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A dream fulfilled

Randolph installed as first chaplain to the Institute
Robert M. Randolph addresses a crowd of hundreds of people Sept. 30 at Kresge Auditorium during his installation as MIT's first chaplain to the Institute.
Robert M. Randolph addresses a crowd of hundreds of people Sept. 30 at Kresge Auditorium during his installation as MIT's first chaplain to the Institute.
Photo / Dan Bersak

Robert M. Randolph was officially installed Sept. 30 as MIT's first chaplain to the Institute, an appointment that underscores the role of religious life at MIT and fulfills a dream originally laid out more than a half-century ago.

Randolph, who most recently served as senior associate dean for student life, was installed in his new position during a ceremony at Kresge Auditorium attended by hundreds of members of the MIT community. Speakers at the service included President Susan Hockfield and the Rev. Peter J. Gomes of the Memorial Church of Harvard University.

As chaplain to the Institute, Randolph will be charged with working alongside the members of the Board of Chaplains, who represent many religious traditions, in fostering interfaith discourse and educating the MIT community about the history and role of religions around the world. His portfolio includes coordinating pastoral response in times of crisis at the Institute, raising the profile of religious life at MIT, and leading reflection on issues of social justice and core values.

In an interview with Tech Talk, Randolph said he sees his new role as particularly relevant at a time when religion is a dominant force in global events.

"At this time of a clash of cultures, it is clear that religion has become the point of the sword," he said. "My job will be to help knit together the fabric of faiths that already transcend our community."

Randolph said MIT's preeminence in science and technology means religion and matters of faith have a comparatively lower profile on campus but nonetheless thrive in their own right. MIT is home to 15 chaplains of different faiths and more than 35 student religious organizations, he said. In addition, a large number of interfaith activities can be found at the Institute; one recent example Randolph cited involved Muslim and Jewish students breaking fast together after sundown on Yom Kippur.

Since coming to MIT in 1979, Randolph has worked extensively with MIT's religious communities. He said sees his new role as chaplain to the Institute partly as an extension of what he has already been doing, but with added responsibilities such as resource development.

Randolph credited Dean for Student Life Larry Benedict with having the vision that made it possible for the Institute chaplain position to be created. But Benedict said Randolph's position was really the result of a vision laid out more than 50 years ago by former MIT President James Killian.

Killian felt strongly that MIT pay more attention to the spiritual life and to the place of religion in human history and contemporary society. Accordingly, Killian pushed for the building of both Kresge Auditorium and the adjacent chapel, both of which were intended to buoy spiritual life on campus. Plans for a chaplain were also in the works, but were put on hold when Killian left MIT to become special assistant for science and technology to President Eisenhower.

Benedict said the need for an Institute-wide chaplain today is arguably just as pressing--or more so--as it was in 1950s Cold War America.

"This is a milestone in the history of MIT that will be seen that way for generations to come," Benedict said.

"We really need a chaplain of the Institute to be a voice for justice, integrity and ethical conduct on campus," Benedict said. "At the same time, fostering interfaith dialogue becomes a major priority with an increasingly diverse population, with internationalization and with diverse religious groups on campus. This is especially true at a time when there is so much strife and stress in the world among and within various religions and sects."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 3, 2007 (download PDF).

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