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Diversity Delayed, Excellence Denied

Diversity Delayed, Excellence Denied
By Sharon Watson Fluker

Champions of diversity in higher education collectively celebrate the rising young academic stars featured in Diverse magazine’s annual Emerging Scholars issue (see Diverse, Jan. 12). 

Sadly, however, much remains to be done to open the doors of opportunity for these and other minority scholars. Each year, recruitment and retention studies show a pervasive lack of diversity across academic disciplines. It’s more than disappointing. Those with long careers in higher education know that the persistent underrepresentation of minority faculty undercuts the goal of academic excellence itself. 

Diversity delayed is excellence denied.

This is especially true in fields where knowledge and “truth telling” hinge on the presence of a broad and diverse range of scholarly perspectives. After all, the storyteller, or the professor in this case, tells the story and, therefore, determines what is told and taught — what truths are included, illuminated or ignored.

Higher education officials from theological schools and seminaries across the country met recently in Atlanta for a candid conversation about key strategies to strengthen diversity efforts. That conversation explored some troubling facts. Although an increasingly diverse America needs multiracial academic and religious leaders, diversity in theological education has not kept pace with population trends.  More than one-third of the 251 member institutions of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) report that they do not have a single minority faculty member. And although people of color comprise approximately 30 percent of the U.S. population, they are only about 13 percent of faculty and 22 percent of students enrolled in ATS member schools are minorities.

These trends are also reflected in the chronic underrepresentation of minority faculty in graduate religion and theology programs at higher education institutions nationwide. According to data published in 2003 by the American Academy of Religion (AAR) based on statistics from the 2001-2002 academic year, 90 percent of faculty and 75 percent of students enrolled in religious studies doctoral programs in the United States and Canada are White.

This “diversity deficit” in religion and theological studies is especially ironic — even tragic — in a field that is vital to building mutual understanding between nations and peoples. Cultural misunderstanding and unyielding religious intolerance fractures our world. Wars are fought, young people die and countries are torn apart when schools and society fail to teach and honor diverse cultures and beliefs.

At the most recent Harvard Divinity School annual convocation, the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University, said, “It is urgent that … religious analysis be provided in a world where religions and their policies are front-page news in nearly every cultural climate, domestic or foreign. Never more than today have we needed every resource available to combat religious illiteracy.”

While the lack of theological diversity has a high global cost, it also creates a “lose, lose” proposition for schools and students here at home.

Without racial and ethnic diversity, schools fail to create a positive institutional climate in which students from all backgrounds can succeed. 

Without racial and ethnic diversity, students fail to meet and learn from role models and mentors they can emulate in their own vocations. 

Without racial and ethnic diversity, students of all races fail to learn how to relate to the diverse world in which they will live and work after graduation.

That is why we work diligently to increase the number of minority students pursuing doctoral degrees in religion or theology. As the faculty of the future, these students need tangible support to succeed in a discipline where the welcome mat can be hard to find.

We remember the pioneering efforts of Dr. C. Shelby Rooks, who left his position as pastor of Lincoln Memorial Congregational Temple in Washington, D.C., to pioneer fellowship programs at the Fund for Theological Education (FTE) to support both Black seminary students and Black doctoral students in religion and theology. Rooks conducted a 1968 study that found only 18 Black students were enrolled in religious studies doctoral programs nationwide. The impact of the recruitment initiative Rooks launched has been profound — more than half of the African-Americans serving in theological education across America today are FTE Fellows.

In his book Revolution in Zion, Rooks reflects on his historic efforts to recruit a new generation of Black scholars. “The story is worth remembering,” he said, “because the challenge continues.”

Looking at the underrepresentation of minority faculty in the academy today, Rooks certainly would not be satisfied. Neither are we.

— Dr. Fluker is vice president of doctoral programs and administration for The Fund for Theological Education.

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