Doing College Diversity Well

Christian college administrators pursuing diversity for their institutions and other leaders committed to improving their schools’ troubled histories with race talk to UrbanFaith about their efforts.

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.

About the author, Christine A. Scheller

Christine A. Scheller is a widely published journalist and essayist, and an editor-at-large at UrbanFaith. She lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore and in Washington, DC, where she helps facilitate dialogue between scientific and religious communities.
  1. I’ve really enjoyed these articles, Christine. And I’m loving the shout-out for North Park!

    • Thanks so much Nancy! I know you, like me, have a personal stake in these issues. But really all of us do. Some of us just don’t realize it yet.

  2. Hopefully it makes for a better Church as you have some of these students come out and go into full-time ministry and can help their congregations see the need for diversity and learn how to welcome those that are different into their midst. Rather than being clergy who have no experience with diversity and are unable to do much better than their own congregants in the area of sensitivity.