Divided Over Diversity

Did Baylor U's new provost step down over faculty objections to his diversity initiative, in particular his plan to hire a chief diversity officer? Does diversity look different at a Christian university?

January 26, 2016
 
Edwin Trevathan

Baylor University has had its fair share of administrative turnover in recent memory: two of its last three presidents were forced out after clashing with the faculty and the Board of Trustees over such issues as how to advance its strong academic reputation while remaining true to its Baptist roots. But the campus has been relatively united under President Kenneth Starr since he took over in 2010. That’s despite some initial misgivings among faculty members.

Now the campus is again experiencing tumult. This time it’s over a diversity initiative, which faculty members say likely led to the abrupt resignation of Edwin Trevathan as provost after little more than a semester on the job.

“When Trevathan stepped down, it took a few of us by surprise,” said Jerry Park, an associate professor of sociology at Baylor who -- unlike some of his colleagues -- supported the former provost’s plan to hire a chief diversity officer. That officer was to oversee a diversity initiative aimed in part at addressing Baylor’s reputation as having one of the country’s whitest faculties, at 87 percent.

Surprises aside, Park said, “I’m pretty certain this must be connected to the [chief diversity officer issue]. He was only here eight months and this was the most widely broadcast thing on his agenda.”

Officially, Trevathan left for a vague combination of personal and professional reasons. “After prayerful consideration and consultation with my family, we have decided that the position of executive vice president and provost at Baylor University is not a good fit for us,” the former provost said in a statement earlier this month announcing his immediate resignation. “I have, therefore, decided to step aside from my role as [executive vice president] and provost.” Trevathan will stay on at Baylor as a professor of neuroscience.

Unofficially, there’s widespread speculation on campus that Trevathan was forced out of his administrative role over faculty concerns about both the diversity initiative itself and his handling of it.

Trevathan declined to comment on the situation at Baylor specifically, but said that he's supported equal rights and diversity throughout his career and chooses to "distance myself from policies of exclusion and discrimination."

Although much progress has been made within U.S. universities, he continued, "pockets of institutional racism and xenophobia persist. Those of us in the majority must be willing to change our policies and structures in order to treat those in the minority with equality, dignity and respect."

Trevathan, a former dean and professor of epidemiology in the College for Public Health and Social Justice at Saint Louis University, started at Baylor in June and immediately got to work on creating a diversity officer position.

Chief diversity officers, distinct from equal opportunity officers in that they are less about compliance with state and federal employment laws and more about proactively working toward a positive racial climate, are becoming more and more common on college campuses. At many institutions, these officials have pushed initiatives to diversify the faculty ranks, and the student protest movements at many campuses have sought such policies.

The former provost appointed a committee to design how the new position would work at Baylor. He also held two town hall meetings in October, at which there was significant faculty support for the new position but also questions about whether the university needed a new administrator, and just what kind of diversity it was working toward.

Some of those concerns were articulated in an October essay called "Diversity in the Christian University" by Elizabeth Corey, an associate professor of political science at Baylor. It was published online by the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank.

“The diversity trope makes reforms possible by appealing to social norms that, in principle, nobody would oppose,” Corey wrote. “Would you really argue against having more African-Americans or women in your department? No? Then you must support diversity initiatives! But this question is always asked in the abstract -- not in a situation where an honest answer would require weighing the benefits of a minority hire against other legitimate goods, such as a particular candidate’s academic merit, pedagogical experience or fit with a university’s mission.”

One danger of this approach, Corey continued, “from the skeptical perspective, is that recruitment of token women and minority faculty members may result in lowering academic standards. This is not because minorities and women are inherently less qualified, but because institutional pressure to hire someone from an underrepresented group may become more imperative than simply hiring the best candidate without regard for his or her demographic characteristics.”

Corey said "[a]ctual diversity in particular fields is exceptionally fine grained,” and questioned whether a chief diversity officer was capable of assessing it. “There may be five or six rival approaches to political philosophy, but they are not male versus female or black versus white," she wrote. "Demographic characteristics are basically irrelevant in this context, and the forms of diversity that are truly relevant are too knowledge specific to be tracked by a ‘chief diversity officer’ at a university.”

Summing up her concerns, Corey said, “This is by design a transformative, even revolutionary, movement that aims to root out ‘unconscious,’ ‘implicit’ or ‘similarity’ bias and other such under-the-radar offenses. Only in the contemporary world can we at once be unconscious of our actions and yet morally culpable for them. ...Christian schools should think long and hard about exactly what kind of diversity they wish to promote before they sign their souls over to the secular rule of diversity officers. If they don’t, they might live to regret it."

The essay caused a buzz on campus, and sparked critical responses supporting the diversity initiative and the chief diversity officer position. Corey declined an interview but via email said that her essay was not the “antidiversity” missive it’s been described as by some. Rather, she said, it seeks to raise questions “about the kind of diversity that's appropriate for Baylor, and the ways in which change should be implemented.”

Corey said she stood fully behind Baylor's diversity initiative, and was “thrilled” that Starr in recent days had appointed a new committee -- composed of different members than Trevathan’s working group -- to pursue the matter going forward.

One of those faculty members who responded critically to Corey’s essay was Lynne Walhout Hinojosa, an associate professor of literature in Baylor’s honors program. She wrote an open letter to her colleagues, which she declined to share with Inside Higher Ed but described via email as an attempt to outline a “Christian vision for diversity as well as work though some misconceptions others on campus were putting forth about diversity initiatives and racial identity.” 

Park penned his own op-ed in response to Corey’s and others’ similar criticisms, writing that faculty members “in a Christian university in 2015 lamenting and worrying over the evil lurking behind the cloaked language of [chief diversity officers] are ones that fear losing an identity tied to systemic oppression of certain demographically designated groups.”

Efforts to alleviate systemic bias “are rooted in social justice,” he continued, “one strand of which is clearly embedded even if not always practiced in the Christian religion; defining these efforts as evil suggests that these faculty advocate for a Christian institution that actually excludes Christian intellectual diversity.”

Park suggested that “the way forward includes not only acknowledging a persistent systemic injustice and addressing it, but also asking of one another: Is the kind of Christian institution that turns a blind eye to racism and sexism the kind of institutional identity worth preserving?”

C. Stephen Evans, University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities, appealed directly to Trevathan’s committee, saying he wasn’t opposed to hiring a chief diversity officer, but worried that such a position -- likely an expensive one -- wasn’t the most effective route to increasing diversity on campus.

“It is at least worth pondering that for the money a cabinet-level [chief diversity officer] position would require (including staff and office), it is likely that three or four junior-level appointments could be made, or two senior appointments,” he wrote. “Some thought should be given to the strategic and practical questions of how our financial resources can best be employed to reach our goals. Two things are certain: 1) Achieving the goals of minority diversity and gender equality will be expensive. 2) Baylor’s financial resources are limited.”

Citing an article in Yale Alumni Magazine about the departure of two top African-American female faculty members from Yale to Columbia University, which has committed $63 million to diversity programs, and his personal observation that there were few minority and women participants at a recent elite philosophy conference, Evans wrote that the “combination of low supply and intense competition means the odds are daunting.” So Baylor “should not assume (without evidence) that the lack of progress at Baylor is due mainly to bias, conscious or unconscious,” he wrote -- adding that he wasn’t claiming such bias doesn’t exist.

Evans offered practical suggestions for increasing women and minority faculty numbers, such as stopping the tenure clock for women with young children and devoting a pool of money to “opportunity hires” to increase diversity at the department level. But Evans suggested the key to faculty diversity over all will be offering prospective professors what other institutions can’t: a renewed investment in Baylor’s Christian identity.

“We can’t outbid elite universities financially, and for most people our geographical location will not be desirable in comparison with many other locations,” Evans wrote. “We must sell the uniqueness of our mission and our community, and hope that committed people of faith who are women and/or minorities will be motivated to join us. This means any attempt to attract women and minorities by diluting or watering down our identity as a Christian university will be counterproductive and indeed disastrous.”

In an interview, Evans said the notion that some on campus had vehemently opposed the diversity initiative -- and that Trevathan stepped down for that reason -- was false. He said everyone agreed that Baylor would benefit from increased diversity, and that there was simply some debate about how effective a chief diversity officer could be in achieving that end.

Evans blamed Trevathan for exaggerating the issue and accused him of generally poor management.

“The appearance of disagreement was created by an inexperienced provost who was politically inept, and thereby created divisions and suspicion among faculty that were totally unnecessary,” Evans said. “The controversy was generated by the fact that the provost gave many people the impression that his push for diversity was a covert way of undermining Baylor’s Christian identity.”

Trevathan via email said he declined to comment on Baylor specifically, "other than to say that there are many wonderful faculty, students and alumni" there.

More generally, he said, "Christian institutions resistant to diversity sometimes cite their devotion to traditions, or 'religious freedom' as justification for overt discrimination against an entire segment of the population. It is often easy for leaders of these institutions to bend to the pressured calls for 'no change'. As a matter of conscience, and in order to enhance academic excellence, I choose to distance myself from policies of exclusion and discrimination."

Evans said he doubted Trevathan was intentionally divisive, but said the diversity discussion under the former provost’s leadership had begun to recall the culture wars the campus experienced under then-president Robert B. Sloan before he stepped down in 2005 -- something no one wanted to revisit. (Critics of Sloan’s plan to drive Baylor up in the national research university rankings while reinforcing its mission as a Christian institution said the effort was in effect devaluing its tradition for strong teaching and, to some, making the Baptist university too conservative.)

Park said he’d had limited interaction with Trevathan, but his impression was that he wasn’t the divisive, unskilled leader Evans described. Park said he believed the debate on campus was less about Trevathan than the diversity initiative itself (which he said was part and parcel to the chief diversity officer question), in that it spoke to the “inward, outward” tension present at academically strong Christian institutions. That is, these colleges and universities struggle to balance the most intellectually curious and spiritually generous aspects of Christian education with its more insular tendencies, he said.

He cited the case of Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian institution in Illinois, as another example of such tension. Hawkins, a black professor of political science, was brought to Wheaton in part because of her unique perspective, Park said, but is now being punished for pushing the boundaries of that institution by wearing a head scarf and posting on social media that Christians and Muslims worship the “same God.”

“Hawkins [contributes] the kind of intellectual diversity that Christian colleges and universities need,” Park said. “We want a broad view of Christianity that includes points of view that historically may not have been represented.”

Park continued, “This is about not being afraid of expanding one’s boundaries that still adhere to a certain core set of beliefs -- even if that means encountering perspectives that one has never thought about before or may even be challenging. These kinds of challenges have been good things in the past, and we all grow from them.”

Trevathan’s working group on the chief diversity officer position released its report in December, but by that time, the writing may already have been on the wall. The provost stepped down in mid-January, and just a few days later, Starr announced the appointment of a new committee of faculty, staff and students to advise him on “deepening the university’s unapologetic Christian commitment to racial, ethnic and gender diversity.” The chief diversity officer issue will now be left to this new committee.

Several faculty members said there are rumors on campus that Trevathan was asked to step down by Starr, who allegedly resented that goodwill on campus had been disturbed. Lori Fogleman, a Baylor spokeswoman, said Trevathan’s decision was “deeply personal,” and cited Starr’s public statement that said, “We have benefited from so many of [Trevathan’s] talents, including his wonderful creativity and analytical skills, as well as his vast experience in sponsored research, medicine and science. We are grateful for his dedicated service to Baylor and the manner in which he has helped position us for future success.”

Fogleman said Starr has made clear his dedication to increasing diversity on campus, including in a December letter to faculty and staff in which he applauded the work of Trevathan’s committee. That committee “helped foster a robust conversation here at Baylor with respect to deepening our unapologetic Christian commitment to diversity,” Fogleman said.

The next step in that conversation, Fogleman said, is the president’s new advisory council. The body will serve as a sounding board “through which the campus community can be fully engaged in the continuing discussion over the course of the spring semester,” she said.

Starr said in his statement announcing the committee that “a university, at its best, is a conversation.”

Each and every voice “will be warmly welcome,” he continued. “To that end, it will be vitally important for all members of our community -- students, faculty and staff -- to enjoy the fullest opportunity to contribute their perspectives and insights as we seek collaboratively to identify the wisest path forward.”

Regarding Baylor’s reputation for being homogenous, at least in terms of its faculty, Fogleman said the university is “proud of the progress we’ve made to become the second-most racially and ethnically diverse university in the Big 12 with more than 34 percent of our students identifying themselves as persons of color.”

Baylor recognizes, however, “that we need to do more to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of our faculty,” which is 13 percent minority, Fogleman said. According to federal data from 2013, the national average for all postsecondary institutions was 21 percent minority. That number is likely higher now, with many institutions launching diversity initiatives over the last several years, even ahead of the recent widespread student protests calling for increased faculty diversity.

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