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Push for evangelical Christian colleges to address racial justice

Kathryn Post and Adelle M. Banks/Religion News Service | 8/20/2020, 6 p.m.
After the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25, George Fox University, a Quaker-founded evangelical Christian school ...

After the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25, George Fox University, a Quaker-founded evangelical Christian school in Oregon, announced plans to change its campus culture, improve police engagement and diversify its board of trustees.

Gordon College, a Christian institution in Massachusetts, said it would consider adding a Black history course to its core curriculum. Calvin University in Michigan offered a summer class on “Faithful Anti-Racism in a Time of Pandemic.”

They were among the dozens of evangelical colleges and universities that issued statements grieving Mr. Floyd’s death in police custody and pledging to find practical steps to address racial justice on and beyond their campuses.

But the schools’ promises to correct an often-common history of failing to prioritize racial justice and reconciliation left some students unsatisfied.

“You failed me and so many other Black students,” a George Fox graduate commented on a George Fox Facebook post. “Do better than just putting words on Facebook.”

“You fail to support students of color in and out of the classroom. Your retention rates for students of color are lower because y’all don’t know how (to) hire diverse faculty who are able to connect with the students,” another commented.

Students and staff at Calvin University also were vocal about their desire for a more decisive response from leadership in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death.

Two Black staff members who were then advisers to Calvin’s Sister to Sister affinity group for Black women wrote a May 30 open letter to Calvin’s administration.

“Your Black students are tired, angry and hurting. Your students of color are tired, are angry and hurting,” said Michelle Guinyard and Rachel Hamilton. “Your staff, faculty and alum of color are tired, angry and hurting. We don’t need silence right now. We want to know that when we say that we are devoted to diversity and inclusion, that includes justice and speaking against injustice.”

Race relations experts say they have been trying for years to move these often predominantly white institutions to be not just diverse in student body and their faculty and other hires, but truly inclusive. The deep national response to Mr. Floyd’s death has now put pressure on some of these institutions to go beyond promised prayers and panel discussions. Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, said she doesn’t think racial justice efforts are “any more challenging in Christian higher education than in white-majority education.” But she said that the leaders of the 140 U.S. schools in her consortium are seeking ways to foster appropriate relations on their campuses.

The effort is driven not only by this summer’s protests but by broader demographic changes. The Black student population at CCCU-related institutions has grown, according to U.S. Education Department data, from 9.73 percent in the 2007-08 school year to 10.8 percent in 2018-19.

The Hispanic student population also increased from 5.3 percent to 11.3 percent in the same time period.

Leaders of Christian colleges and universities still need to work on providing minority students with a college experience where they are not regarded, wrongly and even unconsciously, as outliers in an environment primarily catering to white people, Ms. Hoogstra said.