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Cedarville vice president Carl Ruby said a single conversation with an African American student in the 1990s was the catalyst for his commitment to making the campus a more welcoming place for students of color.
“I saw a student sitting by himself in the cafeteria, sat down with him and asked how his Cedarville experience was going. I expected him to say, ‘Great! I just love it here.’ Instead, he talked about some of the hardships of being a student of color on our campus. That was really the first time I became aware of some of the special challenges that minority students or students of color face,” said Ruby.
Cedarville, located in a town that’s 30 miles southeast of Dayton and 60 miles southwest of Columbus, has doubled its non-White population since then and its board of trustees is more diverse than either the student body or the faculty, Ruby said.
Another experience that proved life-changing for Ruby was accompanying students and staff on Cedarville’s annual Civil Rights Bus Tour, an intensive four-day trip in which students sleep on a bus, watch provocative movies about America’s racial history like John Singleton’s Rosewood, and visit historic sites in the Deep South.
“A big part of it was just going through some of the Civil Rights museums in the South and realizing that White evangelicals, for the most part, didn’t support their brothers and sisters in Christ very well. I don’t want to look back 20 years from now and have the same regrets,” said Ruby.
“Sleeping and living in tight quarters starts to break down those walls of politeness and keeping up our sophistication. It gets gritty at times,” said Purple of the trip. “We have some really honest conversations. There are tears shed and joyous laughter that takes place over those four days.”
It’s these conversations that make the biggest difference, he said. Yancey would agree.
“Programs that are going to be effective are ones that are going to promote dialogue, and dialogue among the students as much or more than between a speaker and the students, because when the students talk [to me] about what they liked about their courses and their professors, one of the major things they liked was the chance for dialogue,” said Yancey.
Because students spend most of their time with other students, student-initiated dialogue “is going to bring awareness to majority-group students, which in its own way supports minority-group students,” he said. “If I had a chance to work with a college, I think that’s what I would say: see if you can promote programs that promote dialogue.”
Taking Concerns Seriously
Carmille Akande, an African American attorney who served as dean of multicultural and special programs at Cedarville from November 2008 until January 2011, left the school in large part because she felt that her concerns and those of the students of color weren’t taken seriously enough.
“A lot of students felt like they had to shed their identity in order to be accepted, that as long they conformed or assimilated to White culture, they would be accepted, but if they brought any part of their culture to the environment, they would be rejected,” said Akande. “They felt like Christian campuses wanted color, they wanted cosmetic diversity, but not authentic diversity.”
Purple said the school isn’t perfect, but it’s committed to providing support to students of color. Two female African American residence directors are available to struggling students, he noted. “They know there are some safe places. Even students who don’t come might hear through one of their friends that there are people to talk to.”
If Christian colleges are serious about moving forward in their diversity efforts, they need to listen to and empower the diversity officers on their campuses, Akande countered. “If you’re going to have someone in that position, take the time to listen to their advice and let it be a real position,” she said.
Operating from a Position of Strength
As a former pastor, University of Kansas history professormay have been afforded more power than Akande to implement change when he was recruited to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1992. Jelks was hired as director of multi-cultural affairs after students of color on campus complained about their peers engaging in racist pranks like dressing up as members of the Ku Klux Klan, he said.
“Calvin is an exceedingly good school and some people have really good intentions, but the kind of structural road was not paved, and so I came in to do that,” said Jelks.
When he took the job, he insisted that he be given a faculty appointment and that the college hire other people of color to support its efforts, telling the school’s provost, “You’re not going to have me as the sort of Negro representative of everything.”
Added Jelks: “I came there with strength and I knew going into the job that I needed to exercise that strength.” He told his younger colleagues to concentrate on their jobs while he fought the battles.
“It was an intentional strategy to confront people when necessary,” said Jelks. “I was not just challenging racism as individuals, I was also challenging the intellectual racism that was so embedded in the kinds of ways that people thought about others.”
Jelks took a cue from historically Black colleges in that he sought to instill in students a sense of confidence about their ability to succeed and not be defined by the majority culture, he said.
He founded the Entrada Scholars program to help prospective students prepare for the academic challenges of college life and pressed to establish a position in student academic services to help struggling students build their skills. It was difficult, however, to get the admissions office “on board” with the program, he said.
“When it was ‘minority,’ it seemed to be somebody else’s program,” Jelks explained.
Jelks left Calvin in 2007. In 2008, African American associate professor Denise Isom and two of her White colleagues resigned from the university after Isom was pressured to conform to Calvin’s policy that its faculty worship at a congregation affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church. Isom was reluctant to leave the predominantly Black Baptist congregation where she felt comfortable. Jelks believes that Isom “took the brunt” of “being tied to him.” This year, however, Calvin’s presidential search committee is recommending its first non-Reformed president in 60 years to replace outgoing president Gaylen Byker. Time will tell how this affects policies such as the one that led to Isom’s exit from the school.
Linking Diversity to Mission
Joel Perez, dean of transitions and inclusion at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, managed the fallout after four students hung an effigy of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama from a tree on campus in 2008. For his doctoral dissertation, Perez evaluated four CCCU schools that are demonstrably committed to increasing diversity, though he said he couldn’t divulge their names.
“They all had positive history and they all had negative history,” said Perez. “The drivers that they all shared were they felt [diversity] was a biblical calling and that it was central to their mission.”
In his role at George Fox, Perez provides strategic direction for the school’s diversity efforts, which includes serving as the chief diversity officer and overseeing the office of multicultural student programs and international student services. In order to create sustainable change, schools have to link to their history and mission, he said, and faith-based institutions must also provide a biblical basis for their work. Doing so lays a foundation in who we believe God has called us to be.
“Once you anchor it 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.
Hiring a diverse faculty is also important, Perez said, because tenured faculty generally outlast administrators and thus can effectively resist — or support — change at their institutions.
This is still a problem at CCCU schools, however. While Reyes and his co-author reported an increase in the number of faculty of color at these schools, they found that most of them are non-tenured, and administrators of color are rare.
A Deep Conviction in Your Soul
Biola University in La Mirada, California, has hosted a conference for college diversity directors and student leaders for 16 years. The Student Congress on Racial Reconciliation helps people realize they are not alone in the struggle, said its founder and Biola’s director of multiethnic programs, .
He estimates the turnover rate of diversity workers at CCCU institutions is three to five years. “The stories that people tell are very painful. It makes it hard to do SCORR because you have to keep on finding out who’s the new person,” he said.
Key to Kinoshita’s 20-year tenure at Biola is a sense of divine calling.
“You’ve just got to know and have a conviction deep in your soul that this is the Lord’s work, that we’re about our Father’s business. It’s a fight,” he said. “I know a lot of the people who have left, and they just pour their lives out and it’s just difficult work. It’s deeply personal, and something that I always try to be in prayer about, but obviously you have to know when to manage your stress too.”
At Chicago-based North Park University, where the student body is 47 percent non-White or mixed race, diversity has led to a new kind of tension, according to Nathan Mouttet, North Park’s vice president for enrollment and marketing.
“For many of the schools that have historically had generation after generation of the same students coming, now they’re starting to come to grips with the fact that in word we want diversity, but the actual practice is very complicated,” he said. “One of the things that we’re coming to wrestle with here at North Park is that there isn’t a central dominant culture. But then where do you find the norm? Which culture becomes the centralizing norm?”
The diversity professionals we spoke to would say this is the right kind of tension and a good problem to have.
“There’s something about doing the work,” Kinoshita said. “I’m not sure how to explain it, but it releases something of God’s blessings.”