Northwestern, ASG working to provide funding for religious groups

Rebecca Savransky, Campus Editor

Northwestern officials are working with Associated Student Government to draft a proposal that would provide funding for campus religious groups, most of which do not currently receive any money from the University.

With the Center for Student Involvement and the Chaplain’s Office, Alex Van Atta, ASG student groups vice president, is spearheading the effort by analyzing past funding records and researching initiatives at other universities. As a member of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Van Atta said the cause was important to him personally.

“I was originally interested in the project because I was really frustrated with all the fundraising hoops I had to jump through,” Van Atta said. “Our goal is to figure out how we can better support specifically the religious groups that are at our school.”

Currently, the only groups with a religious affiliation to receive funding from NU are the Fiedler Hillel Center and the Muslim-cultural Student Association, both of which have ASG representation.

In the past, religion-based student organizations have not received funding for several reasons, including certain leadership policies and a lack of campus-wide programming, Van Atta said.

“The question is if they take money from the University, what things would they have to comply with?” Van Atta said. “That’s things like being able to not select somebody that’s not a part of your religion if they apply for leadership.”

Hillel puts on several events throughout the year that act as “cultural events,” welcoming all students, including its collaborative effort with A&O Productions to bring James Franco to campus last quarter and their annual Mega-Shabbat event, which allows them to gain ASG recognition. McSA organizes similar broad programming.

Van Atta said the process is still in the early stages of development but those working on the initiative are looking for a donor in order to pilot the program.

He said he hopes to have the proposal completed by mid-quarter in order for it to be sent through the development stages so the pilot can be implemented by Fall Quarter.

“In order to do that we need to come up with a very specific proposal on what we’d like, so that’s going to be informed by the peer-institution benchmarking,” Van Atta said. “We’re hopefully going to survey and talk to the religious groups at the school to get their take as well.”

Currently, the main priorities of the effort include compiling data, looking for an official donor and gauging religious group interest in the funding, said Natalie Furlett, associate director of the Center for Student Involvement.

Furlett said as the administrator responsible for administering the Student Activities Scholarship Fund, which gives students the opportunity to take part in student organizations which do not have the financial resources, she has seen a large number of requests from students involved in religious groups. Because these groups often host costly events, including conferences and retreats, students must provide additional funds to attend, noting this trend in applications increased her interest in the idea, she said.

Several alternatives are being considered and Furlett said she hopes to take a “two-pronged approach.” The group will attempt to combine ASG funding from the Student Activities Fee with funds from a donor willing to contribute money for a pilot program, she said. She added she is looking into why religious groups are currently not funded through the SAF.

“I think there are things that we can fund through ASG and there are things that we may need a special fund for, so I’m hoping that we can come up with some sort of special hybrid,” Furlett said.

She specifically mentioned ASG does not fund food, a vital aspect to many religious and cultural celebrations and traditions, further emphasizing the need for a “hybrid” system.

Van Atta added that additional options include having the proposal come from ASG, and instituting a grant board or group that would review funding applications, such as an interfaith group to give organizations the opportunity to apply for specific funds. Another option he outlined would give the Chaplain’s Office a grant pool to allot to students. However, Van Atta emphasized he would prefer a “student model.”

Furlett said the process is complicated though because several religious groups are also affiliated with outside organizations, including the Jewish United Fund and the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.

The committee has reached out to and looked into the processes at several other universities, including Syracuse University and University of Puget Sound. Furlett said programs at these schools had similar setups, receiving funding from multiple sources, often including off-campus locations, the university and the Chaplain’s Office.

NU’s system of religious funding has changed drastically over the past decade. Currently, religious groups at NU are registered under the Chaplain’s Office. Previously, there was a separate category for religious groups, allowing them to receive funding for certain events and to be officially recognized by ASG.

In order to receive the recognition, the groups first had to register with the Chaplain’s Office before going through the application process to become ASG recognized, University Chaplain Timothy Stevens said. However, Stevens said several students and religious groups complained the accommodations for “R-status groups,” as they were known, were far lower than the traditional A- and B-status groups.

“I know some people thought it was problematic because it was like they were being singled out for this special status that seemed to be kind of a second-class status,” Stevens said.

After this funding was “phased away” for unknown reasons, several students have attempted to take on the initiative but have lacked follow-through, Van Atta said.

Stevens said although he supports the initiative, there are several potential roadblocks, including the lack of money currently available for student group funding.

“Potentially there are 35 or 40 religious groups on campus, so you’re adding more groups into the pool who are competing for the same amount of money,” Stevens said. “If ASG decided, ‘We’re going to add religious groups and increase the Student Activity Fee,’ they might be able to increase the pool of money, but it’s adding more groups into the mix.”

He also said if the funding initiative is successful, ASG will need to have a system to ensure groups are not discriminated against on the basis of religious affiliation.

Stevens added that although several religious groups have struggled to raise enough funds for their desired programming events. Others have found the benefits from being registered under the Chaplain’s Office, which include being allowed to reserve space for events and create a website, satisfy their needs. ASG recognition brings few other benefits aside from funding, he said.

However, Furlett noted being recognized by ASG gives student groups a greater voice through the presence of the vice president for student groups and other ASG protocols.

Currently, religious groups receive funding through either fundraising efforts or donations, among other ways, Van Atta said. He added he is hoping this effort changes this process, noting although it may be controversial, the research and effort put into the proposal will likely garner support for the initiative.

“There’s ways of navigating that issue and making sure that everyone feels comfortable with the situation. That takes a lot of communication and a lot of making sure that they know that this is something that we’ve thought through,” Van Atta said. “This was in line with the Student Affairs mission of social justice and making sure we have equity among our groups and that everybody has equal opportunity to the resources that the University can offer them.”

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