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Committee looking beyond religious aspect of service learning

Editor’s note: This is the final story of a three-part series on service learning.

Service learning at UW-Eau Claire was put under the national microscope last fall after issues over religious service learning projects were covered by national media outlets such as the Associated Press and USA Today.

After University Senate’s Academic Policies Committee ruled in favor of not allowing religious proselytization to pass for service learning, the full University Senate voted to move the issue back to a chancellor-appointed committee, where it currently sits.

Senior Kate Demerse said the chancellor-appointed ad-hoc committee, while probably brought together because of the issue of religious service learning, has not made that the focus of their work.

“We’re not there to debate the legality of religious service learning,” she said.

The committee is looking at the entire service-learning package, she said. The main focus has been looking at how service learning has been implemented on campus and how that compares to its purpose.

“We’re working backward,” she said. “(We’re looking at) what the center does now, and what we hope it would have done from the beginning.”

Don Mowry, director of the Center for Service Learning, agreed. “Part of what we’re doing right now with the ad-hoc committee is going back to (ask), ‘How do we envision service learning? What is our mission?’ ” he said. “We’re trying to incorporate some of the thinking and the development that has gone on since we first drafted the language that became service learning.”

At its last meeting, the committee worked through a mission statement, a vision statement and a statement of philosophy on service learning. The committee will meet again on Feb. 16 with clean copies of the statements to review. The committee’s final recommendations will be given to the chancellor.

“I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I think we feel like we’re wrapping things up,” she said.

“Part of what is emerging here is that it’s important to prepare students not only for a career or an occupation, but also for citizenship,” Mowry said.

In a Jan. 30 interview, Chancellor Donald Mash said he met with the group initially before winter break to talk with members about the issues, but has not attended meetings since. He said he has been informed of the issues through conversations with committee members.

Mowry said when questions were raised about service learning and religion last semester, many organizations with religious ties called him, wondering if they would not be able to work with students any more. These organizations, such as the Salvation Army, did not ask students to proselytize, so there was absolutely no problem, he said.

“I think it’s unfortunate that there wasn’t more information to counter what some of the people were claiming. It’s not (a) ban,” he said. “I think (the issue) was presented in a way that got people excited.”

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