Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from a chapter of the forthcoming book Diversity Matters: Race, Ethnicity, and the Future of Christian Higher Education (2017, Abilene Christian University Press) and is used by permission of the publisher.
For the last 10 years, US News and World Report has listed Nyack College as one of the most diverse colleges in America. Nyack has much to be proud of, having transformed itself from a small suburban Christian college with the majority of its 600 students drawn from suburban and rural white communities in the northeast to a mid-sized college with two campuses – the original campus in Nyack, New York, and a second in the heart of New York City – that recruits most of its 2,700 students from the many ethnic communities of the New York metropolitan area. Additionally, approximately 45 percent of Nyack’s full-time faculty members are Asian American, Black or Latino.
Nyack’s commitment to diversity extends beyond admissions statistics. All of its degree programs have at least one course that focuses on studying the range of issues related to living and working in a diverse society, and the core curriculum required of all undergraduates contains 15 credits that explore diversity in the liberal arts and sciences. In addition, Nyack’s chapel program incorporates black and Latino worship styles.
Though this commitment to diversity and inclusion seems to be fairly recent, it in fact goes back to the college’s founding – though that history had disappeared from memory for a time.
Connecting the Past to the Present
The launch of Nyack’s New York City campus began a process whereby administrators, in conjunction with archivists from Nyack’s sponsoring denomination, The Christian and Missionary Alliance, began to explore the college’s earliest days in Manhattan from 1882 to 1897. This recovered history told a story that few previously knew about.
The college’s founder, A.B. Simpson, was a Canadian who came to the U.S. in the 1870s to pastor a church in Tennessee before moving to pastor a church in midtown Manhattan. In New York, Simpson was so moved by the racist and anti-immigrant attitudes of “respectable” Christians that he left the pastorate to found what would become Nyack College. From its earliest days, the college enrolled African Americans as well as recent immigrants from China and Italy. Simpson boldly proclaimed, “Our Master knew no color line except that of the blood red cross.” Thus the diverse college of the 21st century had found its roots in the 19th century.
Out of Simpson’s school, a movement developed: an alliance of likeminded Christians motivated by the desire to spread the gospel of Jesus. Yet this was no ordinary missionary movement, as Simpson himself was deeply moved to confront the social problems so prevalent in the city around him. He launched numerous parachurch ministries to the homeless, the unemployed, single mothers, the incarcerated, and all others struggling within an urban context.
With this rediscovered history, Nyack’s true mission became clear: To serve underserved, just as it had done at its founding. With a new story and renewed mission, the college laid out its five core values in 2005: academically excellent, globally engaged, personally transforming, socially relevant, and intentionally diverse.
Assessing Diversity: Looking Past the Numbers
Ten years after codifying diversity as an aspirational goal or core value, the need to measure the effectiveness of learning at a diverse Christian college has emerged. This assessment is not limited to the percentages of students or faculty; even at a campus like Nyack, there are areas that need assessment and improvement:
- Nyack now has substantial populations of Asian Americans, blacks, Hispanics and whites so that members of each group can find a vibrant collegiate environment solely within their own group. In other words, students are under no compunction to socialize with students from a different group. Is this, then, really a diverse environment whereby students are learning to work with each other?
- Nyack’s professors now teach a range of courses that explore issues related to diversity, yet do they engage social justice issues, white privilege, institutional racism and the like? Few graduates, with the exception of those in certain majors, seem to be aware of these issues. So what sort of training should faculty receive to assist them in engaging the more difficult topics that must be studied at a college as diverse as Nyack?
- Nyack’s retention and graduation rates for black and Latino students lag behind the rates for Asian American and White students. Similarly, these rates at the Manhattan campus are far below those at the suburban campus. Are the programs that Nyack has in place to assist at-risk students effective? Are they the right programs to assist at-risk students?
- At Nyack, the majority of the entering class that fails out during the first year are students of color. Should Nyack redesign the curriculum for first-year students? The current curriculum places heavy emphasis on writing, research skills and study in the liberal arts, but most of Nyack’s first-year students are educated in urban high schools that do a dismal job of training students in these areas. How can a first-year curriculum simultaneously affirm the skills in which students are proficient, such as oral communication and technological literacy, and prepare students to enter the requisite liberal arts courses central to a college education?
- Perhaps the most important question for Christian colleges is whether they provide their campus communities with a theological understanding that underscores and affirms diversity and speaks to issues of marginalization, sexism and racism. Do students see the knowledge of God’s word as a radical underpinning for their faith and careers? Are faculty equipped to integrate faith and learning as it relates both to their specific field and to their understanding of a diverse Christian community?
Assessing these issues will take a good deal of work and involve a tremendous amount of struggle and debate, research and writing. But the very fact that these questions are asked and these issues are raised is a testimony to the ongoing struggle to make Nyack a diverse Christian college.
The easy part of Nyack’s journey to become a diverse college is over. Certain demographic percentages have been achieved and certain courses that focus on diversity have been put in place. A foundation is finished and is ready to be built upon. The next phase of becoming truly inclusive, and sustaining such a vision, lies before us.
David F. Turk is the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Nyack College, his alma mater, where he has served at different times as a professor, department chair, dean and vice president since 1978.
On Diversity is a column open to all interested in writing about diversity and inclusion. Proposals and inquiries can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.