Religious prayer, a part of the commencement invocation in previous years, will no longer be included in the ceremony, according to a message from members of MIT’s Commencement Committee sent to undergraduates in May.
Instead, the email said there would be an “inclusive, secular invocation.”
The change came in the wake of a Tech op-ed by Aaron L. Scheinberg G opposing the prayer and a survey administered to undergraduates by the Undergraduate Association soliciting feedback on the prayer.
Scheinberg’s op-ed objected to the religious prayer delivered by MIT chaplain Robert M. Randolph, suggesting the tradition was exclusionary to the sizeable portion of MIT students who do not believe in the “God of Abraham, Jesus and Mohammed” invoked in his 2013 rendition.
When asked whether he was personally in favor of the change, Randolph said: “I think there is more conversation to be had. We are a very diverse community and silence is not inclusion nor does it lead to education.”
Scheinberg said that students had brought up the religious invocation at a meeting of the Secular Society of MIT, a student group. “People felt personally upset in a way that I wasn’t,” he said.
After the text of the prayers of previous years was sent to the group’s discussion list, however, first Cory D. Hernandez ’14 and later other members of the Secular Society met with Randolph about the matter.
In these meetings, before the publication of Scheinberg’s op-ed, Randolph said that he wanted to make the invocation as inclusive as possible by finding a compromise between different student requests.
Scheinberg said that after the op-ed was published he received a great deal of positive feedback.
“That kind of support maybe a week after the op-ed came out made me contact the administration,” he said. “I sent an email to Grimson and President Reif summarizing the article and saying, ‘Here’s the feedback I received.’” (Capital campaign head Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 is the chair of Commencement Committee.)
According to UA President Sidhanth P. Rao ’14, Executive Officer for Commencement Gayle M. Gallagher contacted him and Class of 2014 President Anika Gupta ’14 on April 24 to seek their personal input, as well as that of the undergraduate body.
In response, the UA, with the help of the Class of 2014, sent out a survey to undergraduates on April 27, citing Scheinberg’s piece (but incorrectly identifying it as an editorial rather than an op-ed). Rao said that neither he nor Gupta had received comments from students about the invocation before the publication of Scheinberg’s piece, and they only received one before the release of the survey.
The survey received 617 responses, according to Rao, who said that while there was no certificate authentication process, there did not appear to be duplicate submissions to the form, which only allowed text-based comments.
Data provided by Rao showed that 566 of the responses were aggregated by sentiment into categories ranging from “[the invocation is] important to have” to “I won’t attend if invocation remains.” A plurality, 246 respondents (43 percent), were classified as saying they would “like to remove” the religious prayer, while 193 respondents (34 percent) said they would “like to have” it.
The proportions of responses saying the prayer was “important to have,” “not a big deal,” or “important to remove” were each less than 5 percent, while those classified as preferring a “moment of silence” made up 11 percent of the responses. Among those who provided a reason for preferring to keep the prayer, nearly three-quarters of those 63 responses cited tradition.
Scheinberg, UA Vice President Devin T. Cornish ’14, Gupta, and Chandler R. Schlupf ’14 met with the Commencement Committee to discuss the results of the survey. Randolph was not present at the meeting.
Scheinberg also felt that written suggestions for an invocation without a prayer that he prepared for the meeting were useful in explaining the objection to the religious aspect.
According to Gallagher, Grimson also consulted with other “senior officers” in MIT’s administration about the decision. She said she had not received complaints from faculty or students in previous years and that to her knowledge no such change has been considered before.
Randolph told The Tech that he was involved with both the decision to remove the religious prayer and the determination of an alternative invocation.
“The important thing is that student voices were heard,” Randolph said. “We all have things to learn and sometimes we learn best from one another.”
Gupta said, “I was really happy with the process by which the decision was made. Student feedback was sought on a controversial topic, and a decision was made that clearly took this feedback into account.”
Patricia Z. Dominguez contributed reporting.