Orten sets tone as spiritual dean at Middlebury College

MIDDLEBURY — Mark Orten, the dean of spiritual and religious life at Middlebury College since July 2016, delivered his inaugural address late last year at the Robert A. Jones ’59 House.
Orten made a strong case for encouraging the growth of religious and spiritual engagement at Middlebury, and set forth his vision for the future here — a vision that includes the creation of an interfaith house for students, i.e., “an intentional living-learning community … a model for how we might live (together) in the world.”
Orten, who also serves as the director of Middlebury’s Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life, opened his 40-minute talk on Nov. 17 with some illuminating statistics from a seven-year, longitudinal study of 15,000 students conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute.
The research showed the majority of college students “maintain a strong interest in spiritual and religious matters.” Four out of five students surveyed “have an interest in spirituality” and “believe in the sacredness of life”; and more than three-fourths believe in God and report feeling “a sense of connection with God/Higher Power that transcends my personal self,” said Orten, quoting directly from the study published in “Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives” (Jossey-Bass, 2010).
It also showed that “large numbers of higher education faculty report that they are either religious, spiritual, or both,” he said. More than half of faculty consider themselves to be “both spiritual or religious to some extent,” and slightly less than 20 percent indicate that they are neither spiritual nor religious. This, the researchers said, offers “convincing evidence that the work activities, self-concept, and personal values of college and university faculty are closely related to their spiritual inclinations.”
To Orten the data “tells a story different than the dominant assumption in and about academic culture: that faculty are essentially godless, and that students are disinterested” in religious and spiritual matters. The “psycho-social profile of students and faculty today” combined with the “historical context” for the role of spiritual and religious life in higher education in America “go to the heart of what being human and educating humans is all about. Educating, among other ways of seeing it, is itself a spiritual exercise.”
After building the foundation for religious and spiritual life at a secular institution such as Middlebury, Orten turned to the questions: What then is our responsibility, we who are charged with the care for spiritual and religious life? How do we do this?
He addressed the questions through the dimensions of facilities, staffing, and programming, and it was through the third element, programming, that the new dean talked about his vision in terms of intrafaith development, interfaith experiences (such as an interfaith house for students), and the well being of the community.
The chaplains and staff of the Scott Center need to be strategic and do three things collectively: be more visible, be more conceptually central, and be more relevant, he said. “These three things, as strategic goals, essentially comprise our vision at its core.” He discussed the steps being taken in all three areas and concluded:
“I want us to imagine, and to work toward, a campus environment where the vast array of religious observances is an expected phenomenon, without infringement on any person’s own daily choices, and in a way that cultivates curiosity through hospitable invitations for learning and engagement.
“Imagine living and learning in a place where the profound accumulated wisdom of the world’s great spiritual teachings and practices were accessible and employed regularly in our life together. It is not impossible to imagine,” Orten affirmed.
Dean of the College Katy Smith-Abbott introduced the new dean at the outset of the program and added, “I am especially thrilled to lift up the Scott Center and its staff for the creative, thoughtful, and responsive work they do every day to help find common ground, to deepen our understanding, and … to call us to our better selves.”
Smith-Abbott also read a message from President Laurie L. Patton, who was out of town traveling on Middlebury business. The president extended her “heartfelt congratulations” to Mark Orten and said, “We can all agree these are challenging times, and Mark’s energy and light and grit and graciousness are what we need to have with us right now.”
Reporting by Robert Keren, Middlebury College.

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