Four years ago, the Austin College Board of Directors raised eyebrows when it called a Jewish college philosophy professor to lead the Presbyterian Church-related school, a small, liberal arts college in Sherman, Texas, about 60 miles north of Dallas. She, in turn, has raised eyebrows by her sheer enthusiasm, energy and passion for leading the school and its students. The Outlook’s editor sat down with her recently to reflect on her experience.
Jack Haberer: So you’re president of Austin College, a PC(USA)-related college. The obvious question: What’s a good Jewish girl like you doing in a place like this?
Marjorie Hass: All of my education was at large public research institutions, but all of my professional career has been in the context of church-related, independent, liberal arts colleges. That transition really was mutual, because of my passion for teaching and my passion for teaching the whole student. It really is our church-related colleges across the country in which you find an emphasis on reaching students through their minds, of course, but also through their hearts, their spirits, their bodies. And, having had the opportunity to engage with students that way, I honestly can’t imagine teaching in any other context.
JH: Still, it’s an odd move for a Presbyterian Church-related college to hire a Jewish president. Most of our schools have Christian presidents, and some require their presidents specifically to be Presbyterian. Has Austin College lost its faith? Or, perhaps, have you lost yours?
MH: Quite the opposite. It was because we meet at a place of shared values and a place of shared faith and a place of openness to differences within that faith that this has been a very strong and positive match. Obviously, from the beginning of my conversations with Austin College this was a piece of what we talked together about. In fact, my initial interview with the search committee was scheduled to take place right around Rosh Hashana, and I told the search chair that I wouldn’t be able to travel on those days but that I’d be willing to come in a day early, so I could celebrate the holiday with a local congregation and then meet with them the next day. We worked it out beautifully. That, to me, was really an important moment. It made clear to me, at the very beginning of our relationship, that this is a place that would not simply be tolerant of my Jewish commitments but actually elevate them, support me in them, encourage me in them. In equal measure it helped the institution understand how it would be to have a president who had her own commitments in this way and to see how that would work. So that was certainly a fortuitous — in my tradition we would call it a beshert [divine matchmaking] moment.
JH: What’s the most bizarre thing you’ve discovered about us Presbyterians?
MH: That’s an easy one. Energizers. Every year the college hosts the senior high youth connection. We host like 650 high school students from Presbyterian churches all through the region. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of these things, but you might think you were at an old church tent revival meeting. When those kids start singing and dancing and doing their energizers, you just feel the Holy Spirit all around.
JH: Tell me about the religion class you co-taught with campus chaplain John Williams this last spring.
MH: What a treat that was. It was my first opportunity to teach Austin College students, and in the process, I discovered that I don’t really have the time to do that (laughs). The course came about as part of this dialogue that John and I and a number of others on campus have been having in an ongoing way about how we live into Austin College’s long commitment to celebrating religious diversity and religious difference. John always says, “It’s not that we’re Presbyterian but we’re diverse, but that we’re Presbyterian and so we are diverse.” For many years the college chaplain’s office sponsored a model Seder to mark the Jewish Passover observance. When my family moved here we, of course, continued our family tradition of holding our own Seder and would invite some students and community members to it. So John and I began to think about and talk about what might it look like to have a community Seder that wasn’t just my family Seder nor just a model Seder. Because we’re college folks we immediately asked about how to bring students into this conversation. By the time we got to digging through this, we decided to offer it as a course. We had 22 students — Hindu, Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian, agnostic, Muslim, even one Wiccan. We had a tremendous experience talking about the nature of ritual, the nature of marriages, what the Exodus story means from a variety of perspectives. The upshot was that the students wrote a beautiful Haggadah, and John and I were sort of midwives to that experience. And we put on a community Seder for 200 folks, and it was a just a smashing and moving experience.
JH: So what’s so great about Austin College? What’s so distinctive about it?
MH: You push that button and I can go on and on. I’ll tell you just a few things. One of them is that Austin College is one of the most mission-centered places I’ve ever been. That was something that was really important to me as I was considering taking on a college presidency. I wanted to be in a place that really knew in its soul who it was, and Austin fits that bill. Other features: our global identity as a top international studies program in the country — we’re regularly ranked in the top two or three; we have a strong commitment to access; financial aid is an essential part of who and what we are; we have a faculty mentoring program where every student is matched up with a faculty mentor; we have an incredible career network where students can rely on our alumni and other friends of the college to help launch them into the next phase of their lives; and it’s a place where everyone on campus understands that we are about leadership and service. Students are deeply engaged in community service — which is overseen by the chaplain’s office, so the students not only find places to serve but also find ways to reflect on that service and integrate it with the rest of their studies.
JH: What might we Christians learn from the Jewish community about campus ministry?
MH: The Jewish community takes campus ministry seriously, extremely seriously. As a minority religion we take very seriously the question, where will the next generation of Jews come from, where will the next generation of Jewish leaders come from. I think as a whole our community has recognized that Hillel (the national organization that oversees campus ministry for Jewish students) and the college experience are essential if we’re going to find answers to those questions. Two elements stand out. One is that the Hillel organization really focuses on engaging Jewish kids with their peers. So while the local synagogues are absolutely urged to be supportive of them, there is understood to be an inherent value in Jewish kids doing Jewish things with other Jewish kids. And there’s a lot of support for that. Not so much an emphasis on making sure that the kids are connected to a local synagogue. The second thing is that there is a strong commitment to fund college ministry throughout the Jewish community, so local Jewish federations always support the local Hillel, even though the students at that Hillel are not likely to be their children. There still is a sense that it’s our obligation to provide financial support for the Hillel so those students are having a positive, peer-engaged, Jewish experience in this so formative time of their lives.