Last year the University decided to create a new centre for student life on the main campus. Our present facilities would be demolished and we would be housed within the new centre.
Oasis has long been ready for it. We have done the best we could with the inherited 1960s facilities since inaugurating Oasis as a new vision of spiritual care for the university in 2007.
According to the last floor plan, Oasis is a self-contained space, tucked away in the far corner of an open-space Library student work area.
Couldn’t we take the doors off and integrate Oasis with the library space? Wouldn’t that be more in keeping with the kind of vision the planners have in mind – student flow around the centre according to need? Wouldn’t that be a tangible symbol of the collaborative intention of Oasis?
And if Oasis were integrated with the rest of the open space, what would make an open Oasis space distinctive within a Library open space? – a Library space that has a number of facilities essentially in common – such as lounge areas, meeting rooms and a student kitchen, all of which are essential ingredients within an Oasis having a vision of inspiring hospitality and wellbeing? If lounge, meeting and cooking facilities are part of modern libraries then what is distinctive about lounge,meeting and cooking facilities in an Oasis precinct within such a library? And do we need them in both?
The beginning of an answer from Oasis’ point of view, I think, is in what might be called ‘personalised space’.
In the UK, following the ‘London Bombings’, many universities responded by building Muslim prayer rooms. A report “Faiths in Higher Education” showed that overwhelmingly, universities felt that providing facilities was a generous and sufficient response to the growing number of Muslims on campus. They did not sense a need to develop strategies for the development of appropriate cultures within those facilities by personalising them with trained staff. Millions of pounds were spent on ‘plant’, virtually nothing on ‘people’.
The experience of London University, home to a terrorist cell that developed within it, despite repeated forewarning by the university chaplain, was that radicalisation on the campus was eventually ameliorated by the introduction of a respected member of the Muslim community into the chaplaincy team, to consistently and quietly, through a kind of ‘soft-diplomacy’, consistent with Koranic teaching, affect the culture of the group. This experience suggests that without the provision of appropriate people, the provision of facilities may actually become part of the problem, rather than the solution.
‘Personalised space’ is about creating a culture within a space through the informal but skilful presence of a trained team of people who can create, model and influence the culture within that space. For Oasis, that culture is inclusive, hospitable, safe and appreciative of religious and cultural difference.
That is the key strategy of Oasis in contributing to a culture of peace and social cohesion within the University, influencing the wider local, national and international community. It is a strategy that encourages the best, and discourages the worst, of religion.
In the Library space, the spaces that are provided to students are open and laissez-faire. In the Oasis precinct, the very welcoming presence of the Oasis Administrative Officer supported by a team of volunteers establishes a culture of care, safety and acceptance that is not necessarily part of the Library’s strategic concern. Whether it could or should be is another question.