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All About the Mission

All About the Mission

For 150 years, egalitarian sentiment has been the order of the day at Berea College.

By Kendra Hamilton

It’s all about the mission at Berea College. Founded on a utopian dream, Berea has been doing diversity longer than any school in the South.

Berea College isn’t a product of the civil rights movement. Not even close. The school pre-dates Reconstruction. In fact, at 150 years old, the first integrated, co-educational school in the South pre-dates the Civil War.

Berea was founded on donated land at the edge of Kentucky’s “bluegrass country” by a hardy band of radicals and reformers, led by John Gregg Fee. According to Berea president Dr. Larry D. Shinn, Fee was a minister expelled from the Presbyterian denomination for his refusal to allow slaveholders in his church.

So strong was Fee’s “extraordinary egalitarian sentiment,” as Shinn calls it, and so powerful was his vision that the school he founded remains quite unlike any other — not just in the South, but in the nation.

The school only accepts students who can’t afford a college education. The average family income for a Berea student is $26,700. Berea students pay no tuition — despite the fact that tuition and other expenses add up to approximately $27,000 per year. Instead, the school is one of six “work colleges” in the United States. Students are expected to fulfill labor contracts and community service commitments.

“There’s no other college in America that’s funded as we are,” Shinn says. “We’re the only school in America that says, ‘If you can afford to come, we don’t want you.’ [Public relations] departments are always saying that their schools are unique,” he adds. “But if you take all the aspects of our program — the emphasis on learning, labor and service; the fact that we reach out to a population of students whose family incomes are in the bottom third of all those attending college — I think Berea really is unique.”

Radical Love and Commitment

Berea College occupies an ambiguous position among colleges in the South. It’s both highly regarded — year after year, it’s named the No. 1 comprehensive college in the South by U.S. News & World Report — and eyed with suspicion.

“There are people who think Satan is alive and well and living in the president’s house” at Berea, Shinn says.

The school is an island of social, racial and religious diversity amid the southern Appalachians, a region where only 8 percent of the population is non-White, according to Shinn. Sexual orientation is explicitly mentioned in the nondiscrimination policy. And there are Bahais, Hindus, Muslims and Jews mingling with the many Christian denominations on campus.

To Dr. Stephanie Browner, dean of the faculty, the relative ease with which these many communities mingle reflects the way students, staff and faculty embrace what everyone at the school refers to as “the mission.”

“In my position, I travel and talk all the time to people who are crafting mission statements, and a lot of the time it sounds like they’re just casting about looking for words that sound good to the outside world,” Browner says. “But here, everybody knows what our mission is — it’s [Fee’s vision of] radical love and commitment to others, so we educate low-income students, we serve the region, we maintain our commitment to interracial education. There are fancier words , but that’s the mission.”

Marisha Harrison, a junior majoring in child and family studies, hails from Ashburn, W.Va., a coal community. “When we came to visit, my family and I fell in love with Berea,” she says. “I had scholarships to other schools in West Virginia, but this is the only college I applied to because I knew this was the only place I wanted to go.”

“I love Berea College,” agrees Johnny Kohler, a rising sophomore also from West Virginia. He was working over the summer at Berea, eager for the fall semester to begin, because, quite frankly, the campus has become his home. Home-schooled for most of his life, Kohler says his father, a minister in a cultic religion, taught him that “Black people [were] below animals.” Kohler says being at Berea has been like a “dream.”

“I had never associated with the African-American race at all,” he says. “But I came here and we all loved each other. I made so many Black friends.”

One of those friends is Marlon Perry from Birmingham, Ala. Perry passed up a football scholarship at another college to come to Berea. He remembers that Kohler was the only White student in the Black Student Union play for Black History month. The two young men bonded quickly and share a sense of humor, but there is a serious side to both students.

Kohler plans to become a counselor working with abused children. And Perry, who wants to become a minister, will take a labor assignment as a dorm chaplain — similar to a resident advisor — this year.

Experiment on the Ridge
That underlying seriousness is a product of the commitment required to carry out the founder’s vision, for Fee and his small band of believers faced the constant threat of violence.

“Here’s a guy who was working in a slaveholding state in the 1840s saying, slavery is wrong — and not only is slavery wrong but, more importantly, the avenue for true progress in the Christian faith is for us to accept Blacks as equals,” Shinn explains about the school’s founder. “He’s not just preaching freedom — he’s holding out for equality.”

For his pains, Fee experienced more than two-dozen “mobbings,” Shinn says. He was clubbed while riding his horse through the woods. He was shot at by snipers. On one occasion an angry mob tried to drown him in a river, requiring the intervention of a stonemason to save his life. Fee built a one-room schoolhouse, and it was burned down.

But no setback stopped Fee. In 1855, he moved his followers one county over and built a school and community that came to be called “Berea on the ridge.” “There was a Black home and a White home in a circle,” Shinn says. “That was called ‘interspersion.’”

Fee’s problem was the opposite of that faced by today’s admissions officers. He already knew he wanted to educate slaves and freedmen — his dilemma was finding White students. So he targeted the people who, in those days, were least likely to have school available to them — the “mountaineers” living in the hills to the east.

They answered the call in such great numbers that it proved an intolerable provocation in a region heating up towards the Civil War. In 1859, gun-toting citizens from Richmond, the town to the north, offered Fee and his staff a choice — close the school or be killed.
So the school closed. But upon reopening in 1865, they went right back to their pre-war ways, hiring Black teachers, building interracial dormitories and even permitting interracial dating.

This state of affairs could not long continue. So it was that in 1904, state congressman Carl Day introduced House Bill 25, which made integrated education illegal in Kentucky. The “Day law” passed 28-5.
By the time the school was legally allowed to reintegrate, in 1950, “we were behind the times,” says Shinn. “By that point a lot of schools had integrated outside of Kentucky and the South. So over the past 55 years, we’ve really struggled hard to reclaim our integrated status.”

In 1997, for example, says Joe Bagnoli, associate provost for enrollment management, the percentage of minority freshmen in the entering class dipped to 6.9 percent. “That scared me to death,” says Bagnoli, a Berea alumnus. “Some years we had not done well, but we had hardly ever done as poorly as we did that year.”

The school responded by generating research on its student cohorts and using the results to completely overhaul its admissions practices. Discovering that they had been basing admissions decisions on factors that were not, in fact, predictive of retention or graduation, officials began concentrating on math scores rather than verbal; on high school class rank rather than entrance exams; and on interviews in addition to essays.

The results have been startling. Not only is Berea one of the most competitive schools in the nation — according to U.S. News & World Report, Berea is only slightly less competitive than schools like Middlebury College, Swarthmore College and Duke University — but minority admissions are also substantially up.

“One in four Berea students is an ethnic minority, compared to the national rate of 7 to 9 percent for private liberal arts colleges,” says Bagnoli. “And when you look at African-Americans, where the average at similar institutions is 3 to 4 percent, we’re bringing in 20 percent every year, and, on paper at least, they’re better prepared” than those admitted a decade ago.
That diversity is reflected in the faculty ranks, too, Browner says. There are about 121 tenured and tenure-track faculty — 9.2 percent of them African-American, compared to a national rate of 5 percent.

“At every rank we beat the national numbers,” Browner says. “Nationally around 3 percent of full professors are African-American — we’re at 4.4 percent. At associates, nationally, it’s 5 percent; we’re at 11.6 percent. At assistant, nationally, it’s 6 percent; we’re at 13.5 percent. So we feel good and we feel really good compared to the Ivy League,” she says. “The percentage of faculty who are African-American in the Ivy League is 2 percent — and it hasn’t budged for 10 years.”
Struggling with Retention
Of course, no one in the administration at Berea even attempts to suggest that there aren’t significant challenges associated with targeting this specific population.

There’s no way of getting around it, says Shinn. “Income is related to college success. If you’re born into a family whose income is $25,000 or below, the day you’re born your chance of graduating from college is 5 percent. But if your family income is $70,000 or above, you have a 50 percent chance of graduating college. So there really is a cultural, social and economic influence that we battle here.”

Bagnoli adds: “We see a higher percentage of students who have emotional needs that are not met when they come to Berea, who are perhaps marginally more prone to depression and require counseling services. But they’re raised in poverty. Their homes are often broken and/or dysfunctional and they come to us out of a need. Those are the givens.

“But we refuse to accept that just because they have limited resources that their potential is also thereby limited,” he says. “I’ve picked fights with Ivy League schools in newspapers and other venues. [The message is] ‘I challenge your assumption that the wealthy deserve more.’”

Yet Shinn is honest in admitting that Berea has faced a struggle with retention. He has been at Berea since 1994, and it didn’t take long for him to realize that there was a problem. “In 1996 only 65 percent of the class persisted to sophomore year,” he says. “Only 47 percent graduated in a five-year time frame in 1996.”

In the nine succeeding years, with the completion of Berea’s strategic planning process and the enrollment overhaul, there’s been a dramatic turnaround. “Over the last four years, persistence rates have increased to between 80 and 85 percent every year,” Shinn says. Graduation rates still lag, but they’re up significantly, too — near 60 percent.

How did the school do it? “A lot of people would assume we lowered our standards,” Bagnoli says. “Well, we didn’t do that; we didn’t lower our standards. We raised our support.”

Albertina Niilo, an international student born in Namibia during the years of apartheid, needed a lot of support to get to college. Third in a family of seven girls, she recalls fleeing her home at the age of 10 to live in refugee camps in Angola, being sent off to Cameroon for five years, then returning to Namibia to find the family home in ruins.

“My mom had gone to school during exile so she got a job and bought us a new house, but she needed help,” the 35-year-old Niilo says. So she worked to help support the family for seven years. It was not until the last girl had graduated from high school that Niilo decided to pursue her dream of going to college in America.

She discovered Berea College on the Internet, she says, and found both the full tuition scholarship and the founder’s philosophy attractive.
Niilo says she might never have afforded college if it weren’t for the support she received from Berea.

Tiffiny Yates didn’t have anywhere near as far to travel — she grew up in Louisville, about 30 miles away, but she shares Niilo’s gratitude and commitment to the school.

Yates’s life plans changed significantly after she became pregnant during her sophomore year in high school. ”I just knew I wouldn’t get in because my grades had went down and my G.P.A., too,” she says. But Berea offered her an opportunity — and beyond that, it offered her support in caring for her son.

Yates, a junior majoring in nursing, lives with her four-year-old son at the Ecovillage, a townhouse complex that serves around 40 students with children. Some of the parents are married, but the majority are single. The townhomes face an inner courtyard and garden space, providing parents a vantage from which to watch their children play.
“We moved here because of the Ecovillage, and it’s just the greatest place I’ve ever been. It’s like the closest community,” Yates says.
“I was always doing stuff alone. I was in a school [for teen mothers], I had two jobs, I took my son to day care every day. My mother, she supported me, but she had us at a young age so she was living her life too… But here — we’re not by ourselves. I have so many friends and so much help. I love Berea College — it’s the place for me and my child to be right now.”

It’s those kind of stories that fire up the staff and faculty at Berea and inspire them to reach new heights.

For example, says Browner, the Ecovillage was hotly debated within the faculty ranks. But the questions all revolved around, “‘Will there be child care? Will there be support?’” she says. “The decision — every decision — is all about the mission.”

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