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Student Diversity Lags at Evangelical Christian Colleges : Education: Despite increase in minority enrollment, leaders say faculty recruitment gets caught up in the backlash of secular debate.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As California’s universities debate the end of affirmative action, small evangelical Christian colleges throughout the state and the nation are being criticized from within for never getting much of a start.

Although minority students have increased from 11.8% of enrollment at 90 small Christian colleges to 14% over a seven-year period, that is well behind the 25% figure for all colleges nationwide.

Faculty members and students interested in the debate over racial and ethnic diversity on evangelical college campuses will be taking part in two meetings on the issue this weekend in Grand Rapids, Mich.

About 300 students--white and minority--are expected to attend the 9th annual National Christian Multicultural Student Leadership Conference, which began Thursday night at Calvin College. At a nearby hotel about 50 people are expected at the third meeting of the Alliance of Faculty and Staff of Color, which is holding workshops on minority recruitment and retention and racism on campus.

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Some leaders of the push for diversity on evangelical campuses say the effort gets caught up in the backlash of secular debates.

“ ‘Politically correct’ is not scriptural, they say,” and “multicultural” is interpreted as injecting racial issues into religious concerns, said Sherry Jones, a black administrator at Geneva College in Philadelphia.

“It seems like that for every two steps forward, we take one-and-a-half steps backward,” said Alvaro L. Nieves, who said he was the only Latino among 150 faculty members at Wheaton (Ill.) College until this year.

Many small, Christian schools do indeed have trouble attracting minority students, professors or administrators, said Karen Longman, a vice president of the 90-school Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

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Pay is usually lower than at most public and private universities, and they are often located in largely white, rural settings, well away from metropolitan areas with large minority populations.

In addition, many Christian schools require that students and faculty subscribe to evangelical beliefs, thus reducing the pool of prospects.

And when they do try to recruit minority faculty members, the Christian colleges are often outbid.

When Dolores Jenerson-Madden, a professor of psychology and the first African American on the faculty of Southern California College in Costa Mesa, attended last year’s meeting of the Alliance of Faculty and Staff of Color, “I got three job offers on the spot,” she said.

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She remained at Southern California College, a school affiliated with the Assemblies of God, which she praised for providing a warm and supportive atmosphere.

“The very first semester I came here, I had to go back East to visit my mother who was very ill and a faculty member who was on sabbatical came in and taught my classes,” she said. “That never would have happened at Cal State Fullerton, where I used to teach.”

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Jenerson-Madden, 42, said that nearly 20% of the students at Southern California College this fall are minorities, and about half of those are Latino.

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At The Master’s College in Newhall, an 850-student school considered especially conservative even within the Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities, the nonwhite student enrollment has risen in the last decade from about 6% to 15%, said John Stead, a political studies professor and former vice president for academic affairs.

Stead said that The Master’s College, whose president is fundamentalist Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, is “struggling with the issue of diversity within a biblical institution” and with New Testament passages such as the admonition that “in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek,” interpreted as meaning there should not be racial distinctions among Christians.

Benjamin Lall, one of two minority professors on the school’s 38-member faculty, contends that their Christian beliefs should propel such religious campuses to the forefront of racial and ethnic diversity. Instead, he said, they are “shying away from it.”

Lall emphasized that he has no complaints about his own treatment as an associate professor of business administration at the college, where he has taught for 12 years. The 66-year-old native of India was granted a sabbatical this year to work on a book about diversity at Christian campuses.

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Last year, Lall surveyed other business professors and administrators at Christian colleges, asking about minority ratios and attitudes toward affirmative action and diversity.

“When it came to ‘affirmative action’ the reactions were very, very hostile,” Lall said. “They said it is reverse discrimination and against the white majority.”

But when he used different words, asking about “the goal of diversity on campus,” Lall found that most respondents said it was desirable.

David Winter, president of Santa Barbara’s Westmont College, regarded as one of the academically elite Christian colleges in the country, likewise distinguished in an interview between “reverse discrimination” and diversity.

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“The object is not just to have certain percentages or groups on campus, but to have the ability to celebrate differences and reconciliation between people of different ethnic and racial groups,” he said.

The nonwhite enrollment at Westmont has climbed steadily to about 12%, Winter said. But some black students have complained that they encountered racism on campus in recent years.

Winter attributed those charges to “some people looking for incidents.” Words said or written in several cases “were very innocent, but they triggered . . . a conspiracy complex about another group,” Winter said.

However, Rhonda Mundhenk, an African American who graduated from Westmont in 1994, said that racially offensive characterizations appeared on an audiotape circulated on campus, in the school newspaper and in e-mail messages, some of which she called “hate speech.”

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“The general atmosphere on campus was especially unfriendly to black students,” she said. “We would find swastikas drawn on our desks and doors, but we could never get to the bottom of it,” said Mundhenk, now a law student at Northwestern University.

But even racial problems can provide a forum to discuss the issue of diversity. The Westmont accusations “became an opportunity for both sides to vent a great deal of their emotion,” he said. “It seems like every year we have more seminars and discussions on the topic.”


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