Meeting the needs of minority students challenges administrators and students in colleges both Christian and secular.
Anger, bewilderment, and hope pulsate behind the placid composure of many evangelical colleges in the United States. The feelings belong to a category of students too few in number, seldom understood, and rarely accepted. They are the minorities—black, Hispanic, American Indian, and Asian-American.
Michael Haynes, a Baptist minister in Boston and a trustee of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, surveyed race relations on numerous campuses and concluded, “Minority students at Christian colleges are either restless, or copping out.”
A black collegian transferred from a southern state university to a midwestern, evangelical college in search of Christian fellowship. “I didn’t find it,” he recalls. According to him, “They boast around here that Christ makes the difference. But it hasn’t happened yet.”
Another minority student chose a Christian college in the East because she expected to be free of race problems on a campus where Christ is honored. Now she thinks differently: “At a secular school students tell you outright, ‘We don’t like you.’ Here they don’t say that. They just act like it.”
George Moore, minority affairs coordinator for Biola University in California, notes that other minority students on the West coast face the same problem as the blacks. “A significant number of Latinos do not want to be identified as minority students,” he says. “But they find out they can melt in with the white majority only so far. At some point of time, they realize they are not totally accepted. Then comes the crisis.”
Adding injury to injury, some college administrators seem not to notice a basic contradiction between the professed commitment of their institutions to biblical principles, and their failure to minister to a diverse but important part of the Christian community. The admissions office of one well-known school insists, “We have no problem here. We are color blind.” Yet his institution, located in a major city whose population is over 50 percent black and Hispanic, has a 2 percent minority representation in the student body.
This ratio is not unusually low for many church-related schools of higher education. Minorities make up 17 percent of the total college student population in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The corresponding average for the 60-member Christian College Coalition is 5.4 percent; only nine schools have student bodies with 10 percent or more minority representation.
The paucity of nonwhite students is not a recent problem for liberal arts and Bible colleges of evangelical orientation. Historically they have ignored the educational needs of ethnic and racial subgroups. The pattern of indifference was briefly interrupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. A plethora of government education aid grants coincided with spasms of evangelical conscience. Minority enrollment leaped forward dramatically.
In the late sixties, some evangelical schools literally bussed young people from city ghettos to their suburban campuses. The results were generally disastrous. Street-wise youth, accustomed to the daily enticements of drugs and sex, the roar of city traffic and emergency sirens, and a social system where brute strength and authority merged, suddenly found themselves transported to pastoral surroundings. They were governed by the unfamiliar mores and morals of white, Protestant, middle-class culture, and tested by an educational standard foreign to their inner-city schooling.
Well-meaning administrators, unaccustomed to working with minorities, found their decisions challenged, their motives suspect to the point of seeming willful misrepresentation. Professors, unaware of personal bias, were accused of racism for ignoring minority achievements when they lectured. Students in the dorm, some of whom had never met a black person, were baffled and intimidated by the lifestyle and attitudes of the newcomers. One Wheaton College alumnus recalls the tense atmosphere at that time: “It got to the point where you didn’t know whether to say hello or not to a black acquaintance. Would saying hello be interpreted as friendly or condescending and overly solicitous? Would not saying hello be a snub or did they not even want to speak to us? It was bewildering.”
By 1972, the tide of interest in minorities began to recede at many evangelical colleges. Administrators cancelled black studies programs; librarians dropped periodicals promoting racial understanding; professors watched in silence as disillusioned minority colleagues quit. Indifference resumed its preeminence on campus.
Reasons And Rebuttals
Christian educators point out realistic factors that contribute to racial imbalance at their colleges. The most common reasons are financial and academic deficiencies: minority wage earners are generally paid less, and their children educated less than their white counterparts.
Statistics appear to support such claims. Phi Delta Kappan reports that the mean score on the verbal part of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) for black high school students in 1976–7 was 329, compared with 449 for white students. On the math section, blacks scored a mean of 355, well below the 490 score for whites, SAT data further show that 42.2 percent of blacks taking the test came from families earning less than $9,000 a year, compared with only 7.3 percent of white students from that income level.
Christian college apologists argue that, in terms of academic remedial courses and financial programs, their schools are less able than secular or state institutions to handle the special problems of minority students. They point to environment as another deterrent to racial pluralism on campus. Most evangelical colleges are rural based, safely removed from the dangers and distractions of city life. Inner-city youth in particular prefer a school near home. They need the emotional support that familiar surroundings provide, even if only on weekends.
Minority leaders and students dismiss these reasons for racial underrepresentation as peripheral. Minority young people, they say, may be short on academics, but they are usually long on motivation and maturity. Given adequate help, they can catch up. As for the financial problem, minority spokespeople argue, an estimated 50 percent or more of white students receive financial aid, so why single out the nonwhite student and say, “If you can’t afford it, you shouldn’t be here”? And if minority students got the necessary emotional support from their white brothers and sisters in Christ, they would not have to matriculate so close to home in order to get recharged each weekend.
Minority leaders advance reasons of their own for racial disparity on evangelical campuses. Ruth L. Bentley, coordinator of support services at the University of Illinois Medical Center, says secular institutions do more for minorities because they consider education a business, and students a commercial market. They are therefore sensitive to political and economic pressures. Church-related colleges are less responsive because they accurately reflect the predominantly white, middle-class Protestant community they serve and depend on for support and students.
Critics of the minority status at Christian colleges concur on one proposition: the root problem is sin, and its fruit is racism. Evangelist Ralph Bell of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association says: “Self-centeredness is the essence of all sin, and prejudice is a specific expression of that sin.”
Harold Bussell, chaplain at Gordon College in Massachusetts, views sin as a revolt against relationships, first against God and then against people. This problem has emerged among evangelicals as almost a mystique of opposition against people unlike themselves. Children raised in such an environment have difficulty accepting diversity of any kind, especially ethnic or cultural differences.
White evangelicals generally do not admit to being racists, according to Michael Haynes: “They think of racism as hating, but it also means not being concerned. Christians ignore the plight of oppressed peoples—and that’s just as bad as rejecting them.”
Joyce Suber, director of minority student development at Wheaton College, puts it concisely: “The problem is a failure of faith that works by love.”
Some minority leaders recognize that the small representation of their young people at Christian colleges is not wholly a problem of white racism.
All too often, if minority parents are affluent enough, and their son or daughter is smart enough, they will insist on education at an Ivy League school. The financial assistance offered by such institutions is greater than that available at Christian schools. So is the prestige. For example, Haynes tells of a promising young man from a well-to-do black family. He tried to interest the prospective student in Wheaton College, and even took him on a tour of the school. Dartmouth College, however, offered a better financial aid package, so the young man’s parents sent him to the secular school.
Recruitment And Retention
The shortcomings of evangelical institutions with regard to minority students become evident in two major areas: recruitment and retention. Rodney J. Reed of the University of California School of Education scores inadequate recruitment efforts as one of the three major causes of minority underrepresentation on campus. Ethnic communities have their own networks of communication and centers of influence. These are easily overlooked by the usual methods of college recruitment personnel.
Sending recruiters into predominantly white communities will not attract many minorities either. “It’s no use talking about equal educational opportunities,” charges Eric Payne, recent minority adviser at Gordon College, “if a college sends representatives only to schools and churches without minorities. That’s tacit racism.”
Getting minority students to a Christian college campus is dwarfed by the greater problem of keeping them there. Alex Poinsett writes in Ebony magazine about this widespread difficulty among his own people: “While more black students are entering college these days, the majority leave before they graduate.”
Believing the problem to be even more acute at Christian colleges, George Moore says, “Our primary concern at Biola regarding minorities is to recruit graduates, not students.”
At evangelical schools, the rate of dropouts and transfers varies from a normal 50 percent to a high 75 percent. During the few years of feverish recruitment after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the casualty rate among black students rose even higher. Reed cites two key factors related to the problem of retention: “(1) a general lack of sensitivity toward these students and their problems by college and university faculty and staff; and (2) inadequate opportunities and support for their success.”
These two factors lead to searing experiences of alienation and stereotyping that often impel minority students to quit school or transfer. Blacks, Hispanics, and other ethnic young people come to the predominantly white campus with a cultural identity as pronounced as any physical differences they may bear. They do not want to surrender that sense of identity, and they often pay for it by being left out of normal student activities and treated with suspicion by wary faculty and staff members.
“Fantasy may suggest that the 82 percent among the million-plus students who are attending predominantly white schools have been ‘integrated.’ But the fact is that many are subjected to extraordinary pressures, that generally they ‘feel depressed, lonely, and alienated’ and that they feel their universities are ‘hostile places’ where relationships with white students and professors are often demoralizing.” These conclusions formed part of a study of seven major universities by Donald H. Smith for the U.S. Office of Education. Research and interviews by this author concerning Christian colleges from Massachusetts to California suggest little difference between secular and religious campuses regarding minority feelings of alienation.
Stereotyping disheartens minorities almost as much. Reed observes, “Many university staff, professors, and other students, through both verbal and nonverbal behaviors, tend to view black (and other minority) students as being ‘special admit’ students who lack normal entry criteria. As a consequence, low expectations are held for these students and frequently condescending faculty and student attitudes are displayed.”
Carolyn Park, president of the Minority Student Association at Wheaton College last year, feels that stereotyping and lack of acceptance are two sides of the same coin. “These things come out in subtle ways,” she says. “Like, for example, when a white student gets a high grade on a biology test, no one says anything. But if I do it, they are surprised and treat it as something extraordinary.”
Minority students themselves must share some of the responsibility for conditions at Christian colleges. Haynes implied this when he commented that they are “either restless or copping out.” Swallowing hard and internalizing the conflict not only results in self-betrayal, but also make success a little less likely for future minority students.
Deabe Sims, for example, saw a need for improved relations at Barrington College in Rhode Island. She and other minority students confronted the school authorities—and were amazed to learn that the president and some other key people had deep concerns about racism and were willing not only to listen but to act. Several changes took place immediately and others became part of the school’s long-range program. College officials freely acknowledge that a better racial climate prevails because of the students’ initiative. “It was hard speaking out because you could get labeled a troublemaker,” admits Deabe. “But it would have been sinful to keep silent. Now I’m a better person and, more important, I helped to make the hole a little bigger for others to come through.”
Eastern (Baptist) College near Philadelphia has one of the most progressive minority programs in the nation. It began in 1967, according to Anthony Campolo, head of the sociology department, with the arrival on campus of Jacqueline Chamberlain, a relative of basketball’s famed Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain. She was not the first black student at Eastern, but her performance as a student and as a person was so impressive that the school made a firm commitment to encourage black student enrollment. Minorities of several ethnic backgrounds account for 20 percent of the current student population.
Pluses For Pluralism
Before a significant change can take place on campus, educators must be convinced of a basic premise: the validity of minority participation in higher education. It is not just a “nice” thing to do. As the world shrinks to a global village, knowing how to cope in a pluralistic society and how to relate to racial diversity become essential components of quality education. Christian colleges need minority students and faculty if they are to provide such a learning experience. Henry W. Nelson, director of development at Wheaton College, believes that “in terms of educational development, we need a heterogeneous campus community. We cannot honestly graduate students who will minister to all groups of people unless first we give them opportunity for interaction while here at school.”
Minorities need the evangelical schools. Ethnic churches are multiplying faster than trained workers needed to lead them. The gap will continue to widen unless ethnic church groups make serious use of the educational opportunities available at schools where Christ and his Word are honored. Parents and churches who send their young people to more prestigious but theologically liberal institutions often receive back graduates who have gained a world of social concerns and lost their own faith.
Jamaican-born Wesley Roberts of Gordon-Conwell seminary says that the black Christian community is growing in numbers, but not always in spiritual understanding. The traditional type of preaching in black churches often does little more than satisfy the people’s emotional needs and help them through another week. “But when I became interim pastor of the Peoples Baptist Church in Boston,” he adds, “I brought a teaching ministry to the pulpit, and not the traditional method. The people took to it immediately because they are hungry for deep biblical truths.”
Training church leaders for American ethnic communities should be as much a matter of conscience for evangelical colleges as their concern for preparing missionaries or nationals from overseas churches.
Another incentive for racial pluralism at Christian colleges is more earthly than the previous ones: economics. As traditional recruiting grounds of some schools change character ethnically, administrators may have to adjust their methods and programs accordingly or go out of business. By 1990, more than half the college-age population of California is expected to be ethnic, especially Asian, black, and Latino. Debate already swirls around the future of the nine-campus University of California. Critics warn that unless UC comes to terms with change in the state’s ethnic mix, its future is in doubt. “If you don’t have students,” warns Vilma Martinez, a UC Board of Regents member, “you won’t have professors and a fancy University of California.”
Remedies For Injustice
The excitement of civil-rights crusades, the flurry of federal aid programs, and the stirrings of guilt at evangelical institutions during the late sixties have settled like so much dust. Minority students of this decade have tempered their expectations with a strong dose of realism. They want classes, not causes. And Christian educators, still smarting over earlier fiascos, know they must go beyond empty publicity and window-dressing courses if they are to attract and hold minority young people.
Correcting racial injustice begins with recruitment. Advises Reed: “Institutions of higher learning must make a firm commitment to increase the number of underrepresented minority students who enroll and who graduate.” Wheaton College has done so by officially setting a goal to raise black student representation from 1 percent to 6 percent, and to increase other minority groups to 8 percent. If successful, the college will have a hefty 14 percent minority population by 1986.
Making such a commitment implies willingness to provide the necessary funds, hire minority recruiters, and make adjustments in methods. Roberts points out one important shift: schools intending to attract black students must cultivate long-term relations with the first privately owned, all-black institution in America: the church.
One element of Eastern College’s outstanding success with minorities has been its approach to the black and Hispanic communities. Campolo, himself a member of a predominantly black church in the city, made sure his school did not approach ethnic church leaders asking, “What can we do for you?” but rather, “How can we work together to tackle some of the problems you face?” To students, the school said, “Come serve with us,” rather than patronizingly, “Come learn from us.” The result has been an impressive list of service projects ranging from ministry to street gangs in Philadelphia to selling handcrafts made by villagers in the Dominican Republic.
A revised recruitment procedure is the tip of the iceberg in comparison to pervasive changes needed in the curriculum and in the attitudes of faculty, staff, and student body. Here are a few:
Support structure. Minorities coming to white, Protestant, middle-class campuses often suffer culture shock. They need friends, peers and adults, who will demonstrate understanding and support during their struggles with depression, loneliness, and even hostility. They need to feel accepted, part of campus life, free to join dorm cram sessions, or to approach a faculty member with a study problem.
Role models. Ethnic young people must have adults of their own background they can respect, emulate, and relate to. Any institution serious about minority enrollment will also work hard to get minority trustees, faculty members, and management-level staff workers.
Financial aid. “Reaganomics” make it difficult to predict what financial aid will be available, but President Ronald Reagan has promised that disadvantaged students will not be affected. Colleges may not be richly endowed, but they can keep abreast of state and federal assistance programs available to students.
Remedial programs. Many minority students come from grossly inadequate inner-city public schools, and they may represent homes and neighborhoods where the adults never went to college. They may need pre-semester prep courses (along with many white students) and remedial material in the curriculum to make up for academic deficiencies. Minority leaders unanimously denounce the two-track system of education that permits “special” students to get by with less than “regular” students.
Minority organizations. Ethnic students need each other, if for no other reason than to reaffirm their self-identity and to know they are not going crazy in a mostly white world with which they have trouble coping. Cultural clubs, musical groups, and minority organizations are basically a reaffirmation of who they are, not attempts at reverse segregation.
Cultural recognition. Minority communities have made significant contributions to American history, art, music, and literature, but their achievements have been generally ignored. Most minority leaders prefer that this information be worked into the normal presentation of course material. Relegating such information to a minority affairs course implies that ethnic groups do not belong to the mainstream of national life.
Making these and other modifications in the curriculum and academic community will not immunize a Christian college from racial problems—perhaps only change the kinds of problems. Harvard University probably has the most selective and certainly the best financed Affirmative Action program of higher education for minorities. But, according to Commentary magazine, problems seem to grow in proportion to the increased numbers of minority students at Harvard. The 130-page document, the product of a 30-month study, indicated that self-doubts of minorities increased, negative attitudes intensified, and tendencies to separatism deepened.
The persistence of problems, however, should not deter Christian colleges from redressing an obvious wrong. Paul Collord, vice-president and academic dean of Nyack College in New York, believes that racial interaction on campus may at times be painful and unpleasant, but it is a necessary learning experience for both whites and minorities, and must not be avoided. Nyack’s above-average program for minorities has brought the school both enrichment and difficulties, but the overall impact of pluralism is so positive that it has become a permanent factor. The spiritual dynamics on any evangelical campus should insure that the end result, unlike Harvard’s experience, is blessing.
Christian colleges need not wait until everything is in place before encouraging minority applicants. The King’s College in suburban New York does not yet have it all together, but blacks and Hispanics from the city sense a community spirit that makes them want to stay at school even on weekends and holidays. Samuel Barkat, a Pakistani-American and vice-president of academic affairs, has quietly persisted over a period of years in raising the level of sensitivity at the school through special speakers, student seminars, and faculty retreats.
Jerry de Jesus, a King’s student and former gang leader in New York’s Spanish Harlem, marvels at the spirit on campus: “If I need help, I can go to the smartest kids and not feel put down. Around here they really care. If a minority kid can’t make it, he’s got to ask himself why, not the school.”
Bucking The Trend
The conservative mood sweeping the nation affects education as much as it does politics, economics, and any other aspect of national life. The cutback in financial aid for students, the legal shock waves of the Bakke case in California concerning reverse discrimination, racial tensions that are building again—all seem to militate against the minority student.
The Christian community and its institutions, by their very essence, dare not be partisan to this “spirit of the age.” Interviews and visits on numerous evangelical campuses in preparation of this article indicate stirrings of conscience that do indeed run counter to the national mood.
Gordon College in Massachusetts, Barrington College in Rhode Island, Wheaton College in Illinois, and Simpson College in California have firmly committed themselves to increasing minority enrollment. Eastern College in Pennsylvania, The King’s College in New York, and Trevecca Nazarene College in Tennessee are especially bright spots. No doubt other schools stand out as exceptions to the generally shoddy record of evangelical colleges vis-à-vis the minority communities.
All the multiethnic evangelical schools share a common factor: someone at the top recognized an injustice and determined to make it right. David G. Horner, president of Barrington College, is typical. He says, “Our generation may not be responsible for the prejudice and oppression that have tormented the minorities, but if we don’t redress the wrong, the judgment of God will fall on us.”
Church leaders in the minority communities keep hoping that someday their young people will feel at home on the evangelical campus, free of the bewilderment, anger, and pain they now experience. “I am basically hopeful this will happen,” says Haynes, “but perhaps I have to because the alternative is unbearable to contemplate.”
Joyce Suber, Wheaton’s College’s minority staff member, tells of a journalist friend who does not scare easily, but who admits to being deeply worried about the way race relations are going in this country. He asked her how she could keep her cool. Her answer suggests the hope that apparently is part of the survival kit of minority students on most evangelical campuses. “I don’t look down,” she replied. “I keep my eyes on God.”
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