Two leading Rice faculty members have been named directors of the university’s new Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance. Elaine Howard Ecklund, the Autrey Professor of Sociology and director of Rice’s Religion and Public Life Program, and Don Morrison, a professor of philosophy and classical studies, took the reins of the institute, which was established in May through a $28.5 million gift from Houston philanthropists Dr. Milton and Laurie Boniuk.
The institute will conduct research, educate and do outreach in Houston, nationally and globally. Drawing on Rice’s uniform strengths in in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering, the Boniuk Institute’s mission is to foster multidisciplinary research that leads to innovative ways to study, understand and achieve religious tolerance.
“It’s a terrific opportunity to do something important for Rice, the intellectual world more widely and the public,” said Morrison, whose research and teaching focuses on ancient and political philosophy. “This is a very large gift, and the goal is to have this be an internationally pre-eminent academic institute. This (religious intolerance) is one of the most important problems in the world today, and it is a place where Rice can make a difference.”
Ecklund said she was drawn to the opportunity to serve as a director by a heightened interest in religious tolerance among social scientists and religious studies scholars. “Religious tolerance is a really cutting-edge area in the study of religion right now,” she said. “We see this in the U.S., where we have historic religious freedom. We see issues of how religious groups relate to one another, especially in the wake of post-1960s changes to immigration laws that increase religious diversity. Immigration has brought increased numbers of Hindus and Muslims to our shores, but also has really changed the face of traditional American religions, like American Christianity, where we’ve see a huge rise of Latino Catholics, for example. How these groups relate to one another is a core issue.”
Morrison and Ecklund said they are currently focusing on laying the groundwork and integrating the institute into the campus. The institute was originally a center at Rice dedicated to nurturing tolerance among people of all and no faiths, especially youth, and to studying the conditions in which tolerance and intolerance flourish. Mike Pardee, who served as the center’s executive director, will remain with the institute as associate director for community engagement. B.J. Smith is the institute coordinator.
“The chief successes of the existing Boniuk Center are built on the excellent relationships that Mike Pardee has had with community members,” Ecklund said. “There are few centers on campus that have the kind strong ties that he has built with local community leaders. As we go forward, we will couple that excellent relational base with a really strong academic mission that’s worthy of an exceptional research university.”
Both directors feel inspired by the vision and generosity of the center’s founder, Milton Boniuk. “Religious tolerance is deeply personal for him,” Morrison said. “It’s a very pure and intense commitment to people treating each other with respect and for religious intolerance to decrease in the world.”
Ecklund and Morrison are meeting with Rice faculty and are buoyed by interest in the institute’s mission and interest in planning and coordinating with existing community engagement efforts. Their early planning focus includes arranging a speaker series and creating a national survey on religious tolerance.
“There is a great deal of enthusiasm and a great deal to be done,” Ecklund said. “There are so many scholars on campus doing really innovative work that is somehow involved in the area of religion, either in a small or large way. We have a top-notch Department of Religious Studies and scholars in other departments who do work on religion. If we put together all of our scholarly energies, we can really do something excellent around this topic.”
Ecklund and Morrison said they welcome interested faculty to reach out to them.
The institute is supporting two classes this semester: one on religious tolerance taught by Ecklund and Morrison and another on religious violence. Ecklund envisions various opportunities for students to become involved in the future and additional support for courses.
The institute’s permanent home will be in the Robert A. Klein Hall for Social Sciences, which is to be built near the policy-oriented corridor of campus. For more information on the institute, visit http://boniuk.rice.edu.