In an email to the student body, Christa Acampora, chair of the Task Force on Religious Diversity and Belonging and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, provided updates on the committee, which began collecting data and speaking with students in January.
The University announced the task force in December and assigned the group the responsibility of developing a better understanding of the experience of religious students and faculty on Grounds. The conversations that led to the formation of the task force began shortly after the Oct. 7 attack that sparked the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas where nearly 30,000 people have been killed, according to Al-Jazeera.
According to Acampora, the task force was created with the broad responsibility of helping the University administration better understand the experiences of staff, faculty and students. She said she anticipates that the task force will provide both short and long-term recommendations to the University, which are expected to be delivered in a report by the end of the semester.
“We are studying institutional data — including data on reported incidents of antisemitism, Islamophobia, or other religious bias — and we are meeting with members of the community to learn more about how they experience life on Grounds,” Acampora wrote. “The task force is interested in hearing from the full community, and we encourage [students] to share [their] thoughts with us to inform this important work.”
Sarah Goraya, student member of the task force and third-year College student, said that both the events of Oct. 7 and the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville demonstrated that the University can improve in terms of religious inclusivity, particularly for Muslim and Jewish members of the community, but also for those of other religious denominations.
“Those [events] are in such recent history,” Goraya said. “And the climate after [them] has shown that U.Va. is not as inclusive as it could be across different religious traditions.”
Goraya is one of two student members of the 11-person task force, which meets every two weeks and also includes faculty and administrators such as Interim Dean of Students Cedric Rucker, English prof. Jahan Ramazani and Rabbi Jake Rubin — executive director of the Brody Jewish Center — among others.
With much of their work being reliant on understanding community members’ personal experiences, the task force has asked interested students to get involved by submitting comments via an online form accessible only via NetBadge. Additionally, students, faculty and staff can all express their interest in joining a focus group, where a lottery system will be used to randomly select participants who will discuss religion on Grounds, drawing from their own opinions and personal experiences. Students will have separate focus groups than faculty and staff.
Goraya said that continuing to engage in dialogue with community members is important to her and to the task force. While she acknowledged that having conversations about religion at a public university can be difficult, Goraya said that making sure people feel heard and seeing the University getting better is her personal metric for success.
“I understand why it might be hard to sign up for focus groups,” Goraya said. “But it is really important that everyone who has something to say says it.”
Faculty and staff focus groups start Tuesday, while student focus groups are scheduled to begin Friday.