Doing College Diversity Well

Doing College Diversity Well

Nyack College students say the number one benefit of attending Nyack is the preparation they receive to work in diverse environments. (Photo courtesy of Nyack College.)

In the years since Nyack College in Nyack, New York, shared the 2001 Council for Christian Colleges & Universities Racial Harmony Award with another college, the school has become so thoroughly immersed in racial and ethnic integration that it no longer applies to be considered for the honor, its president Michael Scales and provost David Turk told UrbanFaith on a recent visit to the campus.

“We used to submit the stuff all the time, but we decided we would just stop because our communication is on a different level. They’re talking about certain things they’re doing; we’re talking about a whole different culture,” said Turk.

“If you look back over all those awards—I  was even chair for a little while—they’re giving awards for prescriptions,” said Scales.

For Nyack, “intentional diversity” is one of the school’s five core values.

“We think all these are what [founder] A.B. Simpson taught back when we first started this. So, we tried to get back to what is in our own DNA,” said Scales.

At its main campus, Nyack is 37 percent White, 24 percent Black, 14-15 percent Asian, and the rest mixed-race and other ethnicities, Scales said. At its satellite campus in Manhattan, the student body is 46 percent Black, 11 percent Asian, 28 percent Latino, and 6 percent White. There is also a high level of age and denominational diversity, Scales said, with many adult learners attending the city campus.

Diversity Mavericks: Nyack President Michael Scales and Provost David Turk. (Photo courtesy of Explorations Media L.L.C.)

The push toward integration was intentional, said Turk, who has been teaching at Nyack
since 1978. During the 1980s and 90s, the school went through “rough periods” and had difficulty retaining faculty, he said. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise when the decision was made to innovate in the late 1990s.

“We then had the luxury to develop some things in an entrepreneurial way that other schools with an entrenched faculty group just did not have. One of those ways was diversifying,” said Turk.

Scales described Nyack’s efforts as a “noble experiment,” but said it is one that hasn’t been without costs. The average building on Nyack’s main campus is 76 years old, he said, and the school has had trouble attracting “monied” White investors to update facilities.

“I think it’s changing,” said Scales. “For the first time, we have some people coming around the table who really can be transformative agents.”

Alumni are divided, said Turk. “Some will say this is the best and the greatest thing, and some will just be blunt and say, ‘Well David, I’m not going to send my daughter to your school. She might date a Black guy.’”

In surveys, students say the number one benefit of attending Nyack is the preparation they receive to work in diverse environments, Turk said.

“The truth is that the people who are going to be leading this country are the students who come to places like this,” said Scales.

Creating Sustainable Change

In order to create sustainable change, faith-based institutions must link to their history, their mission, and to biblical principles, George Fox University’s dean of transitions and inclusion Joel Perez told UrbanFaith when he was interviewed for our previous article about the challenges students of color face at Christian colleges.  (Perez researched diversity at CCCU campuses for his doctoral dissertation.)

Joel Perez: 'Sustainable change must be linked to history, mission, and biblical principles.'

“Once you anchor [diversity] in those things, then it’s harder for an institution, when it does change leadership, for someone new to come in and say it’s not going to be a focus or we’re not going to talk about it anymore,” said Perez. “If schools don’t do that initially, or don’t go back and make those connections, I think it’s easier for a school to sort of lose its way in doing the work.”

Unintentional Diversity

UrbanFaith asked Turk if Nyack’s proximity to New York City gives it an advantage in attracting more faculty of color who may be reluctant to move to the rural settings where many Christian colleges are located. He rejects the common argument that geography is a deterrent to pursuing diversity, saying faculty of color want to serve and would be willing to go to rural campuses. His work with Nyack’s Manhattan campus taught him that finding qualified people is as easy as reaching out to their church networks. Now when peers tell him they can’t find non-white faculty, he asks if they’ve even tried those networks.

“I just don’t buy the argument,” said Turk.

James Steen: 'HBU's multi-racial campus is refreshing.'

At Houston Baptist University in Houston, Texas, where the student body is only one-third White, diversity is unintentional, said James Steen, its vice president of enrollment management. Instead it simply reflects the southwest Houston demographic. Forty percent of the student body lives within a 10 mile radius of the campus, he said.

“We’re not striving or working to try to attract more diversity. It’s just who we are and it’s just part of the culture. So, it’s a refreshing thing to be a part of,” said Steen, who previously worked at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where, he says, the student body is 70 percent White.

Twenty-eight percent of Houston Baptist’s student body is Hispanic, 29 percent is White, 19 percent is African American, 14 percent is Asian, and 6 percent is multi-racial, Steen said. The faculty, however, is mostly White, but more diverse than Baylor’s.

Because Houston Baptist has had a highly diverse student body for so long, the school has “grown comfortable” with its diversity, director of student life Whittington C. Goodwin said.

“Now we’re going towards really giving each student a way that they can develop academically, socially and spiritually,” said Goodwin, who came to Houston Baptist 18 months ago from predominantly White Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.

Houston Baptist’s diversity not only reflects community demographics, it also reflects the city’s churches, Goodwin said, many of which are “making huge pushes to really integrate those worship services, so it’s not the most segregated hour in America anymore.”

Whit Goodwin: 'Differences make for good spiritual formation opportunities.'

It can be a challenge to clearly define “who your students are” on such a racially integrated campus, said Steen. “What may appeal to one student group is not going to appeal to another student group.” For example one group may prefer a country western dance while another would opt for a hip hop concert.

“We’re cognizant of differences here, but we’re also cognizant of human nature, of what God has called us to be, and all of us living, working, studying, worshiping together makes for a really wonderful educational opportunity, but also a wonderful spiritual formation opportunity,” said Goodwin.

Waiting for the Immigration Law to Catch Up

At Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, the student body is only about 16 percent non-white, its president Randolph Lowry told UrbanFaith, but at one point last year it was the most ethnically diverse campus — religious or secular — in the state of Tennessee.

“The world is a pretty global, cross cultural place. The degree to which the school can reflect that cross-cultural nature, it’s going to be much easier for our students then to go into the world and feel comfortable and be effective,” said Lowry.

Randolph Lowry: 'Educating undocumented immigrants is a calling.'

In addition to a school-wide service requirement that places students in cross-cultural off-campus environments, Lipscomb sponsors Conversations of Significance that bring together ethnic groups for cross-cultural dialogue and the Davidson Group, which pairs community members of different ethnicities for year-long relationship building, Lowry said. The school also admits and financially supports undocumented immigrants.

“We’d like the federal [government] to be more courageous about immigration policy, but until they do that, I think we have to look at what we feel called to do as the Christian community,” said Lowry. “Our board has recognized that Jesus continually responded to those in the world who really were the outcasts. … Some of our students of color fall in that category, and we want to do what we can to respond to their needs.”

Pursuing First-Generation Students

Interracial dialogue is a priority at Lipscomb University. (Photo courtesy of Lipscomb University.)

All the highly diverse schools UrbanFaith talked to have a significant number of first-generation students on their campuses — that is, students who are the first in their families to pursue higher education.

North Park University in Chicago, Illinois, for example, recruits first-generation students as part of its mission, regardless of their race or ethnicity, dean of diversity Terry Lindsay said. Still, 40 percent of incoming freshman were students of color in fall 2011, he said.

Like administrators at other highly diverse schools, Lindsay has heard concern expressed that North Park’s commitment to racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity will compromise its academic standards.

“When you intentionally go after first generation college students, they come with their fair share of challenges,” he said. “They don’t know how to seamlessly transition from high school to college. They may … struggle academically with the curriculum. Because we know that, we are very intentional about putting measures and tools in place to make sure all of these students achieve success.”

Scales said there is “a lot of racism” around the issue. When he hears that Nyack is “watering down” academics in favor of diversity, he gives critics an opportunity to reflect on the offensiveness of that perspective and tells them: “We’ve taken that issue off the table.” Additionally, Nyack has pursued every specialized accreditation available for its programs, Scales said, to insure academic rigor.

Terry Lindsay: 'Social justice is key to North Park efforts.'

Like several other schools, North Park offers a program for incoming students to help them navigate the transition to college life. The Compass Scholars program identifies students who are potentially at risk and brings them to campus prior to their first semester, Lindsay said. They are given enrichment activities and academic skill development activities that are designed to help them acclimate.

The school also employs an Early Alert Reporting System that allows faculty to identify students who are at risk in their classes. “An EARS form is done online and that information automatically goes to student development and then they intervene immediately,” said Lindsay.

North Park is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church and its commitment to first-generation students reflects the denomination’s social justice focus, Lindsay said. “Our decision to remain a college that’s committed to urban education, to remain a college that’s committed to our Christian values, and to strengthen our efforts around diversity are all grounded in what the Evangelical Covenant … has always been about,” he said.

“North Park has made great strides, I believe because they have linked [diversity] to their mission,” said Perez.

Reconnecting With a Proud Legacy

Unlike Lipscomb and other Christian colleges that early in their histories adhered to a policy of segregation and barred African Americans from enrolling, Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, prides itself on in its abolitionist history. Wheaton’s new president Philip Ryken told UrbanFaith many would agree that the school’s legacy was “squandered” at times, particularly in the twentieth century, “through a lack of intentionality about racial reconciliation” that he thinks was “pervasive” in the evangelical community.

Ryken has had a lot of conversations with students of color this year about what he calls “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” “Depending on what day it is, I see our situation at Wheaton either as a glass half full or as a glass half empty,” said Ryken. “There’s no doubt that we have a lot of ongoing progress to make, particularly in the openness of our student body as a whole to experiencing other cultures and also making space for the right kinds of open dialogues about race that really lead to deeper understanding.”

Philip Ryken: 'Wheaton's proud legacy was sometimes squandered.'

One of the positives Ryken sees is the 461 students of color among the 3,000 currently on campus. When he was a Wheaton student in the 1980s, there were less than 100, he said. Forty-nine percent of these students are Asian, 18 percent are African American, and 21 percent are Hispanic, Ryken said, and many of them serve in positions of leadership on campus.

“They’re really thriving in the use of their gifts on campus. They’re not marginalized, but really flourishing,” said Ryken.

Among the ongoing challenges he sees is that “nearly all” students of color at Wheaton say other students and/or faculty have “made assumptions about them” or “made comments that were hurtful in ways that maybe even the person who said it didn’t understand.” Some students are “ready for a dialogue about ethnicity, race, culture, and the gospel,” he said, while others are “indifferent.”

The residence life staff at Wheaton is intentionally being trained to address issues of ethnicity, Ryken said, and talks are underway about designating one of Wheaton’s residence houses as an intentionally diverse living community. Additionally, a faculty development day may be set aside next year to hear from students of color as part of a proactive approach to fostering healthy dialogue about race in Wheaton’s classrooms. Although there has been a long-standing and comprehensive diversity requirement for all of Wheaton’s courses, Ryken said the faculty recognizes its need to grow in “cross-cultural competency.”

When people ask Ryken why Wheaton is re-prioritizing race, he says the most important thing to tell them is, “because this is what Scripture teaches.” But, he said, it also helps to be able to say, “because this is the school that we were founded to be.”

Reaching for the Future

Glen Kinoshita: 'Students need to be engaged on multiple levels.'

For our previous article, Glen Kinoshita, director of multi-ethnic programs and development at Biola University in La Mirada, California, told us that it can be challenging for students to shift their frame of reference, but if it is done with regularity and in community, they can grow in their “ethnic identity development.”

This takes time, Kinoshita said, and students need to be engaged on multiple levels. Individual reflection, reading articles and books, watching documentary films, and getting plugged into a larger group dialogue to gain perspective and build relationships are among the activities he suggests. Kinoshita even formed Multi Ethnic Film Productions at Biola to stimulate “thought, dialogue, and change within Christian higher education.”

While these and other Christian college leaders press ahead in embracing a multi-racial future, friends at secular institutions tell Joel Perez that the diversity conversation is changing. Instead of being driven by a Black-White binary, it has become much more nuanced. Religious diversity, multi-ethnicity, and sexual orientation are increasingly at the forefront of the discussion. Some of the schools we’ve highlighted here are already grappling with these issues. Others have only just begun.

Denominations Pursuing Diversity

Denominations Pursuing Diversity

The Southern Baptist Convention is the latest majority-white denomination to publicly reaffirm its efforts to pursue racial and ethnic diversity in its leadership ranks. Earlier this month, the SBC’s North American Mission Board (NAMB) announced that Ken Weathersby, an African American, would fill the newly created role of Presidential Ambassador for Ethnic Church Relations. Weathersby will work to facilitate diversity in the SBC’s executive leadership circles, as well as in the convention’s local churches.

Ken Weathersby

The SBC’s efforts are bold, especially in light of its complicated history with race relations. But it’s far from the first predominantly white evangelical denomination to get serious about racial and ethnic diversity. The Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) and the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) have been at it for a long time, too. And, despite inevitable challenges, both are making headway.

A Long Road Ahead

“I definitely celebrate the progress that is being made in terms of Christ centered multi-ethnic development within evangelicalism, but I also would say we have a long way to go,” said Rev. Efrem Smith, Superintendent of the Evangelical Covenant Church’s Pacific Southwest Conference.

Smith’s sentiments were echoed by three other African American leaders that we  talked to in the weeks since the Southern Baptists’ NAMB announced its appointment of Weathersby to his new executive role.

Southern Baptists Working, Not Talking

NAMB’s move follows closely behind the SBC’s election of Rev. Fred Luter as its first African American first vice president. UrbanFaith emailed Weathersby as soon as the news broke to request an interview as we had done after Luter’s election. This time, however, NAMB’s vice president for Communications Mike Ebert replied saying Weathersby needs time to settle into the job before granting interviews. Several other SBC pastors, including Luter, either didn’t return calls requesting an interview or declined to talk about the SBC’s diversity push.

Smith and other leaders in the ECC and the EFCA did agree to talk to us about the trend and wished the SBC well in their pursuit of change.

“The real progress in the Southern Baptist or any evangelical denomination will be when the president of Southern Seminary is a person of color, when the district superintendent in the Southern Baptist Church, when the president of the Southern Baptist Church is a person of color,” said Smith.

Evangelical Covenant Church Takes Holistic Approach

“Instead of one reconciling ethnic staff person who focuses on diversity, our president [Gary Walter] has said, ‘We need at all levels of leadership in this denomination to have a commitment to diversity,” said Smith.

Efrem Smith

“I’m a 41-year-old African American who is leading the largest conference in our denomination. A few years ago, I would have never dreamed that would have been a possibility for me, not because I’m saying the denomination is racist, but it’s not every day that an evangelical denomination elects an African American superintendent. … Out of 11 superintendents, we have three that are African American and one who’s a native Alaskan,” he said.

Executive Vice President at Covenant Ministries of Benevolence Harold Spooner worked with Walter and others to create a Five-fold Test for multi-ethnic ministry instead of hiring a point person.

“One of the things that we discovered in the process is churches and organizations will hire a person and give that person that title, then what tends to happen is that everything ethnic goes to that person and so the buy-in wasn’t necessarily whole and complete,” said Spooner.

With a little over 800 churches and 200,000 or less members nationally, the vitality of the denomination has depended upon ethnic growth, Spooner said. Twenty-four to 25 percent of ECC churches are now ethnic or multi-ethnic, he said.

“One of the things that we strongly believe is that God is a God of cultures. Yes, we’re created equal. Yes, we’re all human beings. But we also have various ethnic backgrounds that when you don’t deny the ethnic realities and embrace those, you become more whole as people,” said Spooner.

Reformed Church in America Follows ECC Lead

Spooner grew up in a predominantly black Harlem church in the majority white Reformed Church in America (RCA) denomination and worked for the RCA in the late 1970s. He recalls, at the time, his Reformed brethren would joke that “if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”

Harold Spooner

“The Reformed Church had a long way to go at the time. The interesting thing in the Reformed Church is that they are now looking at some of the things that we have done,” he said.

In a 2010 report, RCA general secretary Wesley Granberg-Michaelson said he is encouraged that more than one-third of its 249 new congregations are “racially or ethnically different than the RCA Anglo majority.” He warned, however, that a “relationship gap” between traditional and new congregations poses “the greatest threat to the RCA’s life together as a whole.” RCA created a Multi-Racial Strategy Coalition to guide its efforts toward diversity and has adopted its own Five-fold Test that mirrors the ECC’s.

Evangelical Free’s ‘Big Passion’ for Diversity

Dr. Alvin Sanders is Executive Director of Reconciliation for the EFCA. In collaboration with EFCA’s President, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Development Officer, and Vice Presidents of National and International Ministry, Sanders helps determine the direction of his denomination, he said.

Alvin Sanders

“Our mission statement is to glorify God by multiplying healthy churches among all people. I’m the chief architect of the ‘all people,’” said Sanders. He was hired four years ago in response to an EFCA reorganization and said diversity has been “a big passion” for EFCA’s president Dr. William J. Hamel, who created a task force on the issue in the 1990s.

“I believe this is an emerging paradigm. I see within some Christian colleges and universities my type of position, but other denominations or para-church organizations are going at this at a different rate. To be quite honest, I don’t know anybody else who has my exact same position. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there. I definitely know within denominational circles, they’re not plentiful,” said Sanders.

“Christian organizations need to wake up. If we’re going to really reach the mission field of the United States, and fulfill the mandate of the Scriptures, we need to be more diverse. … It’s simply a matter of practicing transformative leadership and changing policies, practices and procedures so that the organizational culture becomes one where ethnics will self-select to be a part of what you’re doing,” he said.

Sanders advocates a “two-pronged” approach of helping white churches to realize that pursuing diversity should be a priority and working with ethnic churches and leaders to address historical distrust between the races. “Their major question is: why should we be joined with you all? It’s a different paradigm depending on which group you’re dealing with,” said Sanders.

About 15 percent of EFCA’s 1500 churches are now ethnic or multi-ethnic and 35 percent of new church plants are, he said. But EFCA wants 20 percent of its churches to be ethnic or multi-ethnic by the year 2020. When 20 percent of “the other” is incorporated, the fabric of an organization changes, he said.

Building Bridges of Loyalty and Trust

Dante Upshaw

In 2004, the EFCA hired Rev. Dante Upshaw to serve as its first Director of African American Ministries. He had been a youth pastor and elder in a Chicago EFCA church, but said that like many members of urban and ethnic churches, he was only “marginally connected” to the denomination and felt no sense of loyalty to it.

“For ethnic and urban leaders, it really takes effort to have someone to be a bridge between the denomination and local leaders. That’s primarily my role, to be a bridge builder,” said Upshaw. With 15-to-20 African American pastors identified in 2004, EFCA’s prayer was to grow to 100 active and involved leaders by 2010, he said. “We reached that in 2009.”

African Americans are also serving on national and district boards, so they’re not just increasing in numbers, but having an impact, Upshaw added.

SBC Reports Its Progress

Although SBC pastors declined to talk to UrbanFaith for this article, last week the denomination’s own Baptist Press published an article about the change.

“African Americans comprise 6.5 percent of the 16 million members of the Southern Baptist Convention, according to 2009 figures. Whites comprise 81 percent; other ethnicities 12.5 percent,” Baptist Press reported.

“Luter’s election comes as the convention is focused heavily on multiethnic inclusion. At this year’s annual meeting in Phoenix, the Executive Committee and other convention leaders signed an Affirmation of Unity and Cooperation, pledging ‘to embrace our brothers and sisters of every ethnicity, race and language as equal partners in our collecttive ministries to engage all people groups with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’” the article stated. Luter recently said he’s 80 percent sure he will run for the SBC presidency next year.

A Vocal Critic in the SBC

Dwight McKissic

Among the SBC pastors who were unavailable for comment was Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. McKissic has been perhaps the most vocal internal critic of his denomination’s record on race.

In two blog posts last spring, McKissic outlined accusations of egregious racism within SBC’s churches. The Associated Baptist Press took note.

“The SBC must repent of systemic, institutionalized and historic negative attitudes toward women, race and dissenters. … When we repent of our sins and turn from our wicked ways, then God will forgive our sins and heal our convention and anoint us to go forth with power in carrying out the Great Commission,” McKissic is quoted as saying.

McKissic also started floating the name of Fred Luter as a candidate for SBC president back in 2010, more than a year before Luter’s rise to the position of SBC first vice president.

A Painful, Rewarding Process

As the SBC and other denominations attempt to more fully reflect and embrace the beauty and diversity God intended for his church, the process is sure to be painful.

“I’ve got to really understand God’s love for me,” said Upshaw. “That’s a challenge. When I’m struggling with that, it makes it really hard to love other folks, [especially] someone who is very different from me, be it culturally or whatever.”

He added, “What has to keep me getting up each morning and pressing through the disappointment is that this is a step of obedience in reflecting the kingdom. The family of God is a beautiful tapestry of all kinds of people: men and women, poor, wealthy, Hispanic, African American. When our local church or denomination doesn’t reflect that, we’re missing something.”