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.

“I would say the challenge is to be able to have self-reflection and self-assessment as to how then you become a school that no longer has students who are guests and hosts,” she said, citing advice from Dr. Rebecca Hernandez, chief diversity officer at George Fox University, and other leaders of color in the CCCU community.

Dr. Hernandez

Dr. Hernandez

After the pushback to their original statement, George Fox released a more explicit statement on June 18 that read in part, “Black lives absolutely matter to Christ and Black lives absolutely matter to George Fox University.

“The university has been at this work for many years, and we acknowledge we’ve had failures alongside our successes. Work we said was a priority was not always treated as such. As a community, we own that. We must do better.”

Dr. Hernandez, who has been at George Fox for almost seven years, said the university has been prioritizing recruitment and retention of faculty and staff of color as long as she has been there, which has resulted in a faculty that is 18 percent people of color. She noted that George Fox still has a “ways to go” until the faculty is representative of the student body, which is 32 percent students of color.

Dr. Rowe

Dr. Rowe

At Gordon College, student leaders chose not to settle into summer break but instead to demand that their school get to work after Mr. Floyd’s death.

“Our student government brought to our attention that while this may be summer, this is a crisis situation,” said Dr. Nick Rowe, associate vice president for student and global engagement. “They said our students are suffering and are really frustrated because it feels like the school they go to isn’t equipping them to respond to what happened.”

The student government, in collaboration with Black-led student groups, proposed making curriculum changes that would highlight Black experiences within the coursework.

Gordon officials say it is taking that proposal seriously.

Though curriculum changes aren’t final — Gordon wants to build consensus to avoid a “quick fix,” according to Dr. Sandy Doneski, executive vice president for academic affairs — Dr. Rowe said the changes will include the addition of a Black history course to the core curriculum.

The changes come amid an identity shift for the institution, whose student body has seen an increase from 20 percent students of color in 2016 to almost one-third students of color in 2020, according to Dr. Rowe.

That diversity has not been reflected in the faculty and staff, who have grappled with what Dr. Rowe called “white normativity” in the classroom.

At Calvin University, the day after Ms. Guinyard and Ms. Hamilton released their open letter, the school’s president released a statement acknowledging the pain of “black and brown members of our community” and expressed the school’s commitment to “anti-racism, anti-violence, and the vision of God’s shalom for the human community.”

“We have some amazing students, and I think they’re good at holding our feet to the fire,” said Dr. Pennylyn Dykstra- Pruim, Calvin’s associate dean for diversity and inclusion. “They let us know when we’re being slow.”

Recently, Calvin redesigned Dr. Dykstra-Pruim’s position to prioritize diversity and inclusion in both faculty training and in curriculum development, especially as Calvin works to revamp its core curriculum.

As part of her reconfigured position, Dr. Dykstra-Pruim has been working to help faculty and staff draft statements of diversity and inclusion to include on their syllabi. All faculty will be asked to include these statements in the fall.

No less self-examination is going on at Christian seminaries, where students and some professors also have called for greater inclusion and racial justice. After Black leaders at dozens of theological schools and religion departments released a statement in early June, scores of white deans and presidents at institutions belonging to the Association of Theological Schools followed with a letter pledging solidarity with their colleagues of color and a focus on “unlearning white supremacy” and “reimagining theological education.”

Ms. Henny

Ms. Henny

Ally Henny, who helped organize a 2018 #ToxicFuller protest while a graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Los Angeles, said she was pleased to hear her alma mater’s president and four associate deans signed the letter. But Ms. Henny reserved her congratulations until she saw substantive change.

Ms. Henny said some professors at Fuller, whose student body was 8 percent Black and 5.8 percent Hispanic in the 2019-20 academic year, were intentional about including Black and Hispanic authors on their reading lists. Others tended to pick only one week of a course to focus on writings of scholars who were not white men “Fuller is what I would call

nice white folks,” said Ms. Henny, a writer and podcaster who was a member of the school’s Black Seminarians

Council until her June graduation.“They understand how to present themselves in the space as if they’re listening, but whenever you get to action points and you get to the rubber actually meeting the road, Fuller suffers from what a lot of institutions suffer from and that’s inertia.”

Dr. Abernethy

Dr. Abernethy

Dr. Alexis Abernethy, who was hired as Fuller’s associate provost for faculty inclusion and equity just before the 2018 protest, said she understands Ms. Henny’s concerns and is aware that some faculty still need to make a more concerted effort to put together inclusive syllabi. But structural changes have begun, Dr. Abernethy said. Fuller’s faculty now have to report progress on diversifying their courses in their annual reports to their deans. The school also is pushing for a “deeper integration” of Black and Latino authors in the upcoming academic year so that professors include their perspectives more often across a quarter.

“I do get that for our students — some of our students — it’s not felt fast enough,” Dr. Abernethy said. “I do have to say for some of our other students, they feel the difference.”

Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, an associate professor of reconciliation studies at Seattle Pacific University, has been an advocate for making race relations a priority at Christian seminaries and colleges alike. In 2019, she led a discussion, “Diversity Is Discipleship,” at the CCCU’s third Diversity Conference.

Dr. Salter McNeil said she hopes religious institutions of higher learning will start doing “real reparative work” along the lines of Georgetown University’s initiatives to address its historical ties to slavery.

But Dr. Salter McNeil said she feels exhausted trying to motivate schools to address race. “The CCCU has so hurt and disappointed so many of us who have worked for years to try to be patient enough and collaborative enough and in dialogue enough with this issue that many of us have given up,” she said. “I have given up.”