Diversity Advocates at Evangelical Colleges: ‘In Some Ways, You’re Seen as a Heretic’

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Racial transformation is hard even when Christian schools are committed to change.

Lawrence Burnley was going to resign.

The vice president for diversity and intercultural relations at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, had been making progress in his first two years. He started regular meetings with senior leadership to discuss race and gender issues, and he secured approval to bring in a consultant to survey the climate on campus.

But breaking new ground at Whitworth had also resulted in greater discomfort. “You’re the source of this disruption. You’re the one that makes people feel uncomfortable,” Burnley said. “Using Christian terms: In some ways, you’re seen as a heretic.”

About 50 percent of evangelical institutions associated with the Council of Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) have a diversity advocate or someone with a title like “chief diversity officer,” according to CCCU spokeswoman Greta Hays.

Most of the positions have been created over the past few years, as race and racism have become pressing issues at many evangelical schools. Diversity officers are seen as a major part of the solution. They bring new perspectives to predominantly white institutions, help with recruiting and retention of more students of color, and offer the schools guidance on articulating and pursuing a Christian vision of diversity.

Yet many diversity officers struggle with discouragement, fatigue, and burnout. They often struggle to get buy-in from colleagues and feel they were hired to make a problem go away, rather than to start the long, difficult work of cultural transformation.

“People hire diversity officers more when things go wrong,” said Rebecca Hernandez, the academic student success and chief diversity officer at George Fox …

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