, rather than two way, collaborative search for meaning, understanding, and community. In contrast to this dominant orientation we believe that our most important contributions to our students, our institutions, our communities, and our nation, flow more from who we are and how we live, than from what we know and preach.

Professional and Student Relationships
In our experience, the growing gap between our ideals and realities, our espoused values and values in use, and our conflicting paradigms, weakens relationships among faculty, between faculty members and administrators, and between us all and our students. The academy offers few safe and supportive environments where professionals can share and explore the deeper meanings of their lives, with each other and with their students. Professional roles and the dominant rewards do not value such reflection.

We are reminded of Boyer’s findings in his 1987 land mark study of U.S. colleges which seem even more pertinent today than then.

“Scrambling for students and driven by marketplace demands, many undergraduate colleges … are confused about their mission and how to impart the shared values on which the vitality of both higher education and society depends…Is it too much to expect that even in this hard-edged competitive age, a college graduate will live with integrity, civility — even compassion?”

We believe that by concerted individual and collective efforts, we can overcome the obstacles to creating caring and reflective colleges and universities.

We recognize tough obstacles which make it difficult to address these problems with the sustained attention they require. Institutional structural limitations and reward systems are bedrock issues. There is little financial support for developing alternative approaches. Discretionary time, energy, and emotion, which need to be invested over extended time periods, is scarce and not rewarded. The prevailing cultural mindset works against open sharing and exploration. In addition, it is difficult to frame our malaise in ways that resonate with the diverse professionals working in our colleges and universities.

Framing Our Malaise
For five years we have tried to find simple, clear, tight, language to describe the concerns which draw us together to create this Initiative. For some, the decline in our sense of purpose and meaning describes our underlying concern. For others, difficulty in sustaining authenticity and a sense of personal identity puts it better. And for another significant group, the language of spirit, of spirituality, of spiritual growth, which provokes dead silence and frowns in many contexts, captures the essence. Yet, when we do workshops at professional meetings and create a safe space for open conversations about this malaise, persons across many personal and professional backgrounds understand, and resonate with, our concern.

The Prevailing Mindset
The exclusive emphasis on rational empiricism, conceptions of truth as objective and external, and of knowledge as a commodity, de-legitimizes active, public, discussion of issues of purpose and meaning, authenticity and identity, spirituality and spiritual growth. Meaningful dialogues concerning these issues require communities of trust, openness, and candor, where participants can expose vulnerabilities, knowing they will be heard and supported in their searching. Limited self-understanding and self-reflection, and fear of being vulnerable in competitive, individualistic environments, leave us with conflicting impulses and ambivalent about appropriate actions.

Structural Limitations
Our prevailing structures and organizational assumptions make any institution wide change most difficult. At the institutional level we are a system, a set of interlocking and interdependent units, bound by shared policies and practices, glued together by a host of unexamined assumptions. But at the operational level, we are a collection of schools, colleges, institutes, centers, and departments, populated by individual scholars, entrepreneurs, and diverse professionals who value, and strongly defend, their autonomy. These operational units compete for limited resources to support often conflicting goals. The tensions between the systemic dynamics and goals, and operational demands, make significant change for any part very difficult, and make systemic change almost impossible.

Reward Systems
The reward systems reinforce all of the above. They reward individual and unit productivity based on FTE credits produced and the dollar value of grants and contracts. Individuals are rewarded similarly, where external recognition for research and publication outweighs teaching and direct involvement with students, and where community engagement and service barely get a nod. These reward priorities are totally out of line with our need to focus on students and their learning, on issues of purpose and meaning, on civic engagement and social responsibility, — on outcomes larger than economic productivity and personal gain.

Potential Activities
Despite these powerful obstacles there are things we can do, individually and collectively. As individuals we can seek out colleagues who share our concerns and create times and spaces to share our experiences, our feelings, our conflicts and ambiguities, and our ideas about how to find some better resolution. We can legitimize such conversations between ourselves and our students, and among our students. We can read pertinent literature, write for ourselves and for others, and speak about these issues is public settings when given the chance. We can undertake systematic inquiry concerning our own institution or our own unit within our institution, as to the gaps between ideals and realities, between espoused values and values in use.

Collectively we can work with regional and national organizations to surface and explore these concerns. We can survey the higher education landscape and aim for a vision of what it might become, in terms that are relevant and tangible for our diverse institutions and constituents. We can address the cultures of our graduate schools to help future professionals recognize the importance of addressing issues concerning purpose and meaning, authenticity and identity, spirituality and spiritual growth. We can create a series of publications, principles for good practice, and state of the art reports. We can create a national teleconference which brings some of our most thoughtful and active leaders together with professionals from diverse institutions.. We can recruit some high profile presidents and administrative leaders to help create a political and multi-institutional inquiry and action base for sustained effort. We can bring these issues to the attention of larger audiences outside higher education, to explore their significance for the larger cultural context within which we work.

In Conclusion

This Initiative aims to have issues of purpose and meaning, authenticity and identity, spirituality and spiritual growth, become a regular part of higher education's landscape. It wants college and university professionals no longer to feel bifurcated by their working and personal lives. It wants to encourage learning environments that engage and respect students as whole individuals. For change to occur, we recognize that these issues need to be part of the mainstream and national dialogue. In emulating a corporate ethics and techno-rational management models, higher education has ignored the centrality of its human elements —its administrators, faculty, student affairs professionals, and students. It has de-valued personal forms of inquiry and meaning. We strive to re-vitalize these human elements and to foster higher education with a heart.

Alexander Astin
Helen Astin
Lisa Chambers
Tony Chambers
Arthur Chickering
Paul Elsner
John Gardner
M. Stuart Hunter
Cynthia Johnson
Cheryl Keen
James Keen
Jenny Lee
Laura Rendon
Eugene Rice
Donna Shavlik