Westmont Responds to Racial Injustice Criticism

Implicit-Bias Training Offered, More Hiring and Scholarships for Diversity

President Gayle D. Beebe | Credit: Courtesy

Today, our culture and society stand at a critical inflection point. As we grieve the current events that have galvanized our country’s anger, our attention must shift to issues of race as we realize that a fresh understanding and a different approach is necessary in every sphere of our society. At Westmont, we’re developing a greater capacity to listen by opening our hearts to the most aggrieved members of our society. We want to understand and empathize with those groups who have been left out and left behind. We want to be a community of learners that seeks to reconcile even as we experience the rich impact of God’s reconciling and transforming work on our own life. We’re working to develop a capacity to see the wider hurt in our society and the role we’ve played in it.

Concerns with the image of Jesus as portrayed in the stained-glass window in the Nancy Voskuyl Memorial Prayer Chapel have prompted us to take a fresh approach to this sacred space as well as all spaces on campus. The chapel was built to honor Nancy Voskuyl, who was 19 years old when she was tragically killed in a car accident in December 1959. She was the youngest daughter of Roger Voskuyl, then the president of Westmont. During the last few years, the chapel window has become a significant distraction to the chapel’s primary purpose as a place for prayer. We’ve continued to move forward, working to address some of the most significant concerns. Lisa DeBoer, professor of the history of art and chair of the art department, along with Telford Work, professor of religious studies, are working with others from diverse cultural backgrounds to broaden our understanding of the universal reach of Christ. We’ve also engaged outside religious architects and consultants. Together, these and other campus voices are helping us craft a plan that will add a variety of images to the chapel to more fully educate us and represent the global life of the church and the various events that distill the life and impact of Jesus.

We’re also committed to curricular innovations that tell a broader story and incorporate all parts of our society and culture into course offerings at Westmont. Under the leadership of Provost Mark Sargent, appropriate faculty committees have approved a revitalized and repurposed ethnic studies minor. Several developments make this possible, including the ongoing hiring of people of color on the faculty, who are expanding and broadening our curriculum. Across the spectrum, professors from all disciplines are thinking anew about what it means to approach their discipline with fresh eyes, attentive ears, and curious spirits, anxious to understand and learn the full implications of these new realities.

We’ll also offer college-wide implicit bias training. We all carry subconscious prejudice toward individuals and groups different from our own, and we’re mostly ignorant of our own implicit bias. Drawing on the research and expertise of our own Professor Carmel Saad, a social psychologist and daughter of Egyptian immigrants who fled religious persecution, we intend to launch a multiyear effort to provide relevant and essential training on implicit bias, diversity, equity, inclusion, and intercultural competence. A great scholar and teacher, Professor Saad has gained national recognition for her work, and she consults with a variety of organizations, including a police department.

We’ll amplify our focus on diversity, global engagement, and intercultural competency. We’re committed to raising money for student scholarships to support diversity and global engagement. In the past 14 years, the diversity of the student body has increased from 30 percent to more than 45 percent. We recognize we still have a lot to do and a long way to go to get this work done.

We’re expanding resources available college-wide, and beginning this fall, we’ll strengthen staff working with intercultural programs by adding key advisers who can assist us. Carol Houston, a Black pastor who serves on our board of trustees, will come to campus weekly to work on issues of diversity, global engagement, and intercultural competence. With her guidance, we’ll improve our capacity for conversations that matter on race, equity, and inclusion. We’ll also ask bridge-building alums from previous classes to get involved with student clubs on campus to provide intergenerational perspective and leadership. In addition, we plan to work with Arrabon, an organization headed by David Bailey, an African American. He advises a variety of organizations as they develop a capacity for cultural understanding and work across racial boundaries, helping them learn how to engage in ways that build trust and promote healing and draw on a biblical perspective.

We’re committed to doing better, and we will. We pray that God will guide us and renew us with his mercy and justice.

Gayle D. Beebe, PhD, is president of Westmont College.

[Update: July 16] We’re deeply saddened to read the statements by our students in the July 16 issue of the Independent as the experiences they describe fall far short of the college we aspire to be. We seek to establish and make an ever-better, supportive Christian community where all students feel safe and valued because of who they are and what they bring to our community.

Our entire nation is becoming more and more conscious of how structural racism has evolved and affected our lives and behavior. The same is true of the Westmont community. With the utmost good faith, we’re actively listening to our students and Black and minority voices in our society, and we’re educating ourselves and making changes. We want to understand how we’ve contributed to it and how we can do better. We’re committed to, and have begun, implementing fundamental changes to our curriculum, campus and training to make Westmont a place where all students, faculty and staff find a safe and supportive home. 

We share updates on our website of our commitments to diversity and the actions we’re taking more overtly when we’re all back together again on campus this fall.

Signed, Westmont College

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