Striving for Racial Harmony at Evangelical Colleges

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.
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"Bittersweet" is how Joshua Canada describes his memories of working to improve the experience of students of color at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, when he was a student there.

As vice president of the Multiethnic Student Association at Taylor, Canada successfully petitioned the school to restructure its ethnic recruiter position and to re-establish its director of multiethnic student services position. He was also an original member of Taylor Black Men, a student group that provided support for young men who didn't necessarily feel comfortable discussing the unique challenges they faced with white classmates.

"I was really excited that I was able to do that, but there's also this sadness that I have now because, although I felt like it was important, it painted a lot of my senior year," said Canada.

He was compelled to act, he said, because he feared that no one else would if he didn't. "I was blessed enough that I had a lot of coping skills," he explained. "I could 'code switch,' and sometimes get in that middle world, where I could deal with both cultures, but there were several students who couldn't."

It is those students that concern a number of professionals who work at evangelical colleges around the nation, and especially those affiliated with the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. The CCCU, an international association of Christian institutions of higher education, seeks to provide resources and support for the students, faculty and administrations of its member schools. Assisting students of color with their often difficult transition into the culture of predominately white Christian campuses has become one of its chief missions during its 36 years of existence.

Slow but Steady Progress

Twelve years ago the CCCU established a Racial Harmony Award to celebrate the achievements of its member institutions in the areas of "diversity, racial harmony, and reconciliation."

In 2001, the organization's board affirmed its commitment. "If we do not bring the issues of racial-ethnic reconciliation and multi-ethnicity into the mainstream of Christian higher education, our campuses will always stay on the outside fringes," remarked Sam Barkat, former board member and provost of Nyack College in Nyack, New York.

CCCU schools have made "steady gains" since then, according to a report co-authored by Robert Reyes, research director at Goshen College's Center for Intercultural Teaching and Learning and a member of CCCU's Commission for Advancing Intercultural Competencies.

Reyes and his colleagues found that overall percentage of students of color increased from 16.6 percent to 19.9 percent at CCCU schools between 2003 and 2009 and graduation rates for these students also increased, from 14.8 percent to 17 percent, which still only adds up to a tiny fraction of all students at CCCU's 115 North American affiliate schools.

According to Reyes, CCCU has a new research director and is developing a proactive research agenda related to these issues. This kind of research "creates a certain level of anxiety," he said, because it categorizes people and theoretically separates us when we're supposed to be unified as Christians. "I think it's a misunderstanding of what the unity of the body is, and what unity means in the Christian faith," said Reyes.

For those, like Reyes and Canada, who are engaged in diversity work on CCCU campuses, the task can feel like slogging through a murky swamp. I talked to current and former diversity workers at nine CCCU schools about their efforts and experiences. I repeatedly heard that students of color face unique challenges on these campuses and that CCCU schools are not always prepared, or willing, to deal with them. I also heard about successes and how challenging they can be.

The Problem -- A Whole Different God

Multiple sources said students of color at these colleges are routinely harassed with racially insensitive jokes and comments by members of their campus communities, for example, and that this harassment is sometimes not taken seriously enough by school administrators.

When racism isn't overt, students often feel like they won't be accepted by their school communities unless they suppress their ethnic identities. Many students feel profoundly lonely on majority white CCCU campuses, our sources said.

Dante Upshaw, for example, has been both a student and a staff member at evangelical schools. He recalled the challenge that worship presented when he was a student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

"For the average white student, it's an easy crossover. ... It's kind of this big youth group. But for the black student, the Hispanic student, this is a whole different God," said Upshaw.

He was unfamiliar with the songs that were sung in chapel, for example, and found himself in conversations about what constitutes godly worship. "I was a young person having to articulate and defend. That's a lot of pressure for a freshman," said Upshaw.

Monica Smith has seen the same phenomenon played out on her school's campus. As assistant to the provost for multicultural concerns at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, she said students of color once complained to her about being judged for skipping chapel services that felt culturally foreign to them. They were told they should be able to worship no matter what kind of music or speaker was up front. "The retort was, 'You're right, so why can't it sound like what I'm used to?'" said Smith, who also teaches courses in social work.

Smith and her colleagues have identified four specific areas of challenge that confront students of color at Eastern: financial, academic, social and spiritual. "If students are struggling in those areas, they really can't pay attention in the classroom," said Smith.

The university is making headway, but it's slow, she said. "As much as we have done administratively and in the academic arena, I still don't know that our university's administration has gone far enough with this."

Institutional Challenges -- Like Turning the Titanic

Upshaw served as a minority recruiting officer and assistant director of the office of multi-cultural development at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, in the early 2000s. He said the number of non-white students who were in pain over their experience at the school would have been as big as his admissions file.

He recalled leaving school one day to commute home to Chicago when he saw a student of color sitting on the stairs "like a lonely puppy." Upshaw read the student's demeanor as saying, "You about to leave me here, man? You're actually going to leave and go to your home?"

"There were just too many students like that, where they felt so alone on this beautiful, immaculate campus with great food service and great athletics," Upshaw said. "Those were some hard years."

In response to the need he saw, Upshaw founded Global Urban Perspectives, a multiethnic student group devoted to urban issues. He believes it was successful in part because it helped foster healthy relationships.

"The fact that we were together in a safe setting where we were given space to be ourselves, I think that really struck a chord with many of the students," he said.

"It's a wealthy system, it's an established system, it's a strong historic system, and it's a very Christian religious system," said Upshaw of the institutional challenges he faced at Wheaton. "Changing a system like that would be akin to turning the Titanic ... It is going to take a long time, and it's going to be real slow."

Even so, Upshaw said he saw "the ship" turn quickly when influential individuals decided to act. Too often, though, he saw inaction born of the fear of alienating potential donors. Upshaw left the school, in part, because he was frustrated with the administration's commitment to a broadly applied quota system that he felt undermined his efforts to recruit more students of color.

Additive and Subtractive Approaches

Although Joshua Canada is ambivalent about his experience at Taylor University, he returned there for graduate school and now serves as an adviser to the Black Student Union at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, where he is also a residence director. He said not all students of color struggle with the racial dynamics on their campuses and some students rarely do.

"In their ethnic development, they're not dealing with this tension, or this is what they've done their whole life and they know how to do this," said Canada.

He described two approaches to multiculturalism, one that is additive and one that is subtractive. With the additive approach, elements of non-European culture are added to the core culture, he said, and with the subtractive approach, people of color drop elements of their culture to assimilate into the majority culture.

"Students feel it, if it's additive," Canada said. "We did Black History Month. We did Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It's a nice gesture, but people realize it isn't who we are."

"To really be successful, we have to come to a place where our vision of being multicultural is more transformative and then it really does change aspects of the institution. It really does change the big-picture experience, and not in a way that is unfaithful to the history of the institution, but that maybe acknowledges gaps."

George Yancey is a University of North Texas sociologist and the author of numerous books, including Neither Jew nor Greek: Exploring Issues of Racial Diversity on Protestant College Campuses. According to Yancey, the task of student retention at CCCU colleges is complicated by the evangelical community's habitual conflation of faith and culture.

"There's an issue in retaining students of color in higher education in general," he said, "but I think Christian college campuses have even more of a challenge because of some of the dynamics that are there. A lot of times, the way the faith is practiced is racialized. People don't always realize it."

Nurturing Dialogue

It wasn't only African Americans, however, who recounted stories about the challenges students of color face at CCCU institutions. Jon Purple is dean for student life programs at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. He recalls the mother of an incoming student crying when she dropped her young black son off at the rural Ohio campus, and not just because he was leaving home.

"She was in tears and was afraid to leave her son here, because of very real fears that some good-ol' white boys might accost her son," said Purple.

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 professor Randal Jelks may 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, according to Christianity Today, Calvin's presidential search committee recommended 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, Glen Kinoshita.

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."

This article is reprinted, with permission, from an earlier version that appeared at

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