The next time students cross the stage to receive their degrees, they will be told to use them to serve their community, not whatever god they believe in.
Last week the highest body for academic governance at the University of Alberta, General Faculties Council (GFC), passed changes to the convocation admission; that is, the short speech delivered to students just before they are “admitted” to their degrees as they cross the stage. Instead of being told “to serve your God,” which has been the phrasing since 2009, students will now be urged to use their degrees “to serve your community for the public good.”
The change was proposed by Chancellor Doug Stollery so that convocation would be more inclusive of students who followed no religion.
“A very important value of the university is inclusivity,” he said. “And that includes inclusivity of students of all faiths and students of no faith.”
Stollery said he thought about changing the speech since he presided over his first convocation as chancellor in November 2016. He was nominated to the role of chancellor, the ceremonial head of the university, in June of that year, succeeding Ralph Young after his four-year term. Stollery had also served as chancellor at St. Stephen’s College, the religious school at the U of A.
“What I proposed to GFC was that we revise that language to be more inclusive,” Stollery said. “And each student can define their community as they like, and certainly for students of faith the call to serve their community can well be to serve their god.”
This isn’t the first change to the convocation admission. Before 1999, the admission urged students to use their degrees “for the glory of God and the honour of your country.” While changing it to “for all who believe, to serve your god,” was well-intentioned, Stollery said, it limited the call to service to religious students. Stollery also worried that it fed into the stereotype that non-believers don’t serve their community.
In addition to the admission, Stollery also revised the language in the invocation as well, which is the chancellor’s speaking role at the very beginning of convocation. Before, convocation would begin with a prayer and the chancellor would call for blessings on students and the community. That will be replaced with a call for celebration.
“To start the convocation with what in essence has been prayer, arguably is not inclusive of those students who are not of religious faith,” he said.
While the change passed at GFC with a majority vote, Sean Oliver — an undergraduate student member of the council — expressed concern about the changes. While he said he agrees with the changes Stollery proposed, he wonders if removing all references to faith is the right move as it could isolate people who follow a religion.
“The university is still making a statement that as an institution they’re not comfortable acknowledging faith,” he said.
Stollery said he didn’t see the speech as a public declaration of faith. He added that there are a number of religious organizations on campus, including 24 student groups, as well as multiple courses on faith.
“The issue about spirituality on campus certainly isn’t solved by one or two references in the course of the ceremony which for many students is their last moment on campus,” he said.