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Diversity in Christian Higher Education

December 8, 2017

Diverse students and faculty at Wheaton CollegeA new book, Diversity Matters: Race, Ethnicity, & the Future of Christian Higher Education features essays from student development professionals and scholars across the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, including several from Wheaton College.

In their essays, Wheaton College staff, faculty, alumni and a trustee reflect on their experiences as members of campuses that seek to develop Christ-centered diversity.

In his essay, Rodney Sisco ’84, Director of the Office of Multicultural Development, compares his years of service at Wheaton College to listening to a complex jazz composition: a combination of consistency and artistry. He writes, “the complexity of music pales in comparison to the complexity of understanding diversity in contemporary society. Just as listening to a complex composition requires focus and diligence, so too does the conversation of diversity. Longevity in Christian higher education for me has been to find that balance of consistency and artistry akin to finding the groove of a song.”

He adds that a sense of the Lord’s unique calling has enabled him to persist in his service at Wheaton for more than three decades. 

“The music Christ placed in my heart pushes me to both consistency and artistry. The consistency has been in developing a sense of shared responsibility between the institution and me—that diversity is the responsibility of all of us . . . and is at the heart of institutional mission. Consistency has also been in my recognition that my unique call facilitates the continued strength needed to serve within Christian higher education.”

“Similarly, a sense of artistry allows each of us to assume creative ways to go about our work. We do not follow the plans of others but allow our unique gifts to empower the way we find the “win,” live in community without feeling alone, and live into the spirit-led call that is uniquely ours.” 

Leah Fulton M.A. ’12 writes about the challenges of negotiating a healthy integration of her personal and professional identities amid the unhealthy expectations that can result from the cultural characterization of black women as uniquely strong and self-sacrificing.

Fulton, who currently serves as a research assistant and full-time Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, recounts several of her experiences of racism and explains the way they have affected her well-being. 

“My identity is inextricably tied to diversity. Consequently, it can be difficult to separate myself from the negative perceptions that people have about it,” she writes. “After a number of years in Christian higher education, I came to a sobering realization. Diversity work is often interpreted as politically liberal, inherently secular, and humanly divisive. It can be perceived as something antithetical to unity and  Christian faith by people within the body of Christ. That perception can pose major problems for both designated diversity professionals as well as people who represent diverse populations, such as women and people of color. In organizations where there are mixed or negative feelings about the work of diversity, those sentiments are sometimes projected onto the personhood of the professionals themselves…the consequences can be detrimental to the emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being of those on the receiving end.”

Fulton outlines strategies that she has employed, rejected, and refined in order to exercise agency in her vocation, family life, and educational choices.

Allison Ash, Dean of Student Care and Graduate Student Life, edited a section of the book focused on the reflections of white allies. In that section, Ash and her co-editor, Dr. Alexander Jun of Azusa Pacific University, introduce an engagement and awareness continuum based on her doctoral research.

In Ash’s essay, she wrestles with the complexity of her identity as a white woman as she engages with social justice and advocacy work.

“Without fundamentally understanding my own racial history and story, all of my practical training and knowledge would be like columns and pillars of a house lying in a pile of rubble, disconnected from the home’s foundation,” Ash writes. “Without understanding my unconscious assumptions and biases that accompany my engagement in justice work, I believe that I have the potential to unintentionally do harm instead of good.”

Ash writes that understanding her own privilege enables her to choose to continue to engage in the work of racial justice.

“Without understanding my privilege, I may see retreating from the work of racial justice when things get tough just like I would understand walking away from any other commitment in my life. However, while I have the ability to walk away from the work of racial justice without any personal cost or damage, I am reminded that the failure to end racism has little direct impact on my daily life. From a personal standpoint, I am mostly free from the damaging effects of racism in my educational institution, Christian community, and society at large. This freedom is a privilege,” she reflects.

“As a white person, I can afford not to be involved because making that decision won’t directly affect me. Yet when I begin to understand it as a privilege and not just another freedom, I can—and must—make conscious decisions not to retreat, even though the work is difficult.”

Professor of Anthropology Dr. Brian Howell discusses his journey to view engagement with race and racism as a fundamental part of his teaching and mentoring.

“Learning how, when, and why we white Christians can speak about race becomes part of our work as members of a diverse body where we are called to bear one another’s burdens, act justly and do mercy, and be salt and light in the world. Like people of every background, white people are part of a context in which racial classification shapes us all in complex ways. We owe it to ourselves, and our students, to learn to speak well about race,” Howell writes.

“For myself, I have had to learn how to speak to what my own experience has been as a white man learning about race. First, this topic requires a fair bit of humility as I address continued mistakes and gaps in my own understanding. It also requires practice, putting myself into situations where I can learn, listen, and sometimes speak on what I’ve come to learn about race.”

Trustee Dr. Jeanette L. Hsieh MA ’66 serves as Special Assistant to the President for Academic Administration and Provost Emerita at Trinity International University. Her essay describes the ways her values as an Asian-American Christian have impacted her leadership over 40 years of service in Christian higher education at four institutions, including Wheaton.

Hsieh describes how a “mid-career identity transformation” allowed her to transition toward a richer appreciation for her Asian-American heritage, and away from the belief that she had to negotiate her professional life from the perspective of the majority culture.

“As an Asian-American Christ-follower, the impact of a Confucian-based mindset, consistent with biblical values, is woven into the fabric of how I see life and how I lead others,” she reflects. “For example, I place high importance on respecting authority, working in community, and seeking social harmony in my relationships.”

Hsieh attributes her resilience to three factors: working for leaders who shared the same commitments, building a community of trusted advisors and faculty partners, and maintaining a hopeful outlook for the future.

 “A central factor contributing to my resilience was realistic hope,” she writes. “It was important for me to see real progress, no matter how small or slow, and it was in that progress that I found meaning in my work.”

Diversity Matters: Race, Ethnicity, & the Future of Christian Higher Education (Abilene Christian University Press, 2017) was edited by Dr. Karen A. Longman, Ph.D. Program Director and Professor of Doctoral Higher Education at Azusa Pacific University. The book is available for purchase via Abilene Christian University Press and other online booksellers.