Campus leadership reflects on racial diversity

In examining its history of race relations, John Brown University seeks to promote continued growth of diversity among its faculty and students.

The university is currently experiencing a decline in enrollment, with the total number of students having decreased by 20.7 percent from the 2016-2017 school year to this year, according to JBU’s Common Data Set Report. However, the percentage of students of color has  fared far worse since 2016, with a 46.3 percent decrease of African-American students and a 10 percent decrease of Hispanic and Latino students, as compared with a 21.9 percent decrease of white students. For the 2018-2019 school year, there are 22 African-American students and 90 Hispanic and Latino students, as compared with 979 white students.

President Chip Pollard stresses the importance of diversity and the strides that the campus is continuing to make. “There’s folks on campus that have done really good work in this and I have learned from … the efforts by Marquita Smith and the Diversity Committee,” Pollard said. “Marquita ran a seminar in August on how to make your course syllabi more diverse. She had 10 faculty that participated in that. Things like the movie that we showed, ‘The Hate U Give,’ that 150 kids or so showed up.”

“We’ve worked really hard, but we are slow, slow, slow on progress. There’s a part of me that’s sad about that, that wishes we could do better quicker,” Pollard said. “Some of these questions are not just about effort, but they’re about culture and about systems and places and residential patterns. There’s a sadness from me, there’s a lamenting of that.”

Like most educational institutions in the early 20th century, JBU was a strictly-white institution upon its founding in 1919. John Brown Sr. founded the later-named John E. Brown College in order “to build here in the Ozarks a school that will house thousands of these wonderful descendants of pure Anglo-Saxon stock,” according to “Head, Heart, and Hand: JBU and Modern Evangelical Higher Education” by Rick Ostrander.

In a later sermon, Brown Sr. said, “God is working toward the golden age of Brotherhood ‘where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all’ … Humanity cannot be broken up into many nations, tribes, or millions of individuals, for men and women around the world must constitute one family [in Christ] when the ‘golden age’ is ushered in.”

Continuing his research on JBU’s founding president, Ostrander said, “During a 1922 crusade in Chattanooga, Tennessee, members of the Ku Klux Klan came forward at one of Brown’s services and contributed one hundred dollars in appreciation of the work he was doing in their city and in Arkansas.”

Ostrander does not include Brown Sr.’s response to the KKK, and John Brown III, the former president of JBU who served from 1979-1993, strongly disagrees with Ostrander’s perspective. “My great-great grandfather John Franklin Brown served four years in the Union Army. He enlisted. Ostrander doesn’t tell you that. My grandfather grew up in a strict Quaker home … His ministry was always very diverse, very inclusive. If the church was segregated, he asked that there be a service for African-Americans and made himself available to them.”

“Rick’s work is his own conclusions … That was an unfortunate phrase that [Brown Sr.] used, and it was probably something that if he was alive today, he would regret. That was not his character or personality,” Brown III said. “His only criteria for student admissions was that students be worthy and ambitious. I never heard or saw any evidence, no one ever said anything about excluding any kind of student or faculty for that matter.”

The response of Brown Sr. to the KKK is recorded in “Christ Over All: A History of John Brown University,” published this year. Following the incident, Brown preached a series of messages condemning the movement, saying, “They make a show of religious belief and religious ceremony, but when you look for the ‘Redemption that in Christ Jesus’ … you look in vain.”

While nonwhite students began attending JBU in 1929, there were still no African-American students in the early 1970’s, so the Student Senate created a Minority Concerns subcommittee, “with the goals of integrating blacks … through aggressive recruitment of minority students,” Ostrander said.

An editorial written by Glen Adams in the Threefold Advocate’s Sept. 17, 1971 edition examined the motivations of the university’s recruitment. “Too often we may be guilty of supporting integration at this school simply because it is the ‘right’ thing to do. If this is our motive, then we will be doing little besides displaying another sort of racism, only in more subtle form,” Adams said. “If we fall into the trap of keeping a ‘token Black’ around to include in all the publicity shots and to point out to visitors like some animal in a cage then nothing is achieved besides patting ourselves on the back for our ‘progressivism.’”

Adams supported the committee in facing the challenges of tuition costs and the lack of diversity in Siloam Springs. “The road to success is heavily barricaded. These are not impassable, but it will take time and most importantly, study and planning to overcome them,” Adams said. “The Advocate hopes the newly-founded Minority Concerns Committee will be a useful tool for reaching this goal.”

Robert “Bobby” Johnson, Mike Elliot and Debie Le Blanc were some of the first African-American students to attend JBU in 1973. In an interview with “The Lantern,” JBU’s archive newsletter, Johnson shared that while he could not date, which made social activities more difficult, he loved his time as a student. “In town, however,” Johnson said, “that was interesting, I would not go into town by myself. I would go with friends.”

Thomas Pillette, an African-American student who majored in health and physical education, graduated in 1978. He played on the baseball team and remembers his four years as “the greatest times of my life.”

While he felt safe and accepted on campus, Pillette said that current minority students at JBU should focus on their education and not the opinions of others. “If a person has what it takes to get the job done, the hell with his color … Always expect the unexpected and remember that there will be a fool in any race, but you have to develop tunnel vision.”

When John Brown III began his presidency in 1979, he focused on increasing diversity among the student body, faculty and admissions, including writing a grant to hire a Native American staff member to recruit students in northeast Oklahoma.

“Student recruitment became more intentional … It’s been a slow trajectory, but I think the changes in Northwest Arkansas have helped and made the area feel more accommodating … I know there’s still issues … but JBU does a really good job at welcoming, hosting and making students feel like they are really part of the community,” Brown III said. “It’s not that we just have this big load of knowledge that we’re just dumping on all of these diverse students. They teach us and help us understand the diverse communities, cultures and perspectives.”

Reflecting on JBU’s history, Pollard emphasizes that students, faculty and staff must also look at themselves. “I wish JBU would have done better earlier, but I am also humble enough to realize that I’m sure I have blind spots that people in 50 years are going to say, ‘Well, why didn’t President Pollard do something better?’ I’m quick to recognize the systemic aspects and their systemic solutions that take a lot of effort to change … We’ve got to try to improve the places we’ve fallen short and try to keep the places that we’re going strong … But I wish it was a better experience for ethnic minority students, I really do. We have to listen better.”

Correction: The original article had stated that “minority students began attending JBU in 1971.” This article has been updated to reflect that nonwhite students began attending JBU in 1929.