Andrews University: A Journey to Healing
Some journeys are best known for unexpected twists and turns that lead to unexpected places. Such was the case last year for Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, the oldest Seventh-day Adventist institution of higher learning.
On February 18, 2017, a short video was posted on YouTube accompanied by the hashtag #ItIsTimeAU. Various people appeared on the video, stitching together a message that centered on racial equality on the campus of Andrews University. “It is time for Andrews University to apologize for the systemic racism it has perpetuated on its campus,” began the video that would eventually garner more than 150,000 viral views within a few days. “We put it out there, and that thing blew up, and it just kept going and going and going,” recalls Garrison Hayes, an Andrews student and one of the lead organizers of #ItIsTimeAU.
The video addressed several distinct issues. It emphasized historic grievances, whose memory has not been erased by time, dealing with racial inequity on campus—forced segregation in the cafeteria, among them. The video also addressed the concept of curriculum development, calling for teaching based on more than Eurocentric worldviews. Finally, #ItIsTimeAU addressed ethnic-specific worship styles and their relationship to the dominant style found on campus.
A Familiar Journey
Though the viral video catalyzed what would be an intense period of discussion, it was not the start of the university’s journey toward fully understanding how to embrace and manage the remarkable diversity on its campus. During the past decade the university’s Diversity Council began conceptualizing an administrative-level position that would assist university leaders in meeting diversity-related needs on campus. By 2015 a job description for vice president for Diversity was in place. In addition, the university participated, in late 2016, in an event sponsored by the Lake Union Conference church territory entitled, “A Journey to Healing and Understanding.” As part of her remarks at the event, Andrea Luxton, president of Andrews University, acknowledged racial bias and that the university had not listened well. She offered an apology and clarified the university’s commitment to understanding and addressing the issues at hand.
The university now had a decision to make: how to respond appropriately to the #ItIsTimeAU video, which included a one-week response time line. The challenge was, in part, that not everyone resonated with the statements made on the video or with the approach taken. The exchange of comments on social media was mirrored on campus as students struggled to make sense of the moment. Hayes was teaching a course that semester and clearly recalls the tension. "I think that people were feeling all the feelings one would imagine come with that, whether that be fear and remorse, sadness that we even had to do that [the video], as well as anger and disagreement," Hayes shared with Adventist Review.
A Rapid Response
Andrews University decided to respond in two ways. First, the university planned a verbal and video response within a week, during the weekly chapel service at the Pioneer Memorial church (PMC) on campus. The event was streamed live for the benefit of those following developments from a distance. Luxton addressed those in attendance, emphasizing each individual’s story and the healing nature of Christ’s ministry: “When He sees someone hurting, He reaches out to the hurt, and He says: ‘This is my first responsibility: It is to heal.’ ” She then introduced the university’s second response—in video form.
The response video, played at the chapel service and subsequently posted online as #ListenDialogueChange, featured Luxton, along with other administrators and staff, student leaders, and Dwight Nelson, senior pastor of PMC. Together they provided both corporate and individual apologies. Pledges and commitments were also made to engender both the change mentioned in the #ItIsTimeAU video and beyond, including fast-tracking the appointment of a vice president for Diversity. The reaction from students and various constituencies varied from elation, relief, admiration and pride for the road taken by the school, to some who expressed ambivalence as they struggled to understand an experience foreign to them.
A Follow-through Commitment
It has been a year since that memorable moment on the campus of Andrews University. Luxton shared with Adventist Review that much has been done. Diversity training that in the past had been done with graduate students was extended to undergraduate students as well. Similar training was offered to all faculty during a two-day summer intensive. Additional training was organized for senior leaders, including the dean’s council and cabinet members.
Luxton has also continued ongoing dialogue on campus. “Anyone who has reached out to me I have tried to get back to personally to discuss any questions,” she explains—including those who may continue to have mixed feelings on the matter. Recently she was invited to meet with all Andrews residence hall assistants. When Luxton arrived, all of them were wearing T-shirts that said “We will be OK,” the phrase that Luxton used to begin her chapel talk the previous February in PMC.
After a national search process, the university welcomed Michael Nixon to the role of vice president for Diversity and Inclusion. Nixon, an attorney, specializes in the area of civil rights and advocacy, most recently as legal coordinator for the Fair Housing Justice Center in New York City.
Over the past months Nixon has engaged in active listening with students, faculty members, department heads, and in administrative committees in an effort to better understand campus dynamics and where diversity education and inclusion is most needed. According to Nixon, among the things he has discovered is that there are those on campus who have been active in championing the “work of inclusion,” but who needed a more intentional and coordinated way of doing so effectively. “It was really not necessarily reinventing the wheel,” explained Nixon, “but maybe giving the wheel some grease and some oil so that folks can just be empowered to work in the areas that they’ve already been working.” One of Nixon’s first changes was to the name of the university’s Diversity Council, now officially called the Diversity and Inclusion Action Council, giving the group greater clarity of purpose.
The Road Ahead
Luxton is quick to clarify that much still needs to be accomplished, especially in light of new students arriving every semester with new and unique views on the matter. “It’s not like you have a closed container and you solve one thing and then that’s solved forever,” she explains. “It’s a constant need to create an environment of dialogue and openness, and . . . no tolerance to attitudes that demean anybody else.”
Looking down the road, Nixon believes that Andrews University can help to create positive change throughout the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the area of diversity and inclusion. However, he adds that the university has to first create a working model of fully embracing diversity and effectively incorporating a culture of inclusion. “We need to think of how we can model a good format, as opposed to just presenting a good format,” says Nixon.
Along the same lines, Hayes encourages continued dialogue in the area of race and diversity, while discouraging silence on the topic. “That’s the exact response that the enemy of our souls, Satan, would have us do,” says Hayes. “He would have us stay away from the issues that actually exist among us instead of allowing God to shine the light into them and to heal those places.”
Finally, for Andrea Luxton, the events of 2017 offer a significant opportunity for growth. “As a result, we now have greater strength to approach those mountains ahead of us,” shared the university president with her campus in February, “because we have faced the realities of our present; we have embraced our great strengths, and sought to understand and apologize for our mistakes.”
Costin Jordache is director of communication for Adventist ReviewMinistries and news editor for Adventist Review.