News: Unlikely Forums

This week, much of the world watched as Columbia University President Lee Bollinger verbally sparred with controversial Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad telling him he resembles a “petty and cruel dictator.” Ahmadinejad seemed visibly taken aback following the accusation and later called his host rude. The exchange was the culmination of an international controversy that surrounded the Iranian president’s visit to the U.N. in New York City.

Bollinger and Columbia University were widely criticized in the media for taking the opportunity to invite Ahmadinejad to speak at the school because of the president’s history of human rights offenses, possible ties to radical militias and nuclear ambitions. And even after the speech (and the verbal exchanged that ensued), Bollinger still faces criticism for inviting the figure into an American college campus. But Bollinger issued a statement that said he believes the college campus is the perfect place to meet and exchange ideas—no matter how differing they are. “I want to say … as forcefully as I can, that [the invitation] is the right thing to do and, indeed, it is required by existing norms of free speech, the American university, and Columbia itself.”

And though the debate will continue about whether an invitation to Ahmadinejad was appropriate, the incident, and Bollinger’s comment about the importance of free speech at America’s universities, may also help reflect a different trend that is taking place on the nation’s campuses—discussions about faith.

New research shows that college campuses are nurturing grounds for faith, particularly Christianity. Though universities are sometimes thought as hostile territories for Christians, this study shows different information. In fact, the researchers found that college students were less likely to walk away from their faith than others in the 18- to 25-year-old age group. About 24 percent of those interviewed for the research who never went to college said that faith and religion became less important to them; that’s compared to just 15 percent of graduates. The article from the Denver Post explores different reasons why faith is flourishing at universities. Even though many schools have a higher volume of non-religious professors (compared to the general population), the challenging intellectual atmosphere of a campus (combined with the prominence of Christian ministries often found in them), often lead young believers to explore why they believe what they do.

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The story also points to the current prominence of faith and religion when it comes to world affairs, making it a key topic for discussion among students. The trend is a hopeful departure from other statistics that show that many twentysomethings are increasingly disenfranchised with faith and Christianity. New research from the Barna Group says that “16- to 29-year-olds exhibit a greater degree of criticism toward Christianity than did previous generations when they were at the same stage of life.”

And though the Barna research suggests that much is needed from the Church to continually engage this group, it serves as an encouraging note that the college campus is becoming—however seemingly unlikely—a place for the faithful.

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