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PWIs Need to Stop Preaching and Start Providing

Jessica FryJessica Fry

Apparently, the Wheaton College administration believes that caring for the “oppressed and the marginalized” and respecting “dialogue with people of other faiths or no faith” means parting ways with their first female African-American tenured professor after she stated that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

In December, Wheaton announced that Dr. Larycia Hawkins’ (Doc Hawk) comment on social media conflicted with their Statement of Faith. Last week, a joint statement was released, revealing that Doc Hawk had agreed to leave her college of six years.

I attended Wheaton College for two years. The school was academically rigorous and filled with a lot of fantastic and supportive people. However, Wheaton fell very short when it came to diversity. The student body was almost exclusively White, evangelical, Republican and heterosexual. During my tenure there, a philosophy professor was fired for converting to Catholicism — clearly, the college has remained unwavering in its stance to uphold what they believe is the “correct” Christian interpretation of the Bible.

Here is the overarching problem: Wheaton maintains that they are committed to creating a diverse community, but how can they expect to achieve diversity if they remain unwilling to listen to differing voices?

I challenge Wheaton College, as well as other predominantly White institutions (PWIs), to look at minority-serving institutions (MSIs) as schools that create a campus climate encouraging students and faculty to explore and embrace diversity. MSIs, which include historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions (AANAPISIs), and tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), actively serve high numbers of low-income, first-generation and underrepresented populations. Rather than just preaching about the importance of access in higher education, MSIs provide it.

If PWIs are serious about increasing their campus diversity, and not just concerned with meeting minimum quotas, they should take note of some effective ways MSIs serve their students.

  1. MSIs boast a diverse group of faculty members — students of color want to have role models who share their racial, ethnic or cultural backgrounds. In 2011, 57 percent of tenured faculty at HBCUs were African-American, compared with only 4 percent nationally. Even though HBCU faculty are, on average, paid substantially less than professors at PWIs, they see value in motivating, mentoring and empowering underrepresented students. If PWIs truly want to increase student diversity, they need to start with their faculty.


This does not mean simply interviewing, or even hiring, a professor of color. Diverse faculty members at PWIs often feel isolated and unwelcome, and many eventually opt to leave academe. Institutional leaders need to educate existing faculty on the importance of diversity and how to best provide a support system for their peers of color.


  1. MSIs have a variety of programs or policies that provide low-income, first-generation or underrepresented students with additional support — PWIs need to abandon the “sink or swim” philosophy. Admitting students of color is only one step in creating true access; many come from poorly funded secondary schools and arrive at college underprepared for the rigorous coursework. MSIs graduate underrepresented students at much higher rates than PWIs.


By prioritizing student learning and development, faculty and staff at MSIs often create different ways to help students prepare for and succeed in college-level classes. Many ANNAPISIs, for example, emphasize programs in student services, curricular and academic development, and resource and research development. This provides students with a wide variety of venues in which to seek help or support without being judged or stereotyped.


  1. MSIs understand that a “one-size-fits-all” approach does not work for underserved students — many work full time, support their family, experience hunger, need funds to buy books or school supplies, or have witnessed traumatic events. The lack of basic human needs can stand in the way of students achieving their educational goals. Often, faculty and staff at MSIs visit students at home, meet with them outside of class or closely supervise their study habits. MSIs are constantly experimenting with different ways of supporting and encouraging students.


Critics may interpret these actions as faculty coddling their students, but this is an unfair and narrow-minded assumption. MSIs strongly believe their students are capable of becoming educated and effective leaders, and serve to provide them with necessary support. Low-income students may see higher education as their ticket out of poverty, but only if they are able to complete their degree. Faculty become, for many students, their No. 1 advocate and source of inspiration.

To leaders at PWIs — if you do not to see MSIs as rigorous institutes of learning, and thus, refuse to learn from them, you should openly acknowledge your egotistical and prejudiced attitude. MSIs have repeatedly experienced success with their students, and predominantly serve a diverse and underrepresented population. If you choose to only fill your institutions with like-minded people, at least stop talking about the importance of access and diversity in education.

Jessica Fry is a master’s candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. After graduating in May, she will continue to research issues related to diversity and identity in higher education.

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