Elijah G. Jeong is a doctoral student completing a Ph.D. in higher education studies and leadership at Baylor University and has served in various educational and ministry settings, including working as a high school teacher, a college administrator, and as a pastor for an Asian-American church. This blog post is taken from his recent co-authored work, Christ-Enlivened Student Affairs: A Guide to Christian Thinking and Practice in the Field.
I still remember the day when Angela (pseudonym), a female student of color, called me to let me know that she would be transferring to a different institution. Despite it being her senior year of college and only having a handful of courses to finish, she felt that she could no longer continue. As we unpacked the reasons behind her desire to leave, a theme began to emerge: as a student of color, she continued to feel that the institution was “not made for her.” She would go on to describe her feelings of “not fitting in” and her perception that the institution lacked key support measures for students of color. She even shared her belief that student programming was tailored for a specific group of students—White students and not “students like me.” I knew changing schools would delay her graduation and increase her student loan debt, but I also knew what she was saying was true—at her institution, the institutional policy, programs, and structures were not created with students like Angela in mind.
The problems Angela faced are not unique to her institution. In fact, at many Christian institutions students of color perceive the environment as “not made for them.” Given this reality, one of the major tasks faced by Christian educational leaders is how to transform their campus racial climate (CRC) to be more hospitable, inclusive, and equitable for students of color.
Suggestions to Improve Campus Racial Climates
Based on extensive interviews and surveys of Christian colleges and universities by a team of researchers, I want to offer some specific suggestions to improve the CRC at Christian institutions. These suggestions are not exhaustive, nor should they be considered the “magic pill” that suddenly creates a welcoming environment for marginalized students. Rather, they are the result of reflecting on research.
Commitment to Use Theological Language
One of the biggest strengths we saw regarding diversity efforts was the use of rich biblical and theological language when describing racial and ethnic diversity. I would like to offer a specific theological term that could be of benefit when discussing issues or race within a Christian worldview: racial identity stewardship1.
There are two specific reasons why I advocate for using this terminology and believe it could benefit Christian institutions. First, racial identity stewardship places the responsibility of all students, including White students, to reflect on how they must steward their racial identity. Many White students do not critically engage or reflect on what it means to be White. One reason for this lack of reflection is that many White students are colorblind; they do not reflect on what it means to be racially White in a multicultural world. Yet, Scripture is clear: God has made all people in his image and has given all a racial and ethnic identity. And just like other identities we hold (e.g., student, professional, parent, spouse, female, etc.), we must steward these identities for God’s glory. This stewardship certainly encompasses stewarding our racial identity. Thus, evoking the term racial identity stewardship challenges all students—especially White students—to think about how one should steward their racial identity for God’s kingdom.
Second, racial identity stewardship, within the American context, means that certain races bear the burden of properly stewarding their identity more than others. Although all races bear the responsibility of stewardship, the level of stewardship depends on social, cultural, and historical contexts. Within the racialized American context, it is undeniable that White Americans bear a large portion of responsibility to steward their racial identity for the purposes of racial reconciliation and justice. This stewardship cannot be optional if one truly wants to love his or her neighbor.
Inclusion in Espoused Mission
It is important for Christian institutions to articulate why embracing and seeking racial and ethnic diversity is not simply a peripheral issue or an added benefit, but rather a fundamental component to the Christian mission of the institution. This clarity should manifest itself in a clear biblically-derived diversity mission statement, outlining a holistic vision that affirms the dignity and beauty of all. This will have multiple benefits. It will help make racial and ethnic diversity an institutional priority within a Christian college context, and bring diversity efforts from the periphery to the focus of each institution. Moreover, theological clarity will help combat the problematic underlying assumption that engaging in racial and ethnic diversity is simply a political or secular issue.
Enact the Mission
Christian institutions should have a specific short- and long-term strategic plan coupled with specific measureable outcomes regarding diversity. In our interviews, student affairs staff did not articulate clear short- and long-term organizational direction or how success in racial and ethnic diversity is measured. For example, what are the specific goals to increase faculty and staff of color within the next five years? How will an institution reduce the gap between White student graduation rates and students of color in the next ten years? What institutional efforts will be implemented to reduce students of colors’ negative perception of the CRC? What virtues are we going to cultivate so that each student can love his or her neighbor well? How will the success of these efforts be assessed? The espoused mission must be joined with the enacted mission. Without action, the espoused mission is merely a statement of sentimentality.
Hiring and Retaining Faculty and Staff of Color
Institutions should commit to hiring—and retaining—more faculty and staff of color. Arguably, this is the commitment that might be the most important practice in creating a hospitable racial climate. Creating racially hospitable environments is virtually impossible without intentionally hiring leaders who represent the diversity of the student body. Representation matters. Creating an inclusive CRC is more than simply denouncing individual racism or improving individual relationships between those of different races through programmatic efforts. It is also about thinking organizationally and structurally, particularly as it relates to current distributions of power and representation within higher education leadership. Our interviews revealed that student affairs staff perceived that Christian institutions lagged behind in diversifying their faculty and staff. In fact, many saw this deficiency as a hindrance to the educational experience and success of all students, but especially students of color.
Look Beyond Compositional Diversity
Educational leaders should commit to look beyond compositional diversity (e.g., racial demographics) of the student body and focus on inclusion. Compositional diversity is primarily concerned with numbers, but inclusion focuses on empowerment, belonging, and dignity. Compositional diversity is simply the presence and percentage of students of color at an institution, while inclusion is giving those students the freedom and power “to move the furniture.” Indeed, on its own, compositional diversity does not result in inclusion. As our participants revealed, the growth of the minority student population (i.e., diversity) did not necessarily correlate with hospitable campus environments (i.e., inclusion). In fact, in many cases, simply increasing the population of students of color without equitable systems, structures, and programs led to hostile racial environments. This is because, as research shows, compositional diversity is only the beginning2. Inclusion is not a natural outcome of compositional diversity; rather, inclusion must be carefully cultivated3.
Incorporate Christian Institutional Practices
Educational leaders should commit to incorporating specific Christian practices into university life. One Christian practice that could serve to orient our posture is the practice of confessing the sin of racism and lament its pain—both individually and structurally. This is the practice of what Alleman and Glanzer describe as “institutional confession.”4 Institutional confession is a “corporate commitment to practices through which the acts of violence, oppression, neglect, abuse, and other moral failures resulting directly or indirectly from institutional policies, practices, and norms are owned and acknowledged so that healing, altered behaviors, policies, and practices might commence.”5 We believe that due to the Fall, Christian institutions continually fall short of loving all students as God’s image bearers. Specifically, history reveals that Christian institutions have a checkered past in promoting equal access and opportunity for students of color. For many Christian institutions, policies, co-curricular efforts, and curriculum were not developed with students of color in mind. In light of this historical reality, as well as the current manifestations of racism and racial ignorance within each institution, we believe the practice of institutional confession should be a normative practice within the life of the university.
How, then, should institutional confession be implemented practically? Alleman and Glanzer provide a two-step template: (1) ritual confession and (2) situational confession.6 We believe that a yearly ritual confession of racism should be incorporated into regularly-structured events such as chapel, new student orientation, new faculty and staff orientation, or commencement. As institutions participate in the ritual confession of racism, they acknowledge that they, as an institution, have fallen short of loving God and neighbor, and that they have ignored—whether directly or indirectly—the pain and cries of our minority brothers and sisters in Christ.
The opportunity to practice situational confession, on the other hand, should occur when specific instances arise where the institution must confront specific forms of racism. To be sure, the decision of when and how the institution failed to acknowledge the humanity and dignity of all students, could prove to be difficult. Although overt and direct forms of racism could be easier to prove, there are always covert and indirect forms as well. Regardless, we believe that institutional confession is a necessary liturgical practice—in light of the historical and current manifestation of racism—that should be incorporated into the fabric of institutional life.
Commitment to Celebrate
It is imperative to have moments of genuine celebration of racial progress. Creating hospitable racial environments is difficult. Fighting issues of racial injustice will bring on feelings of guilt and shame. Many will feel convicted of their racism and racial ignorance and confess their sins. Yet, an institution should not simply stop by uncovering and confessing the sin of racism. This is just the beginning. In fact, we believe that it is imperative for institutions to celebrate progress towards diversity efforts. By doing so, institutions can acknowledge where they have been complicit in their racism, as well as places where they have been courageous in fighting racial injustice. It is important for institutions to lament where they fall short as well as celebrate the process made—while understanding celebration does not negate the progress that still needs to be made.
In practice, the processes by which institutions determine points of celebration will vary. Yet, we believe a special committee commissioned by the president could prove to be helpful. For example, we suggest that a committee made up of racially diverse students, faculty, and staff. The reason why we advocate for a racially diverse committee is simple: it guards against false notions of racial progress or symbolic gestures of racial progress that could be often advocated by those in the majority.
Racial and ethnic diversity is important because it matters to God. Christian educational leaders are called to love others, enact justice, and participate in the redemptive process of redeeming all things to Christ (Lev. 19:15; Col. 1:17). Part of this process involves redeeming fallen institutional environments that value the dignity of some but not others due to the hue of their skin. A true mark of a Christian university is to hold firm to the truth of the Gospel and to “do good, seek justice, and correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17). Although this redemption process—creating hospitable racial environments—will take intentional leadership, patience in times of difficulty, endurance of suffering to correct injustice, and countless hours of sweat and toil, we are ultimately hopeful in the promise that God is already doing the work, bringing all people from all nations to himself. We hope Christian educational leaders will play a significant role in making Christian colleges a place where racial diversity, inclusion, and equity are its greatest strengths.
- For similar concepts, see, Sarah Shin, Beyond Color Blind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017).
- Sylvia Hurtado, Jeffrey Milem, Alma Clayton-Pedersen, and Walter Allen, Enacting Diverse Learning Environments: Improving the Climate for Racial/Ethnic Diversity in Higher Education. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report 26, No. 8 (1999); Shaun R. Harper and Sylvia Hurtado, “Nine themes in campus racial climates and implications for institutional transformation.” New Directions for Student Services 2007, no. 120 (2007): 7-24.
- For more, Hurtado et al., Enacting Diverse Learning Environments: Improving the Climate for Racial/Ethnic Diversity in Higher Education.
- Nathan F. Alleman and Perry L. Glanzer. “Creating Confessional Colleges and Universities That Confess.” Journal of Education and Christian Belief 18, no. 1 (March 2014): 13–28.
- Alleman and Glanzer, “Creating Confessional Colleges and Universities That Confess,” 15.
- Alleman and Glanzer, “Creating Confessional Colleges and Universities That Confess.”