When I was visiting Wheaton College last week I happened to hear a story on NPR about Intel’s attempts to create a more diverse workforce, with more women and minorities. Apparently Intel is putting a lot of energy behind this endeavor, and having some success, though retention continues to be a problem.
I was especially taken by one moment in the report:
Freada Kapor Klein is an investor who funds diversity-focused startups like Jopwell, which connects job candidates who are underrepresented minorities to tech companies. Klein says culture is key.
Tech companies don’t just make new engineers pass a coding test. They have to pass a “culture fit” test. That’s where a huge amount of bias creeps in, she says, as existing teams only want a unicorn. “They are looking for the one-in-a-million person who comes from a different racial, ethnic, cultural, gender background, but in every other respect is identical to the white and Asian men who work there,” Klein says. “That’s not diversity.”
It seems to me that this is a story that the leadership of Wheaton College should meditate on as the college tries to move on from its difficult relationship with Larycia Hawkins. I believe — I have good reason to believe — that Wheaton really, truly, seriously wants to have a faculty and student body that is more reflective of the ethnic and cultural range of worldwide evangelical Christianity. But I also saw, during my twenty-nine years on the Wheaton faculty and several years as director of the Faculty Faith and Learning program, far too many situations in which non-white faculty members were treated, if not with outright suspicion, then at least with bemusement and puzzlement, because they did not express themselves in ways that matched the cultural practices of white midwestern evangelicalism.
Minority faculty were of course not the only ones to have this kind of experience; it happened also to white faculty from charismatic or Pentecostal traditions, and to some others as well. But minority faculty — who not incidentally tend also to be charismatic or Pentecostal — always seemed to be under deeper and more lasting scrutiny.
I remember one black colleague who devoted two weeks to studying a book and then, at the end of that time, said to his class, “I don’t think that went as well as it should have. Let’s do it again. We’ll have to leave out the next book or two on the syllabus.” Some students — I don’t know how many — went ballistic over this. That’s not what the syllabus says! I’ve already bought those other books and now we’re not even going to read them! Some faculty and administrators became concerned over this “lack of professionalism”; they wondered whether Wheaton could afford to have faculty “the students don’t really respect.” Me, I just wished I had the courage to go off-script that far; though I guess the deep-seated reluctance to go off-script is a trait I shared with white midwestern evangelicalism, one that helped make me comfortable at Wheaton, even though I am not midwestern. But I also believe that if I had gone off-script in precisely that way it would not have created the same degree of consternation. I am convinced that my colleague’s race made students, faculty, and administrators wonder what else he might do that deviated from the script.
To my lasting regret, that colleague left Wheaton, under less than ideal circumstances, and I believe he was allowed to leave simply because he wasn’t a unicorn. He was not someone who had dark skin but was “every other respect … identical” to the overwhelmingly white world he worked in. He didn’t “fit the culture” — and note that in this case the lack of fit was not even theological, or spiritual, but (supposedly) professional.
But what if the narrow scope of “the culture” is a bug, not a feature? What if a more ethnically diverse faculty, even if it contained people who made some of the existing faculty and administration and alumni and donors uncomfortable, helped the college to achieve its mission? I made a similar argument some years ago in suggesting that Wheaton should be open to hiring Roman Catholics — my logic here is fundamentally the same. What if an institution’s existing culture, and its concern to hire people who “fit” its existing culture, actually inhibit its ability to fulfill its mission?
Wheaton has a detailed and quite specific Statement of Faith, but again and again over the past few decades faculty who can enthusiastically sign that Statement have been deemed not quite right, not comme il faut, not “one of us.” The (often inchoate) sense of institutional culture and “fit” has too often trumped the college’s explicit statements of what it’s all about. Here’s my proposal: What if Wheaton were to trust its own Statement of Faith? What if it were to open its doors to people who don’t look or speak or think like the typical Wheaton person — but who share the same convictions? Might the college not, ultimately, be greatly invigorated by all that new blood? Might it not come closer to the vision granted to John the Revelator? “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.