A group of students at Trinity University is lobbying trustees to drop a reference to “Our Lord” on their diplomas, arguing it does not respect the diversity of religions on campus.
“A diploma is a very personal item, and people want to proudly display it in their offices and homes,” said Sidra Qureshi, president of Trinity Diversity Connection. “By having the phrase ‘In the Year of Our Lord,’ it is directly referencing Jesus Christ, and not everyone believes in Jesus Christ.”
Qureshi, who is Muslim, has led the charge to tweak the wording, winning support from student government and a campus commencement committee. Trustees are expected to consider the students’ request at a May board meeting.
Other students and President Dennis Ahlburg have defended the wording, arguing that references to the school’s Presbyterian roots are appropriate and unobtrusive.
Founded by Presbyterians in 1869, Trinity has been governed by an independent board of trustees since 1969 but maintains a “covenant relationship” with the church.
“Any cultural reference, even if it is religious, our first instinct should not be to remove it, but to accept it and tolerate it,” said Brendan McNamara, president of the College Republicans.
McNamara pointed out that Trinity displays other signs of its Christian heritage, including a chapel on campus, a chaplain, Christmas vespers and a Bible etching on the Trinity seal.
“Once you remove that phrase, where do you draw the line?” McNamara asked.
The debate started last year when Isaac Medina, a Muslim convert from Guadalajara, Mexico, noticed the wording while looking at pre-made diploma frames in the Trinity bookstore. When Medina applied to Trinity, university staff told him it wasn’t a religious institution and that it maintained only a historical bond to the Presbyterian Church.
So the godly reference “came as a big surprise,” said Medina, who graduated in December. “I felt I was a victim of a bait and switch.”
At first, Qureshi and Medina sought a change only for students who desired it. But university staff told them the school would not print custom diplomas, so they requested dropping the words “Our Lord” from all diplomas issued.
In January, the student government and the Muslim Student Association co-sponsored a forum to debate the issue. And in February, the Association of Student Representatives and the university’s commencement and convocation committee both voted to support the change, Qureshi said.
“I honestly feel like nobody actually noticed it before,” Medina said. “Now that it has been brought up, the institution is trying to find its own identity. Are we or are we not a religious institution?”
Though Trinity has historically enrolled mostly Anglo Christians, the university has taken pains to increase diversity in recent years. Since 1999, the share of international students has increased from 1 percent to 9 percent.
Medina, a former international student, said he always has felt welcome at Trinity. The chaplain on campus caters to students of all religions, and the university recently dedicated a Muslim prayer space in Parker Chapel.
“I never had the experience that Trinity was a closeted Christian institution,” Medina said.
Ahlburg, who took the helm in January, said Trinity should continue to foster a diverse environment but should not ignore its cultural and religious roots.
“The fundamental issue is not so much what is on the diploma. The fundamental question is, ‘Is Trinity a place that is accepting and supportive of all faiths?’” Ahlburg said.
Current students are not Trinity’s only stakeholders, Ahlburg said. The university also has thousands of alumni and donors to appease, many of whom have called Ahlburg to tell him they oppose the change.
“Democracy is not letting a small number of people have their way,” Ahlburg said. “Democracy is listening to the different voices and making an informed decision.”