by Lyle Roelofs and Linda Strong-Leek
So much of the recent news about higher education has focused on campus unrest and protest about the lack of diversity in the faculty, staff and administration, and the perception that the voices of students of color are either not heard, or their particular experiences of racism are not acknowledged or addressed.
Recent high-profile murders of African Americans, including the massacre at Mother Emmanuel in Charleston, as well as the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Jordan Davis and others have spurred a new generation of campus activism. “Die-ins” have replaced the sit-ins of the 1960s, and students today are demanding, just as adamantly as their parents in another generation, that the U.S. “live up to the meaning of its creed.”
For the Obama generation, there is no excuse for racial profiling, for being targeted while either walking or “driving while black.” Additionally, there are calls to improve the numbers of people of color particularly in faculty and administration positions at many campuses.
For example, this past fall, the University of Missouri’s president was forced to resign when the football team, standing in solidarity with students, refused to play after he (according to African-American students), refused to address their complaints of racial harassment. Since that time, most of the news about higher education and diversity has been negative. Statistics abound about the lack of diversity at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs).
There are a few exceptions to these trends, however — and one notable exception is here in the heart of central Kentucky. Berea College, founded by ardent abolitionist, radical reformer and Kentucky native, John G. Fee, was the first interracial, coeducational college in the south. Today, Berea College is one of the most diverse private liberal arts colleges in the U.S. Forty percent of Berea College’s student body identifies as a person of color: there are approximately 21 percent African-American, 10 percent Hispanic and 7 percent international students, representing more than 60 countries.
This is the very intentional work of a committed administration, faculty and staff. Berea’s faculty is also diverse. At least 15 percent of Berea College’s faculty self-identify as African-American (8.3 percent), Hispanic (3 percent), Asian (2.3 percent) and two or more races (1.5 percent).
We are fond of putting it this way, “Berea College is not a white college that welcomes African American students; rather, from its founding, Berea College has been a college for all students.”
Berea College also has a diverse administration. The President’s Cabinet, known as the Administrative Committee, includes three women (two African-American and one Asian), and one African-American male (also a Berea College graduate), in addition to five white males. Exactly half of the Administrative Committee is non-white, and there are three female vice presidents.
While this is impressive, the most important aspect of this team is that each person was hired based on his or her credentials, respective expertise and commitment to the Berea College mission. Berea’s Administrative Committee could be a model for higher education, for how representation can strengthen an organization. It is not just important for students of color to see people of color in power; in order to change ideas and challenge stereotypes about people of color, it is also important that each college seeks to hire qualified applicants from all demographics to meet the needs of the changing demographics in the U.S.
This is not just about doing what is right, although that should be a consideration. This is, much more, about doing what is good for the future of higher education. Studies indicate that the more diverse a working group, the better the group outcomes. Diversity is a matter of survival for all, and it is time that we recognize the importance of having all voices at the table.
Challenges remain, though, for both Berea College and all in higher education. Our location, ideal for those we serve, presents challenges in hiring a more diverse staff, as we are surrounded by counties that are more than 90-95 percent white. But we are facing this challenge with partnerships between Human Resources and the entire campus community, working together to bring more diversity to our campus.
This work is not easy — even at Berea College, with our storied history, change is difficult. But in order to face the challenges of our day, and, ultimately, to live up to the legacy of our founder, John G. Fee, we must work to create that world where we recognize that “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth, (Acts 17:26)” as outlined in the book of Acts, Chapter 17.
Lyle Roelofs is president and Linda Strong-Leek is vice president for diversity and inclusion at Berea College.