Having worked at MIT for 28 years in a several different positions, Robert M. Randolph brings a wealth of experience to the table as MIT’s first Institute chaplain.
The chaplain works with the religious communities to ensure they have what they need to do their work. He helps to plan events including weddings, celebrations, and memorial services.
Since beginning work as Institute chaplain in January, Randolph has worked with a number of groups to address their needs. Randolph is working to make sure Muslim and Jewish communities have access to appropriate dining. In addition, he is working with the gay and lesbian community on “a program to explore attitudes about sexuality in the Abrahamic traditions and beyond,” he said. He is also working toward refurbishing the chapel’s organs.
But, Randolph admits, because he is the first chaplain, his role is not yet well-defined. One of his primary goals is to get input from the administration and students in regard to the role of an Institute chaplain. “My goal is, by the end of next semester, to have a leadership advisory group that will help me shape programs,” he said.
Randolph would like to highlight the diversity of religious life at MIT and see more visibility for some religious events. “When I came here in ’79,” he said, “a lot of people said to me that there wasn’t very much going on religiously at MIT.” In contrast, he “found an enormous amount going on, most of it going on sort of under the surface,” he said.
He said that “there are some traditions and some celebrations that have not been high profile here — particularly in the Hindu community, for instance — that we might want to find a way to make people more aware of.”
Yet, Randolph is mindful of those in the MIT community who might not believe in a higher power. Randolph described his role as being “for believers, non-believers, and those who were searching or uncertain.”
“I think my own notion about the university setting is it’s a time when people should be asking lots of hard questions, and we should have resources that can help them answer them,” he said.
To that regard, he said, “I am trying to be available to people from a variety of perspectives, from all those perspectives.” He hopes to start “a conversation across the community from interested parties that helps students sort out who they are and what they want to be.”
Randolph brought up the idea of the chaplain position to Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict, and, in the words of Randolph, “it all went from there.” Benedict pushed through the idea and made it happen. During his time at Johns Hopkins University, Benedict also appointed the first chaplain there.
The idea to establish a chaplaincy is “not a new thrust or awareness,” Randolph said. The idea of a chaplaincy was brought up in the 1950s when “questions had arisen about the notion of the Manhattan Project,” which created the first atomic bomb, and MIT constructed Kresge Auditorium and the chapel.
Before coming to MIT in 1979, Randolph worked as chaplain of Wellesley College’s Dana Hall School. He started at MIT as a counselor in the counseling department, and in 1981 became the organizing dean for what is now Student Support Services. He stayed in that position for 14 years.
In 1995, he worked as an assistant dean and eventually became Benedict’s senior associate dean for students. During that time, he interacted with the religious community and was partly responsible for the construction of W11, the Religious Activities Center. Randolph said he acted as a “dean on call,” often addressing the needs of students after hours.
When asked about the challenges facing MIT in the future, Randolph said, “We need to be quietly confident, but we also need to be asking the hard questions about value.” MIT students need to answer the questions about “how we are making this world a better place,” he said.
He described a dialogue in which “students can challenge the faculty and staff by saying things like, ‘We’re really concerned about the integrity of the work you do with the government.’” At the same time, he said that the administration should start conversations with students on ethical issues, such as the possibility of establishing an honor code at MIT. Randolph hopes to foster conversation regarding ethics between the parties involved.
“I think it’s an important decision of MIT to appoint a chaplain because … it recognizes that there is a dimension of the whole person that’s not necessarily measured in the laboratory, in the test tube, things of that sort,” Randolph said. “Who we are is quite a bit more complicated than that, and a chaplaincy done right can be of help in that regard.”