The Diversity Problem of Christian Higher Education: A Personal Reflection

Earlier this year I was invited to apply for a senior level administrative diversity position in a Christian university.  After much prayer and reflection, I thought I should at least put my hat in the ring.  I was excited by the opportunity to integrate my past 13 years of experience of teaching and leadership within the secular academy with my pastoral experience of training and mobilizing students, professors, campus ministries, and local churches in issues of race, diversity, and Christianity. I thought to myself:  What a dream it would be to live an integrated life of ministry and academic vocation, and to help shepherd a Christian university in issues of diversity and inclusion from a Christ-centered and biblical perspective!

I have had the privilege of participating in leading academic diversity programs, and was inspired by the prospect of bringing such models to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and integrating them with a Christian worldview.   I myself am the product of the Ford Foundation Predoctoral and Postdoctoral Fellowships, as well as the U.C. President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship program. Through these longstanding, and outstanding, diversity programs, I have learned best practices with respect to both professorial and graduate student diversity development and mentorship. I have also acquired a broad network of connections to diverse leading scholars from throughout the nation at colleges and universities ranging from Harvard, Yale, Brown, and U.C. Berkeley, to the Claremont Colleges and the CCCU. With respect to diversity and inclusion research and scholarship, I have published widely on issues related to race, history, law, education and Christianity, have a nationally award-winning book, and am an InterVarsity Press author.  I hold a Ph.D. in Latin American history from UCLA and a J.D. from Berkeley.  I am an attorney and have served on the editorial boards of the top academic journals in law, history, and ethnic studies in the nation.  I am a national speaker in issues of race and Christianity.  I say these things not to boast, but to help the reader understand what is about to be shared.  

As I talked about this opportunity with friends from Christian colleges and seminaries, I was often met with hesitancy.  Many had bad experiences trying to engage the Christian world of higher education in issues of race and systemic transformation. The boards of trustees, faculty, and administrators of the Christian universities and seminaries they worked for were overwhelmingly white and male, and had expressed resistance to structural change.  I heard their concerns, but I wanted to give this Christian university the benefit of the doubt.  As I moved along in the process, I was told repeatedly by the search firm that this university was serious about change and had been building up to the step of a serious diversity hire for many years.  It wasn’t just talk or window dressing. They wanted real change.  And I listened.  And I believed them.  Daily, for four months, I and my family prayed about this opportunity and how it might reshape everything about our life and ministry.  Even though I was on sabbatical with the Louisville Institute to complete a new book project on Latino Christianity, I largely put my academic commitments on hold for this time as well.  We gave it our all because this was a game changer for us, and we needed to be sure that this was God’s will. Before long I was a semifinalist, and then, not too long after that I became one of the two finalists for the position.  Was God opening the door? It was hard to contain my excitement.  My intensive on-campus interview went very well as far as I could tell. All the signs and signaling from those at the university—from faculty to administrators at the highest level-- seemed to indicate that it was going to happen. 

And then, several days later, I received a sheepish call telling me that the position had been offered to the other finalist.  It seemed to be a surprise to everyone, including the search firm.  After the initial shock set in, I was devastated.  What happened?

In hindsight, there were some serious warning signs during the interview—some of which I can share publicly, and others which I do not feel it is ethically appropriate to share.  Something just didn’t smell right.  

In a conversation with a high ranking administrator I mentioned to him/her that, although the level of student body diversity was strong on the campus, the issue of faculty diversity was a significant concern.  I told him/her that UCLA’s faculty was actually twice as diverse as the faculty at this Christian university. I also shared my ideas for faculty diversification based upon my positive experiences with programs like the Ford Foundation and U.C. President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program.  How amazing would it be to create a pipeline of recruitment for faculty of Color in the CCCU based upon these models in the “secular world” which have been producing positive results for decades.  In response, I was told, “It is my belief that faculty diversity will naturally flow from a diverse student body.”  Every bone in my body knows that this is not true.  

Another warning sign.  This university recently had a diversity audit conducted by a leading national university.  Since I could not track down the findings of this audit online, I asked the search committee for a summary of the audit.  I was told that the faculty and staff did not even know the details of the audit because the findings had not been publicly released.  

A third concern:  when I met with Students of Color during the campus interview, there was much pain in their eyes and the stories they shared.  They expressed concerns of a racial climate which was largely inhospitable to their perspectives and experiences.  

A final concern:  members of the senior administration with whom I met were almost exclusively white.  To give them the credit they deserve, they also seemed to be earnest about the desire for increased racial diversity in the university ranks.  Some were “woke,” most acknowledged that diversity was a needed biblical goal but were seeking guidance, and only a small minority seemed resistant. One person made a negative and uninformed comment about critical race theory, but I was willing to let that slide.  I was also bluntly honest with them, and told them, “If you are not really open to ‘going there,’ please do not hire me.  It would be a travesty for me to leave UCLA to come to an institution that was not serious about change.”  One  administrator replied, “We cannot afford to not go there.”  And a board of trustee member seemed to concur.  

And yet, based upon the sum total of my experiences, something seemed off.  

The writings of (St.) Brené Brown offer instructive perspective:

“When the culture of any organization mandates that it is more important to protect the reputation of a system and those in power than it is to protect the basic human dignity of the individuals who serve that system or who are served by that system, you can be certain that the shame is systemic, the money is driving ethics, and the accountability is all but dead.  This is true in corporations, nonprofits, universities, governments, faith communities, schools, families and sports programs.  If you think back on any major scandal fueled by cover-ups, you’ll see this same pattern.  And the restitution and resolution of cover-ups almost always happens in the wilderness—when one person steps outside their bunker and speaks their truth.” Braving the Wilderness, 78.  

This post is my clarion call from the wilderness.  I hold no official position in the Christian world of higher education, so take it for what it may be worth.  Nevertheless, it is an invitation to dialogue for the Christian university and seminary world.  

And true dialogue requires honesty.  

Here goes:

The message that was (implicitly) sent to me by the decision makers of this Christian university was:

“Despite your pastoral and academic background, we don’t trust you. At the end of the day, you are still not one of us.  We’re afraid that you will rock the boat too much.  We want some change, but not to the extent you’re talking about.  Our politically conservative donors, and some of our board of trustee members will feel threatened by you, and probably oppose the type of change you represent.  And then what will happen when we can’t pay the bills? We’re not exactly convinced of your evangelical credentials either, because, after all, you are a UCLA professor.” 

To be clear, I do believe that those charged with leading the search were sincere, and that they were convinced that the university really wanted change.  Otherwise, there’s no other explanation for my promotion to the top of the search list. I was a non-traditional candidate in virtually every respect, and my reputation is one of bridge-building leading to change.  My experience with the search process was, in fact, extremely positive-up until the end.  But, when the final decision was made, when those with real power were left to make their decision--they flipped the script. 

I have been hesitant to pen these words, and in fact had even shelved an earlier post on the topic because I wanted to be sure that I was writing from the right place in my heart.  I don’t want this to be just a rant, but an honest space of sharing and invitation to dialogue.  At the same time, I am aware that no matter how sensitively I attempt to phrase my words, my honesty will turn off some who are not ready to listen to my perspective.  They will put me in the category of the “angry Brown man,” or seek to dismiss what I have to say as “sour grapes.”  

The recent events at Fuller Seminary last week made me realize that my experience was not a solitary one, and gave me the courage to finally make my experience public.  I also realize that the publication of this post may jeopardize my chances of ever being hired by a Christian college, university, or seminary in the future, but I believe that this moment is too important not to speak up.  Too much is at stake for the Body of Christ which I care for, and am firmly committed to.  

If a Christian university would treat me with so much disrespect even though I am a tenured professor at UCLA, pastor and attorney, what must be happening behind the scenes with other students, staff, faculty and administrators of Color at Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries throughout the country?  

I was deeply moved by the recent student action at Fuller Seminary, and I am inspired by their bold example.  On June 7, Black Seminarians at Fuller carried out a powerful and historic protest to challenge the exodus of Black faculty and limited curricular offerings related to race and theologians of Color.  This peaceful protest was conducted in the spirit and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after several formal student requests for change had been presented to the Fuller administration to no avail.  It was carried out in radical love and nonviolence of heart and external action.  And it was FIRE.  Holy Spirit fire and prophetic witness.

You can find the full video on our Jesus for Revolutionaries Facebook page and also on Twitter:  #toxicfuller #seminarywhileblack #blackexodus

This blog post is an offering of solidarity for my Black sisters and brothers at Fuller.  It is also an invitation to dialogue for Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries who are sincere about racial diversity, equity, and inclusion, and who are willing to follow this conversation to the tough places.  May its honesty be received in this spirit with which it is intended.  True racial reconciliation in Christian institutions of higher education will not occur until the deep structural concerns highlighted by the Fuller protests and my personal narrative are meaningfully addressed.  We need new wineskins for the new wine of the Holy Spirit in the 21st century.  In the words of an important new book penned by a new generation of leaders in the CCCU, Diversity Matters (Karen A. Longman.  Diversity Matters: Race, Ethnicity, and the Future of Christian Higher Education, 2017).

Diversity matters because it is God’s idea and we are the Body of Christ. We need one another and our God-given cultural diversity in order to “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Ephesians 4: 13. 

As further expressed by Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth:

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many…

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”  1 Corinthians 12: 12-21.

The current structure of Christian universities and seminaries unintentionally, but effectively, tells professors, students, and administrators of Color, we don’t need you.  We don’t need your unique perspectives, gifts, and talents which flow from your distinct, God-given cultural backgrounds and the image of God which you preciously bear (Genesis 1:27; Psalm 139: 13-16; Revelation 21:26).  White Christian faculty, staff, and administrators have got it covered.  We’ll allow a few People of Color to rise up the ranks, but only if they conform and assimilate to our cultural perspectives and viewpoints.  After all, our perspectives are simply objective and based on the Bible.  We don’t mind a sprinkling here and there of your “contextual theologies” and ethnic ideas, but our views of Scripture, theology, and education are mostly unbiased and should be the standard for a good Christian education.  

Borrowing language from the Supreme Court of the United States in Grutter v. Bollinger, Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries have a “compelling interest” in maintaining diverse student bodies if they want to partake of, and benefit from, the many educational benefits which flow from the human diversity which God has created.  Every ethnic group has its distinct cultural treasure or “glory and honor” which is of eternal value (Revelation 21: 26), and for this reason student and faculty diversity enriches the educational experience and learning of all (for a detailed discussion of ethnic culture and the image of God, see, Jesus for Revolutionaries: An Introduction to Race, Social Justice, and Christianity; available as free e-book).  At the same time, each of our cultures is also tainted by sin and in need of Christ’s sanctification (Revelation 21: 27).  This latter point is what distinguishes Christian models of diversity from secular ones, and Christians are right to emphasize the distinction.  Scripture is how we differentiate the “glory and honor” from those aspects of each of our ethnic cultures which are corrupted by sin.  

All of that being said, God made us diverse, and unique reflections of Himself, for a reason.  As distinct reflections of the image of God, students and faculty of Color (as well as students and faculty from Euro-American backgrounds) have unique contributions to make to the system of Christian higher education.   The greater the diversity of our colleges and universities, the more every student stands to profit, because this diversity is a gift from God. 

In fact, “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”

With deep love and concern for the Body of Christ,

Robert Chao Romero