Moving from Conversation to Action: The Importance of Diverse Communities in Christian Higher Education
By Carlton Mitchell
The world that we live in is changing and it would behoove us as educators and administrators to not only understand but move to embrace many of the changes that are good for us. Gone is the day when we labor only alongside people from our own little hamlet and never travel outside the borders of our own state, our own country. We truly live in a global society where an email can connect one with a colleague thousands of miles away and one can text a person on another continent and receive a response almost instantly. Not very long ago I exchanged text messages with one of our local law enforcement officers who is serving our country in the National Guard in Kuwait. On a daily basis she will be interacting with people whose culture is so unlike hers that this could prove to be an invaluable experience to her. With technology and the easy access to air travel our world seems to have shrunk and the possibility of traveling to and working on foreign soil has become more of a possibility for many people. Thus, it becomes even more necessary to ensure that the students that we are charged with educating are not living and learning in homogeneous environments. The time has come for us to move from the mere discussion of diversity in our institutions to a posture of intentionality as we try to change the ethnic, racial, and gender make-up of our leadership, faculty, student body, and staff.
I am relatively new to higher education and student affairs having just completed my fourth year of service. I served as Director of Cultural Competence, and now am pleased to serve as Director of Student Support Services in a predominately white institution. During my short tenure I have noticed that there has been much conversation about diversity and how vital it is that institutions take steps to welcome the breadth of God’s people. I have attended conferences and even presented at workshops where the topic has been just how important it is that we begin moving in that direction. One certainly does not have to reach very far to find peer reviewed literature that would echo this very sentiment. We all seem to agree that diversity within our institutions is not only necessary but would be good for all of us. Some institutions have even hired diversity professionals, created offices of multicultural affairs, or offices of diversity and inclusion. No matter what we call it there still remains much work to be done in these areas.
My question to all of you who are serving God through your vocation within a Christian University is; how is it going so far? In the discussions and the ongoing dialogue about this very subject it would appear to me that we are still in an embryonic state and no one seems to know how long the gestation period will be. I have given as well as sat through countless talks about how God-honoring it would be if we were able to diversify our faculty and staff in our respective institutions. Each year we take in a new freshmen class eager to learn and begin the journey that will allow God to use them in their particular fields. We also graduate thousands of young adults each year who we feel that we have equipped with the knowledge and skill-sets that will let them be proficient in their given calling, but how well have we equipped them to function in a multi-ethnic, multicultural, global society? Are we doing our students a disservice by educating them within these mono-racial Christian bubbles and then sending them out into a world that is very different from their learning labs? Isn’t it time that we, as members of the body who serve in Christian institutions of higher education, did more than give lip service to the notion of being intentional about creating learning and living environments that will challenge our students to learn from, relate to, and share in God’s diverse kingdom? Or maybe it’s not? Maybe it is just enough to talk about how great it would be to diversify. Maybe it is enough for us to sip the coffee, eat the pastry and nod in agreement that it sure would be a blessing if we could find qualified faculty and staff of various races, ethnicities, and cultures to change the face and enhance the landscape of our campuses. Many of our institutions look the same way that they did two, three, and even four decades ago. Although many of our campuses have witnessed phenomenal growth in enrollment, been involved in massive building programs, and hired and retired many faculty and staff; the diversity on a lot of these campuses has been and remains sorely lacking. The leadership looks the same, the administration looks the same and the faculty has not changed much. Is this the best that we can do for our students? I would never suggest that we should diversify our faculty and staff by hiring even one candidate that is not qualified for the position that he or she is seeking. I would, however, assert that we should create policies, infrastructures, and a culture that seeks to give opportunities to some who have been historically excluded from the applicant pool.
I, in no way, would suggest that there is a lack of sincerity when we as believers gather at conferences and workshops and talk about cultural competencies and multicultural issues. There is no malice intended when I suggest that this appears to be an ongoing dialogue that has not gained any more momentum in the past year than it has in the last decade. However, this work and these changes must happen and it must be part of an academy wide effort that begins from the leadership and permeates through the ranks. We, as those professionals who work in areas of diversity and inclusion, must be the champions that continue not only to scream the loudest but to be more creative in enlisting the support of the offices that wield the power. Our Presidents, Vice Presidents, and cabinet members must be on board in order for any of this work and become more than cursory in nature. Diversity can and must be a reality on our university campuses or we are not truly the people that we say that we are. Diversity professionals we need to ask ourselves if our institutions have changed at all since we have been there. Have we seen anything altered in the physical landscape and décor of our campus that would make it more welcoming to peoples of other colors and nationalities? Do we see more women moving into upper leadership roles as Presidents come and go at our respective schools? Is our staff and faculty make-up essentially the same, percentage-wise today, as it was ten years ago? A colleague once asked how we go about attracting more students of color to our campus. My response, we need to have representation of people of color in more places than just the cafeteria, custodial services, and grounds maintenance. Students of color, and parents of these students that I have talked to, want to know that there are those on campus that might understand their culture and thus there would be somebody that these students might relate to and seek out in times of uncertainty or distress.
What an awesome opportunity that we have here before us. Here is a chance to diversify and enhance our campus communities and learning environments not because of government mandates but because it is just the right thing to do. Who else should it be that leads the charge to ensure that educational institutions better reflect the greater communities and student bodies that we serve? Do we continue to sit back and let secular institutions lead the charge of change motivated by government mandates and federal dollars as we attend another conference and collect workshop handouts from our sister schools? The time has certainly passed for us to get serious and institute the policies and procedures needed to bring about the changes that we have all read, written about, and discussed. I want to be part of that process and as a servant of Christ in a Christian institution I want to be able to tell my counterparts in secular schools that we are so much more than talking heads. I want to be able to proudly wave the banner of diversity in the face of challenging economic and changing times. But most of all I want us all to be able to honor our Father by working diligently to ensure that all of His people have a chance to sit at the table and learn, lead, and serve.
Some would also look at where we are as institutions from a purely pragmatic viewpoint. Due to the changes in the economic landscape the places that we draw our students from is changing. The distance that students want to travel to college and the costs that the parents are willing to assume is very different than it was just a few short years ago. We find that more and more students are looking for institutions that are within one hundred miles from their home. Many of our campuses are moving to become more commuter friendly and commuter service oriented as we move into this new era. Depending upon where your particular school is located this often means drawing from an extremely diverse population. As I stated earlier, there are many parents and students who are concerned with much more than the pure academic side of higher education. These constituents want to be part of a college community that has educators and administrators that may in fact have some understanding of the culture of these students and their families. From a purely–keeping the doors open– business sense, we will have to put ourselves in a position to compete with the junior colleges and state schools whose staff is traditionally much more diverse than ours.
The reasons are clear and the time is now. We must move from idea to implementation, from talk around the water cooler to integration into the strategic plan. Our universities should by now look a lot different than they did after the 1964 passing of the Civil Rights Act; but do they? We should no longer be functioning within institutions that have representation in the mid ninety percentile of Caucasian individuals and four to six percent of “all others.” How does this change happen? Can we rely on this to happen as a natural occurrence with the use of traditional recruitment and hiring methodologies? Obviously not! Changes come when people decide that it is time to do things differently and are willing to take the needed steps and commit the sometimes scant resources to make the changes a reality. Let’s be about change, let’s be the ones who institute the change on our watch while encouraging those following behind us to keep the ball rolling. We are missing so much when the boardroom is filled with the same old boys from years gone by. We shortchange ourselves by not hearing the heart-wrenching stories of others and get to taste their foods and discuss their varied beliefs. Change cannot and will not happen if we do not stand up and make bold statements to those who have the authority to make change a strategic priority.
I have expressed this not as a condemnation for those who wield the power or those who are part of the majority. I have not written this to criticize or call into question the hearts and minds of those who have led and continue to lead these great bastions of critical thinking and learning. I merely offer as food for thought my ideas on where we are today and how far along we could be in the years to come if we indeed believe in the need for change and are willing to do the work to get there. Change is never easy, sometimes it means doing things that make us uncomfortable and traveling in circles that are just not familiar to us. Throughout God’s word we are introduced to individuals who grew in strength due to hardship and who began to see beyond their blindness. Join me and other diversity practitioners as as we strive to move this conversation forward and joyfully embrace the work that lies ahead of us. No matter what happens our campuses are going look different in the years to come. They will either look a lot smaller because we were not able to do things needed to make them welcoming environments to all; or they will be vibrant breeding grounds for multicultural engagement. What do we want our campuses, our communities, and our world to be?
Carlton Mitchell serves as the Director of Student Support Services at LeTourneau University, located in Longview, Texas.