At Abilene Christian, diversity isn’t just a talking point anymore
By Timothy Chipp
Timothy Chipp, Abilene Reporter-News Published 5:50 p.m. CT Aug. 28, 2019
Despite earning a new position within Abilene Christian University’s senior leadership, Stephanie Hamm is still learning on the fly.
As chief diversity officer, a position she’s essentially creating from scratch, she’s tasked with making sure an increasingly diverse student body is able to find support and acceptance from the university’s faculty and leadership.
But Hamm, also associate professor in the school of social work, is excited to take on this challenge. And one starting spot, she said, could be developing a faculty that reflects the changing student population.
“We would like our faculty to look a little more like our students,” Hamm said. “That would be nice. We have a very low percentage of faculty of color. Up until two years ago, we had two black, female faculty members (herself included). This year alone, we’ve added two or three black (women), we’ve got some Latinas, because our students need it.
“Students need to see people who look like them. And all of our students need to see faculty members of color.”
ACU’s student makeup isn’t the same as it was even a decade ago, said Hamm, a 1990 undergraduate.
Churches of Christ-affiliated students have dropped, percentage-wise, to about 30 percent.
On the rise? Baptist-affiliated students, Hamm said. And Hispanic students, another growing demographic among ACU students, bring with them a higher percentage of Catholicism.
About 40 percent of the student body, Hamm said, is ethnically or racially diverse. And those who are not part of the Church of Christ system often find themselves on the outside looking in while attending school.
Maybe it’s the songs the school celebrates with or the way these students congregate with each other, she said. There’s room for growth on everyone’s part, instead of just expecting students conform to how ACU has always done things.
“We need to realize all of our traditions, all of the things we always do, all of our heritage, is not inclusive of everyone,” she said. “Not on purpose, but we’ve just been doing what we’ve been doing. It’s not that we have to turn everything upside down and change all of our traditions, it’s just that we need to think about how can we be inclusive.”
Accepting those students means accepting who they are entirely, Hamm said. And providing them support to be able to thrive, not just get by.
Starting to do that will require a constant conversation.
Hamm said this is not an effort that will just blast students with one or two hits then fade into nothing. She’s developing a leadership committee, hopefully complete by mid-September, that’ll be tasked with continuing the diversity conversation, whichever road it takes.
It could mean ACU drops its requirement of faculty to be affiliated with the Churches of Christ, Hamm said. It’s been explored. That is not a staff requirement.
While that may seem like a big jump to get there, the school has already eliminated the requirement of its graduate faculty.
What this decision is not, however, a reaction to what’s happening in the world around ACU. This is not about a bandwagon idea or society telling ACU it needs to be more inclusive, Hamm said.
President Phil Schubert, who tasked Hamm with her new responsibilities, said ACU always has been a champion for diversity, even if the student body didn’t reflect it in race and ethnicity.
“At ACU, we’re always asking how we can live more fully in an environment where there’s more diversity,” he said. “We ask ourselves how can we create opportunities for our students to benefit more richly from their time with us. That happens in a lot of ways.”
Most recently, this involved Schubert creating a task force designed to study diversity. Hamm led it, concluding through two or three years of work, that the school needs to be having these dialogues continuously with students, staff and faculty.
Schubert then tasked her with leading the newly formed Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
ACU’s approach right now is limited to just dealing with diversity based on race and ethnicity.
Hamm said, from a social worker’s perspective, she’d like to see the office expand. The school is ripe to bring in students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning.
It just isn’t in the plans quite yet.
“The charge of the leadership right now has been to address race and ethnicity at the moment as a marginalized group,” she said. “Maybe there will be a time in the future we will be able to expand. I know there are talks, there’s conversations, about our LGBTQ members of campus and that’s not our charge right now. I hope it will be.
“This is called the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, so who knows? Maybe in the future we’ll be able to offer some of those conversations and struggle with that a little more, too.
“As a social worker, I’m hopeful. But right now, the charge from administration is to be a more inclusive environment for racial (and) ethnic diversity.”
Diversity across campus boundaries
ACU also sees itself as a school responsible for placing student leaders in a position to succeed outside of school.
“Our primary goal here is to launch people into adulthood,” Hamm said. “To do that, we have to give attention to all of our students. We’re giving attention to students of color who need to feel a certain way, need to have a certain experience so they can be the best they can be and they can go out and be the best citizens they can be.
“But also, we have to pay attention to students who don’t identify that way — white students — who will be in this world and navigate this world, in a way that we can be the best citizens we can all be. We can’t be afraid of things but work for inclusiveness for everyone.”
Hardin-Simmons University’s Travis Craver, director of spiritual formation, said his university is also focused on reaching students and helping all of them, regardless of race or ethnicity, socioeconomic standing, political view or sexuality, understand everyone is different.
And that those differences are OK.
Though Abilene’s other two universities have not created an office similar to that at ACU, both, too, are addressing diversity.
Craver, who like Hamm is African-American, said HSU administration has done a book study on diversity issues, with the goal of furthering the school’s foundation on the philosophies of abolitionist James B. Simmons.
“As a university, we understand we have to lead out,” Craver said. “We’re striving to bring people to the table who are from underrepresented populations, to promote a culture of representation of all, of being inclusive in our pursuit of excellence. That’s what we’re trying to strive to do.”
At McMurry University, a smaller student body with less than 50 percent of its student body identifying as white, efforts have been geared toward reaching out to not only locally diverse students, but also foreign diversity.
The university recently hired Julia Puac-Romero, from Guatemala, as assistant chaplain and created a prayer room for students who identify with the Muslim faith.