After a couple of days in my role as VP of Academic Affairs, I read the peer report of our accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). We had been granted 10 years from that group that accredits more than 250 seminaries throughout the country. That report showed that, in 2020, 63% of our student body were non-white students and 45% of our student body was female. Approximately two thirds of our black students were born in the United States, and one third live in Africa. While some other schools have a higher percentage of non-white students, most of these are racially monolithic. l learned that according to ATS we are one of the most racially diverse schools in the association, and we represent a balance that is unique in theological education. While there isn’t an award for this type of thing, I’d bet we are the most diverse seminary in the country.
I moved to Mississippi to take this position at Wesley Biblical Seminary. As a Yankee and an outsider, I was caught off guard by this news. How could this be? WBS is located in the Deep South, a “conservative” seminary in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition that is committed to the authority of Scripture and to the holy life. Yet WBS is a leader among ATS institutions when it comes to diversity. Like Sesame Street, it felt like “one of these things is not like the other.”
After getting this news, I approached colleagues with institutional knowledge, decades of experience, asking them, “Did you know this?” Most looked up from their desks with a surprised expression that melted into satisfaction. One said, “Wow…it felt like we are doing something right.” Here’s what I learned, there was no racial diversity plan, we did not appoint a racial diversity officer, and we did not treat minority students differently.
Our main campus is located in Ridgeland, MS, the most diverse city in Mississippi, and Mississippi has the highest percentage of African Americans of any state. These facts give our opportunity for diversity a distinct edge. If our institutions don’t reflect the demographics of our culture and the Kingdom of God, we need to think through how that can change.
At the same time, saying, “We have to have a certain percentage of students/faculty/staff of a certain minority” leads to tension and is based in the expectation of an equality of outcomes. I found an old book, by E. Stanley Jones, from 1944 helpful in understanding American ideals. He suggests:
What and where is America? America is a dream—unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity…a place where race and birth and color are transcended by the fact of common brotherhood… (Jones, The Christ of the American Road, Abingdon, 1944, 60)
The way to achieve this American dream, according to Jones, is through the realization of an equality of opportunity. What the popular literature of our time suggests is that institutions deploy equality of outcome principles. For instance, quotas are mandated, diversity officers are institutionalized and serve as the moral guardians against inequity. Diversity trainings are instituted that assume that disproportionate outcomes are systemically related and caused by white supremacy.
I am not suggesting that institutions without diversity ignore it. Neither am I suggesting that WBS exists as an institution free of racial tension. Could there be other factors contributing to undiversified institutions? Absolutely. Factors like regional demographics, educational requirements, admission standards, price points, and the like will influence the diversity, or lack thereof, of an institution. I am not denying that systemic racism has contributed to the lack of diversity in some of other institutions. I am pointing out that WBS’ path to diversity has not come through racialization. To make it about race is to minimize the reality we enjoy.
The train of separating people into oppressed groups will never run out of track. Equality of outcome doctrines lead us down this track. After moving beyond white and black, we then will be challenged to have outcomes reflecting other racial groups, countries of origin, sexual minorities, economic levels, educational experiences, fat or skinny minorities, intellectual levels, and the list goes on. Instead, an application of equality of opportunity is a way through this challenging environment; that’s what WBS has done, and it seems to have worked, and it’s beautiful.
After the tragedy of George Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020, the president of WBS, Dr. Matt Ayars, reached out to board member and episcopal leader of the Church of Christ (Holiness) denomination Bishop Joseph Campbell. Like other institutions, we were trying to ascertain the best way to respond to that national moment. Bishop Campbell, also an alumnus, said, “In the heart of the Deep South, I found WBS a respite, a place that didn’t treat me worse or better because of my race.” Then the Bishop emphatically challenged our president “Don’t change!” The Bishop’s advice won the day.
Some might suggest, “Well, it seems that Bishop Campbell doesn’t fully consider the scourge of white supremacy and systemic racism.” Maybe a Bishop of an African American denomination in the Deep South has an understanding that academics don’t possess on this subject. African American entrepreneur Charlies Spaulding, said that if minorities are given an equality of opportunity, they “will take care of the other equalities by [their] own character and achievement” (Jones, 78). At this point, I think Spaulding, Campbell, and Jones come together. I may be wrong, but I believe that WBS is on to something, a healthy and holy application of an equality of opportunity in theological education.
Dr. Andy Miller III is Vice President for Academic Affairs and Assistant Professor of Historical Theology Wesley Biblical Seminary.