Christian Higher Education and the Diversity Question Part I

Pantocrator and All Saints[1]

I fully understand that the job market in Christian higher education is depressing. It is not my intention to discuss those matters here. Nor is it my intention to advocate for a dramatic change in hiring practices. I want to discuss one reason why there are so few African Americans or other minorities teaching in the following disciplines: New Testament, Old Testament, Church History, and Systematic theology. To limit the discussion to these disciplines does not make a statement about the value of other fields. These disciplines are common in most seminaries and Theology departments. In addition, I can speak with a more familiarity about the experiences of African Americans in Christian higher education than I can about other groups.

Now for a quick experiment, choose six broadly Evangelical colleges or seminaries. Now go to their theology departments and examine them. How many African Americans did you find? Here we face a theological conundrum. Either African Americans are intellectually incapable of doing these jobs or there are other reasons for this lack of diversity. This is not an attempt to lambast Christian higher education. It is point out that I have integrated many a New Testament event.

So why is this the case? Many in the field know that a big decision one makes when applying for a PhD is the UK versus USA question. Put simply, the UK programs are shorter, but more expensive. The American programs might be better funded, but  longer. I would estimate that somewhere between 50-60% of Christian colleges and seminaries hires graduates from UK programs. Those programs are largely composed of Caucasians from the US and Canada. If 50-60% of applicants are from the UK programs, and virtually none of those graduates will be African American, this will inevitably mean that there will be gap in hiring.

Being in the United Kingdom is not easy for anyone. Most work long hours for a long time only to face a daunting job market. However, the British PhD does have a history and a certain cache in Evangelicalism. John Stott, C.S. Lewis, and J.I. Packer, just to name a few, were all Brits. Many prominent Evangelical pastors and theologians have also been trained abroad. Furthermore, culturally the United Kingdom carries a certain mystique for that is hard to quantify.

For many African Americans a UK PhD would involve yet another leap into the unknown. It would also mean becoming an even more extreme minority. In addition, there is no comparable history of British influence on African American Christianity. Nor does going to the UK carry the same cultural resonances that it does for many in Evangelicalism. For those who believe that diversity in Christian higher education is important, complaining about hiring practices is insufficient. Changing Christian higher education will mean acknowledging and addressing the root causes behind the disparity.


7 thoughts on “Christian Higher Education and the Diversity Question Part I

  1. I think the reason for such few is the paradigm that people hire people they can relate to. They’d feel more comfortable hiring a known dude than an unknown superstar. A paradigm shift is required. Learning the cultures of others is hard work and uncomfortable. Some flat out just don’t want to do hard work. It is so much easier to do the status-quo. YEAR AFTER YEAR AFTER YEAR AFTER YEAR. They are truly offended when questioned.

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  2. Hey Esau,

    Thanks for this! I was just wondering if one of the issues is that higher education in theology is just not that valued by many black majority churches. Speaking from my own experience, I always felt that people from my church either felt bad about me studying theology or were largely apathetic. This contrasts with what I have observed from other church traditions where getting a PHD in Theology is very well respected. I guess of course there is also the issue that many black people don’t get to meet many people who have PHDs in Theology. Outside of people I met since studying Theology I don’t know a single person who has a PHD in Theology.

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    1. Yannick,

      Yes, some black church traditions may not value the PhD. However: (1) blacks have moved into a lot of fields that they have not historically been a part of. (2) This does not explain why there are no blacks teaching undergrads. (3) There is a growing population of African-Americans who attend evangelical or maintain churches, attend Christian colleges, and go to seminary. Few continue on to do a PhD.
      Also, I entitled the post part one for a reason 🙂 There are a lot of different causes for the lack of diversity. As you said, if you never see someone like you doing a teaching, you are less likely to try to do so yourself.

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  3. Esau,

    Just today I noticed something strange…. At Duke I have taken/am currently enrolled in 7 classes: 3 NT Greek exegesis courses, 1 OT Hebrew exegesis course, and classes in the Dead Sea Scrolls, New Testament theology, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Duke has a sizable African American student body and a reputation for Black Church studies. And yet, of the 7 classes I’ve taken, 6 of them had not a single African American student, although they’ve had other minorities such as Asians and Hispanics. The Bonhoeffer class is the only one with African American students (and also the only one with an African American professor). I’m really puzzled by this. I don’t know if my experience is typical of other schools, but it appears that African Americans are not, on the whole, following a track at the master’s level that could even lead to a PhD in biblical studies.

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    1. I cannot speak to Duke, but the lack of minority faculty and historic trends may help explain this. There are certain fields which are stereotypically African-American. New Testament, strangely enough, is not one of them.

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