When Holland McTyeire convinced his fellow Methodist bishops to start a university in Nashville back in 1872, he surely didn’t foresee this.
Nearly 140 years after the bishops — with a little help from a certain commodore — opened Vanderbilt University, the school’s Office of Religious Life has included four Wicca and pagan holidays on a list of “religious holy days and observances” for the 2011-12 academic year.
University policy says students are to be excused from classes and academic activities on holidays requiring labor restrictions, and there is a liberal policy on excused absences for other religious observances.
The calendar recognizes holidays in six other broadly drawn religious traditions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Baha’i and Hinduism. With the change, the mid-autumn Wicca feast of Samhain on Nov. 1 is on equal footing with Ash Wednesday and Purim.
Even after breaking formal ties with the Methodists in the early part of the 20th century, Vanderbilt has continued to see religion — “ethical and spiritual formation” is the parlance the school chooses — as part of the overall mission of the university. With the calendar change comes a commitment to broad inclusion.
The school — which doesn’t keep records of religious preference and thus has no idea how many Wiccans will be dancing ’round the maypole on their new day off of Beltane — says it simply follows the BBC’s Interfaith Calendar for setting the days. As if there is no good American source for this information, like the World Almanac and Book of Facts.
But The Beeb’s calendar also includes holidays for Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and Rastafari, but nowhere on the Vandy calendar is the April 21 Rastafarian commemoration of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica.
Maybe the decision was a demographic one. A 2008 study said Wicca is the fastest-growing religion in America, with adherents doubling once every 30 months.
The university may just be trying to stay ahead of the curve, as surely second-generation crafters are coming of college age every year. Amend the calendar, throw out the welcome mat on West End and appeal to a whole new segment of students.
After all, McTyeire convinced New York magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt to bequeath part of his fortune to the little school in Nashville with an eye to uniting the disparate segments of society. The good bishop may not have seen this coming, but it honors his dream nonetheless.