Diversity Matters

by Cynndie Hoff

The escalating racial tension throughout the country highlights the need for serious conversations that lead to paradigm-shifting actions. While institutions of higher education have the potential to effect change profoundly at a grass-roots level, Christian colleges and universities carry an even greater responsibility as standard bearers for the biblical tenets of grace, forgiveness, and celebrating the gift of diversity.

Diversity Matters: Race, Ethnicity, & the Future of Christian Higher Education (Abilene Christian University Press, 2017) offers perspectives, from more than 20 experts and scholars from across the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) membership, on how campuses can provide a supportive and life-giving environment for all students. Edited by Karen Longman, Ph.D., program director of the Ph.D. in Higher Education and professor, Department of Higher Education, the book includes contributions from her APU colleagues Kimberly Battle-Walters Denu, Ph.D., MSW, vice president and chief diversity officer; Rukshan Fernando, Ph.D., associate dean, School of Behavioral and Applied Sciences; and Alex Jun, Ph.D., professor, Department of Higher Education.

Dr. Longman, why this book? Why now?

The demographics of our country are changing, and most of higher education is working hard to ensure that all prospective students have access to the benefits of a college education. Christian higher education should be leading the way. Yet, the U.S. membership of the CCCU has largely been aligned with denominations that are historically white, and many of the member institutions were founded in rural locations. We need to be proactive to ensure that Christian higher education attracts and serves all students in an exemplary fashion. In fact, the opening chapter of Diversity Matters affirms that as of 2014, about 28 percent of the students on these campuses are nonwhite, and more than 20 member institutions reported student bodies that are more than 40 percent nonwhite. So, we have helpful examples of inclusive communities, but we still have work to do if our goal is to fully model the vision in Revelation of all the people being unified in bowing before God’s throne.

Dr. Battle-Walters Denu, you wrote the chapter “God’s Battle: Using Spiritual Strategies in Diversity Work.” Describe the battle and how Christians can and should participate.

Battle-Walters Denu: Hate and fear are spiritual elements. It helps to remember this as we participate in and understand the slow change of diversity work. As those of us who engage in this battle work to demolish “isms”—racism, classism, sexism, etc.—we draw our hope and strength from the knowledge that the battle is not ours alone, but God’s. He goes before us in the fight against injustice and for reconciliation. But that does not excuse us from participating. We all must enlist in the cause, and as leaders in Christian higher education, that means starting with an open mind and an open heart that allows us to recognize the truth about injustice. And that starts with listening. Our students of color want to see themselves reflected in the university’s leadership. We need to hear that, learn from it, and act upon it.

Given the barriers you have seen, why have you stayed so long at one institution?

After more than 20 years at APU, I have witnessed and experienced varying degrees of the “isms” that plague many institutions, but there is hope here. We are having the deep conversations needed to bring about healing and reconciliation. People at APU are willing to listen, learn, and act. I also believe that God called me to work and lead at this institution, and He opened that door. During my tenure, I have been able to effect change and build some bridges, and that makes episodic battles worth it. Finally, I have been well supported here. APU has invested in me over the years in ways that have changed my life for the better.

Dr. Fernando, you titled your chapter “I Don’t Belong Here: A ‘Circle’ Leader in a ‘Square’ University.” What does that mean? My chapter offers a personal narrative of my experiences as a South Asian administrator at a Christian university, where white people—men and women—have privileges and access not afforded to others. While statistics show that student body demographics have shifted dramatically, there has been virtually no progress in leadership diversity. We are not prepared to meet students’ needs. In this book, we use personal stories to highlight the injustices incurred by people who have been fighting these battles for many years. As one of those voices, I shared about being pigeonholed, stereotyped, and tapped for token diversity roles.

What strategies will help advance true diversity representation?

Creating a culture that truly supports diversity is very difficult. However, when technology advances made it essential for universities to adjust or die, they did it immediately. There was a market imperative. I suggest the same is true now in terms of developing a diverse leadership structure in our universities. In my chapter, I offer several suggestions for practical strategies: develop a network team with diverse backgrounds, skills, and ideas; sponsor emerging leaders of color by giving them greater organizational exposure, assignments that stretch them, and consistent feedback; and devise a plan for leadership development that is well articulated to the faculty and administrators and can be measured and quantified with benchmarks.

Dr. Jun, your chapter, written with Allison Ash (a Ph.D. student in APU’s Department of Higher Education), focuses on “White Allies Striving to Be Aware and Engaged.” What are white allies?

As part of the Voices of Our Friends section of the book, this chapter recognizes the efforts of white people who champion the cause of diversity on their campuses. We start with the assumption that Christian higher education is not diverse enough and that white voices are part of the solution to racial discord. However, we have found that most whites Christians are at various points on a continuum toward being fully aware and engaged. While they succeed and fail to varying degrees, diversity issues and racial justice are everyone’s problems not just problems for Christians of color, and those white brothers and sisters who advocate antiracism in Christian higher education must be heard.

What does white engagement with the issue of diversity look like?

We hope that this book, filled with stories from colleagues of color, will evoke an awareness of the depth and breadth of the problem of racism in our midst, and that white readers will respond by looking in the mirror to begin the process of healing and changing structural injustices. Aware and engaged white allies recognize that the system is broken as are many of the people within the system. We hope these stories inspire people, now armed with that knowledge about others and themselves, to pick up the mantle of full engagement in the work of racial justice, ask themselves, “What can I do from my position?” and then do it.

Dr. Longman, what does success look like in this battle? Is there an end game?

At the end of the day, I’m convinced that every human being has a deep desire to be known, heard, and valued. The Apostle Paul is very clear in I Corinthians 12 that every part of the Body—and by this he means the Body of Christ—is to be honored and built up to provide the greatest possible service to bring healing and hope to our world. Christian higher education has the challenge and the opportunity to be a model in a fractured and acrimonious world. Wouldn’t it be amazing if secular institutions, from top-tier research universities to the for-profit world, looked at us and could say: “See how much they love and support every student who enters these doors?” Most of all, we want God to be honored by the work that is done on these campuses and the spirit through which lives are changed for the better.

  • Cynndie Hoff is a freelance writer and editor living in Walnut, California. ceh.hoff@gmail.com

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