In spring 2020 America reached a flashpoint in the drive to address institutional racism.
On June 22, less than a month after George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police, California Lutheran University issued a strongly worded statement of commitment to antiracism with a list of initiatives geared toward diversity, equity and inclusion. These included a review of the curriculum, a Black Lives Matter scholarship, a bias response team and plans to hire a chief equity and inclusion officer.
Cal Lutheran has been on this road for years. Many programs mentioned in that statement were underway before the Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation, and others were in the works, including the transformation of Cal Lutheran’s Ethnic and Race Studies minor into a major.
But the university’s antiracism statement made clear that road has been neither smooth nor straight and posed barriers to some it did not to others.
The university’s first big steps toward equity and inclusion came in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the university won a series of grants from The James Irvine Foundation, totaling more than $1.5 million, to increase diversity among students, faculty and staff.
But in 2015, when Cal Lutheran’s accreditation was reaffirmed by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the WASC report identified racial diversity — especially of faculty — as a main area for improvement.
Nearly every major faculty hire since then has been made with an eye toward increasing diversity. Cal Lutheran’s faculty is now 29% nonwhite, up from 17% four years ago, according to Leanne Neilson, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs.
This year, new hires include Taiwo Ande as associate provost for Educational Effectiveness and Tabatha L. Jones Jolivet as director of the new Ethnic and Race Studies major and associate dean for Equity, Inclusion and Engagement. Both started July 1.
In late February, members of the Cal Lutheran community packed Gilbert Arena for a forum on race and racism. Some bore raw, emotional wounds.
“These are hard conversations to have,” said Jessica Lavariega Monforti, hired as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 2017. “As a country, we’ve never really had an honest conversation about race relations, so to have that as a campus over the course of a couple of years is not realistic without significant discomfort. I think discomfort is a necessary part of our healing process as a campus.”
In 2016, Cal Lutheran was designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education, paving the way for more grant funding. At the time, 27% of CLU’s undergraduates were Latino; the figure is now 36%. Currently the undergraduate student body is 53% nonwhite, according to the
But that type of diversity is only the first step in creating a truly inclusive campus community, said Lavariega Monforti.
“Diversity is the presence of different types of people in a given setting, but if we’re talking about inclusion, that’s not just presence in the room,” Lavariega Monforti said. “That’s the ability to be seen and to participate as a first-class citizen in the community. You can’t have equity and inclusion without diversity, but diversity in and of itself is not enough.”
Ande’s mission includes a review of the general-education curriculum required for undergraduates, something that hasn’t been undertaken in years.
“After a deep dive into the current curriculum, it was apparent to the leadership that the curriculum of most of our programs has not paid enough attention to incorporating issues of race and racism,” Ande said. “That is one of the big responsibilities that I’m going to be working on, to see how we’re going to incorporate racial issues into the curriculum so that every student who goes to the campus on Day One has the opportunity to learn about different races that they might not be used to.”
UNDERSTANDING THIS MOMENT
The Race and Ethnic Studies program will be interdisciplinary, drawing from a variety of different departments and incorporating new and existing classes.
“You can’t understand what’s going on at this particular moment without understanding ethnic studies,” Jones Jolivet said. “I think people are hungering for this, for an education that is truly transformative, and that fundamentally is about ‘what does true and just and full participation look like for all students at Cal Lutheran?’”
Though it is current faculty, staff and students who will be involved most directly in this equity work, there is much alumni can do, administrators say. They can serve as mentors and role models; they can hire current students and recent graduates as employees or interns and give them examples of inclusive workplaces; and they can educate themselves to become participants in a larger antiracist community.
“I’m a person of faith, and if you’re also a person of faith, then praying is great,” said Melissa Maxwell-Doherty ’77, MDiv ’81, Cal Lutheran’s vice president for Mission and Identity. “But also, do some studying on your own. Talk to colleagues and friends about issues of diversity and access in your community. Pray and act, and engage.”
Tony Biasotti is a freelance journalist who lives in Ventura. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, Ventura County Star and Pacific Coast Business Times.