Perspective: Huntington University Directs Diversity Movement at Campus, Hometown - Higher Education

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Perspective: Huntington University Directs Diversity Movement at Campus, Hometown

by Dr. G. Blair Dowden

In early 2006, I received an anonymous note. The writer cut out a photo from a Huntington University fundraising letter that pictured some of our international students. “No money from us as long as you insist on having the univ. filled w/ the likes of those in this picture,” the note stated. “It will be the ruin of the university and of our town.” I could hardly believe such overt racism still existed. My initial anger turned to resolve.

With support from the board of trustees, Huntington, an evangelical Christian university of about 1,300 students located in Huntington, Ind., implemented a two-pronged approach for town-gown transformation. We launched intentional efforts to increase diversity and intercultural competency on campus. At the same time, we also began strategic initiatives to make our surrounding community more welcoming to persons of color.

The university invited Dr. Pete Menjares, the associate provost for diversity leadership at Biola University, to perform a “campus diversity audit.” We also asked Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, a leading facilitator in racial, ethnic and gender reconciliation, to consult with our trustees, administration and faculty on intercultural competency. The university hosted the “2008 Conference on Christianity, Culture and Diversity in America.” Throughout the 2009-2010 academic year, I asked the campus community to reflect on the Bible’s teaching about being “one in Christ” through special chapel programs, guest lectures, Reader’s Theatre, book studies and other campus events.

These activities generated much thoughtful discussion, but strategic partnerships were the key to making a real difference. Huntington University built upon a longstanding relationship with Youth For Christ (YFC) USA to develop the Horizon Leadership Program. YFC’s urban ministry centers nominate low-income students with high leadership potential to be Horizon Scholars, a selected cohort of students who receive financial assistance and mentoring and who volunteer regularly with YFC’s community center in Fort Wayne, Ind.

When our first six Horizon Scholars enrolled in 2008, the university’s total undergraduate enrollment increased 10 percent. U.S. ethnic minorities accounted for 7 percent of that incoming freshman class—more ethnic minorities than were in the entire student body the previous year. The pattern repeated in 2009, when our second-largest incoming class included 7.7 percent U.S. ethnic minorities.

A real commitment to diversity cannot be limited to enrollment, however. For our efforts to be credible, we needed a broad, holistic approach. The board of trustees, administration, faculty and staff needed to become more diverse, too.

We were fortunate that natural turnover on the board created some timely opportunities, and networking relationships with our church denomination, alumni base, and business relationships yielded some outstanding trustee candidates. Our board is now 18 percent women and 12 percent ethnic minorities. Our new trustees bring diverse life experiences that strengthen our decision-making.

We have been less successful recruiting and retaining faculty and staff of color. We recently offered employment to an exceptionally qualified historian. This scholar was genuinely engaged with our mission and focus. However, being of Korean descent, he ultimately chose to accept a position at a West Coast university so he could be part of a thriving Korean community there. It was sad to hear his decision, but I understood it. Efforts to continue to diversify our faculty and staff remain a priority.

Our town may never be as ethnically diverse as larger cities, but we have worked hard to make the community more welcoming. In 2006, I met with our mayor and city council to propose joining the National League of Cities’ partnerships for Working Toward Inclusive Communities. While our elected officials were not yet prepared to take that step, they did something remarkable. The city council rewrote its mission statement to include powerful commitments. They declared that our citizens’ “ethnic, economic and religious diversity provides the strength that holds our community together. The city of Huntington, Ind., is a community of civility and inclusion, where diversity is honored and differences are respected.”

Soon after, the Harmony Initiative Task Force was appointed to “put hands and feet” to these ideals. The group led by Huntington University includes leaders from local government, businesses, schools, social service agencies, churches and the media. The projects have been as varied as the task force members. Business groups are sharing best practices for recruiting and training. Churches developed special Sunday school materials. The university and public schools coordinated their observances of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Social service agencies presented workshops on poverty and privilege. City and county government have commended the work of the task force and commissioned us to plan an annual Harmony Day observance “for the purposes of promoting reconciliation and understanding.”

Since that hateful note was mailed in 2006, our campus and local community have made notable progress, but there also have been setbacks and disappointments along the way. We have come to recognize we are in a marathon, not a sprint. Steady progress is best. Change won’t happen overnight, but persistence will pay off. And the rewards are great!  

Dr. G. Blair Dowden is president of Huntington University and chairs the Harmony Initiative Task Force (Huntington, Ind.).

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