A chat with Bob Randolph

Chaplain, housemaster, and adviser offers a perspective on religion and spirituality at the Institute

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Robert M. Randolph was appointed MIT’s first Chaplain to the Institute in September 2007. Randolph also serves as Bexley’s housemaster.
Jessica Liu—The Tech

Chaplain Robert M. Randolph came to MIT in 1979 as an ordained minister and former chaplain at Dana Hall School in Wellesley. He served as an associate dean working as the head of counseling programs until he was appointed as Chaplain to the Institute in 2007. The Tech had a chance to sit down with Dean Randolph to discuss religion at MIT.

The Tech: So, what does the chaplain do?

Robert Randolph: That’s a good question. Part of what the chaplain does is manage this happy group of professionals. There are 16 chaplains on MIT’s campus and we built this building [W11, the Religious Activities Center] in 1995. We made a decision to bring together all the religious communities at MIT and the chaplains that are here are people who are supported by particular religious traditions.

The difference between me and the rest of those groups is that while I am Christian, I am responsible for all the communities on campus, to make sure they are treated well, doing good work, and that they’re getting along. And so, there was a lot of concern when we said to the students and to the’re going to be in the space and it’s going to be key that you all get along together.

When they asked me one night five years ago to become the chaplain to the Institute, that was one of the challenges, to make sure the playing field was level for everybody, that folks get along and that they learn from each other. The rationale for building this building and for us having everyone here was we wanted people to learn about the other, the stranger, the one they didn’t know about while they were in college.

This was all before 9/11, understand. When 9/11 came along, we were in the position of saying “we have been learning to get along with each other and understand each other and it’s been going well.”

TT: At ceremonies where you give the opening prayer, such as commencement, how does that work to keep it non-denominational?

RR: I recognize that the community I’m speaking to has a varied spectrum. I always write my prayers in advance for graduation and make sure that in some ways it’s “to whom it may concern.” I try to say words that become what they need to become for the people hearing them. That is, if they can be challenging and maybe comforting or uplifting even to those that don’t consider themselves religious. These days, a lot of people say, “I’m spiritual but I’m not particularly religious,” which means that they’re not following a traditional pattern of religious behavior.

TT: A little bit after you had been appointed as chaplain, Professor Joe Haldeman wrote in a letter to The Tech on January 9, 2008 titled “MIT Does Not Need a Chaplain” that asked why does MIT even need a chaplain, being a secular institution? (“Our students, especially the ones from America, have grown up in cultures saturated with religiosity. We should give them a little break from it while they’re here. MIT needs religion like a bull needs mammaries,” Haldeman wrote.) What do you say to people confused about the need for a chaplain on our campus?

RR: The problem is, it’s not a secular institution. The truth is, for 18- to 22-year-olds one of the issues on the table is who am I? What am I about? When you talk about holistic education, you need to recognize that people are asking these questions; you can’t pretend that they’re not. I joke that 30 minutes after MIT was founded the first Catholic priest had Mass on campus. We’ve had Catholic chaplains here since 1864. We don’t tip our cap to one particular religious tradition, but religion has played an important role at MIT since its very founding. The chapel was built over 50 years ago. It’s existed here since 1955.

TT: What is it like to also be a housemaster and an advisor along with your duties as chaplain?

RR: Well, I think that it is wonderful; personally I like it very much. Living with students makes you aware of what you don’t know. You’re constantly reminded of...what it’s like to be 18-25. You can I think forget that if you get tied up primarily in the classroom. When you’re watching students navigate the pitfalls of growing up, it’s remarkable. From my point of view, it’s an honor to be part of the process and to occasionally be helpful.

I became a housemaster for a year initially but I kept getting re-upped. Even in Bexley over the time I’ve been there I’ve had students who had regular religious gatherings inside the dormitory. My job is not to impose that but to be supportive of that so that students who want to do those things have the opportunity. That would be the same case in the most religious dormitory. There, it might be that I’d be protecting the rights of the non-religious as opposed to the religious.

TT: How else has religious life changed during your time at MIT?

RR: It ebbs and flows...We just put in place this new Kosher dining program; it’s something we’ve been working on for 20 years. It’s going to make an important difference for Jewish students and for Muslim students and for dialogue between the two communities, as they convene over food. Again, who would have thought that food suddenly becomes a way to promote world peace or at least understanding?

After 9/11 MIT was one of the few colleges in the city that didn’t have Muslim students leave because they were afraid. Families and Muslim students [elsewhere] were fearful that their children would be harmed in the aftermath of the tragedy. We had Muslims, Christians, and Jews gathered on [Killian Court] to share prayers and to give support to one another. That’s what should happen.

Now, one of the things we’ve done recently is meeting in the chapel on Tuesday mornings not for religious reasons but just to reflect together and to draw from the traditions that people bring. We do that partly because one of the things about this place is that we’re so harried that we don’t take time sometimes to reflect. It turns out that instead of being for students it is a time more for faculty and staff. For 20 minutes we come together, there’s a presentation, there’s some music, there’s centering, and we have coffee. When in doubt, eat. It runs from 10 to 15 [attendees]. It’s not large.

TT: Is there a reason why there is inconsistency in religious student group membership? Why do some religious student groups at MIT have 20-30 members whereas Hillel and the Tech Catholic Community have at least 100?

RR: Yeah, I think the reason why is that for example the Tech Catholic Community, the Muslim community, Hillel all draw from broad, worldwide bases. So, you can be Catholic and come from Great Britain, you can come from Mexico, you can come from Latin America, and one of the things I’ve always argued is that if you want to see diversity at MIT you should look at the religious communities. You’ll see people from all over the world.

When we had the Cardinal [Sean O’Malley, a Roman Catholic counselor to the pope] here a few years ago, the line to greet him included students, faculty, and staff, and people that we don’t often notice like the cleaning staff. Religion cuts across the whole community.

Same with the Muslim community, I joke that the most coveted parking space out here is the one the cabs have when people come for prayers. Every cabbie who’s Muslim has been here for prayer. That’s a good thing.

TT: Our survey results show that about seven percent of freshmen and sophomores but about 14 percent of juniors and seniors say they dropped their religion since coming to MIT. What kind of influences are there at MIT that cause these changes?

RR: Well, I don’t think it’s just at MIT. Trying to find your way in the world, you tend to focus on those things that seem to be the most pressing. The most pressing may well not be your religious commitments, which tend to come back when you have family, you have children, you begin to become more comfortable in your job. You know around here, a lot of people don’t have time to eat, I mean that’s just a fact. I’ve had people who come here and they used to play the cello a great deal and they gave it up and it breaks my heart. I wish they didn’t feel they had to but then again I don’t know what it’s like to deal with some of these problem sets. I hope that eventually they’ll come back to the cello, and so with their religious inclinations and when they come back to it they’ll ask questions in a more sophisticated and thoughtful way.

Often religion is thought of when you’re 18 as people telling you what not to do. The key is to understand that religious communities really ask a range of questions about what to do not what not to do.

What also happens when you’re a college sophomore, college junior is you may for the first time encounter issues of life, death, mortality, fragility of human relationships. The resources that you draw on may be diverse but very often they’ll be the resources that shaped you when you were younger and by the time you’re 30 then you may come back to asking different questions about these things.