- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Students at a Texas college are demanding that their diplomas not be dated “in the year of Our Lord,” prompting school officials to consider removing that phrase while leaving what others consider another obvious reference to Christendom — the school’s name, Trinity University.

A spokeswoman for the private San Antonio school with historic ties to the Presbyterian Church said that if the board does make changes, it is more likely to take the phrase “in the year of Our Lord” off every diploma rather than just off those of specific students.

“I think they are going to go a step further,” said Sharon Jones Schweitzer, assistant vice president for university communications, because of the difficulty of providing custom diplomas and to guarantee the legitimacy of all of them.

A decision on the phrase is expected in May.

The debate began in the fall when some students noticed the wording and said it was intolerant of students with non-Christian religious beliefs.

Senior Sidra Qureshi, a Muslim student and president of Trinity Diversity Connection, started a petition that requested that students have the option of having the words removed from their diplomas.

Isaac Medina, a senior who graduated in December, told the San Antonio Express-News in March that he felt like “a victim of bait and switch” because he had applied to the university under the impression that it maintained only a historical bond to the Presbyterian Church.

“A diploma is a very personal item, and people want to proudly display it in their offices and homes,” Miss Qureshi told the Express-News. “By having the phrase ‘In the year of Our Lord,’ it is directly referencing Jesus Christ, and not everyone believes in Jesus Christ.”

As conversation on the issue intensified, the student government hosted a forum for students to voice their opinions. The school’s Association of Student Representatives recommended the option to the Trinity board of trustees.

Trinity University was founded in 1869. The school’s name and Latin motto, “E Tribus Unum” (from three, one), reflects the three locations the school occupied before moving to its current campus and also its historical Christian belief system.

The school became an independent, nonreligious university in 1969, when it signed a covenant agreement with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The school has a chapel on the grounds, but students are not required to participate in religious practices or take religion courses.

Brendan McNamara, president of College Republicans at Trinity, argued that the wording should remain on the diploma for traditional and multicultural reasons.

“The fact that we have a chapel on campus, a Bible on our seal, a reverend, and a Christian reference in our name makes the argument that students were a victim of ‘bait and switch’ rather silly,” he said in an e-mail.

To represent students in opposition to the change, Mr. McNamara last week addressed the Committee on Church Relations and Religious Life, which has been researching the issue to present it to the board of trustees.

“If we jump every time someone disagrees with a tradition, then we cheapen our history, and we cheapen who we are. We have to remember one thing. This isn’t the student’s diploma. This piece of paper isn’t supposed to reflect who we are individually. This is the university’s diploma, which they bestow upon us, and it reflects who they are,” he told the committee.

He also argued that the removal of the phrase would be intolerant, saying cultural differences must be seen and tolerated rather than effaced.

“When we remove the mark of another culture, we aren’t making a diverse environment, we’re making a sterile environment, and that’s not what we want. Altering the diploma hurts our multicultural environment and erodes our traditions,” he said.

Gary Luhr, executive director of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities, said the 64 colleges and universities that are members of the association individually decide the level of religious presence within their institutions.

“We’ve got some that distinguish themselves as very Christian colleges,” he said, explaining that others choose only to acknowledge that, historically, their beginnings involved religion. He described Trinity University, which is a member, as “in the middle but moving toward that historical relationship.” All of the schools welcome students of all faiths and backgrounds.

Mr. Luhr said he was not aware of the motivation behind the students’ push to remove the phrase from the diplomas. Accommodating people of different faiths is a Presbyterian idea, he said, and Trinity is in line with that belief by taking the questioning of the phrase seriously.

“I don’t think the fact that they’re going through this discussion right now is a bad thing,” he said.

The Committee on Church Relations and Religious Life at Trinity has been researching the matter to present to the board of trustees. The committee met last week, but no new information has been released.

Since the school began gaining national attention for the request, school officials say, it has received an influx of negative feedback from alumni and those unrelated to the school who want to keep the diploma as is.

“We’ve gotten nearly 600 calls and e-mails,” said Ms. Schweitzer, many from Trinity alumni and nearly all of whom were in opposition of the request.

She said the backlash outside the Trinity community does not represent the students’ reaction.

Students’ opinions have been diverse, and the thoughts expressed at the forum and across campus have civilly represented the “variation of faiths and backgrounds that have supported one side or the other,” Ms. Schweitzer said.

Sharon Bell, honorary vice chairman of the Trinity board of trustees and chairman of the Committee on Church Relations and Religious Life, said she was keeping an open mind and was waiting to hear testimonies from students on both sides of the issue.

“It’s a balance. A university is run for students, but it’s not run by students. We have many constituencies, including alums,” she said, explaining that alumni often donate a great deal of scholarship money.

Ms. Bell said the board always has nurtured diversity and Presbyterianism has a “tradition of open inquiry.”

“You have different ideas and different viewpoints, and it’s a much better institution,” she said.

• Casey Curlin can be reached at ccurlin@washingtontimes.com.

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