Berea College ‘will not waver’ on racial, social justice, says new president

‘We were founded on the principle of educational opportunity for all,’ Cheryl Nixon says in response to Supreme Court’s rejection of affirmative action

By Jamie Lucke, Kentucky Lantern

BEREA — The day before Cheryl Nixon became Berea College’s 10th and first woman president, the U.S. Supreme Court renounced one of the principles on which the small but revered Christian, liberal arts college is built.

“Our founder, the Rev. John Fee, was a staunch abolitionist and believed that there was a debt to be repaid to the newly freed African Americans,” outgoing President Lyle Roelofs explained during an event Friday in which he handed off a symbolic wooden mace to his successor (who later quipped to media, that, yes, she is President Nixon, though no relation to the other one).

 Berea College class of 1901. Berea says it was the first in the South to co-educate Black and white, male and female students. (Public domain photo)

Both educators used the occasion to reaffirm Berea’s commitment to “interracial education” in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision striking down race-conscious college admissions. 

That 174-year commitment,  Roelofs said, brings “the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution into play” because of the “nexus between our spiritual commitments at Berea College and the mission we pursue.”

Similarly, 56 Catholic schools, led by Georgetown University, filed a brief last year supporting affirmative action and asserting that racially diverse admissions are “inextricably intertwined” with their religious foundations. 

The Supreme Court did allow the nation’s military academies to continue considering the race of would-be students, an exemption that U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger, called “outright grotesque.” Crow, a Colorado Democrat, tweeted: “The court is saying diversity shouldn’t matter, EXCEPT when deciding who can fight and die for our country — reinforcing the notion that these communities can sacrifice for America but not be full participants in every other way,”

Berea’s Nixon — a scholar of the 19th century novel and most recently provost and vice president for academic affairs at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado — voiced disappointment at the court’s decision and “what it may mean for the future.”

In practice, however, the ruling will have little effect on Berea, predicted Roeloffs and Nixon, because the college already has a process geared toward admitting those who face social and economic hardships based on a “holistic” review of applicants’ life stories — the sort of consideration endorsed by Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, who said admissions officers still can consider what applicants write about their personal struggles related to race.

Said Nixon: “We serve only those students who cannot afford a high quality residential college education. … None of our students can be described as persons of privilege. Very few are children of alumni and donors. Indeed, more than half of last year’s graduating class were the first ever college graduates from their families.” 

Berea can do this, while charging no tuition, because it has a small enrollment (445 freshmen entering come fall) and a large endowment (more than $1.4 billion).

The challenges of building diverse student bodies will be more difficult for selective flagship universities and larger private schools, Roelofs and Nixon acknowledged. 

Even Berea’s own history, steeped in social justice, attests to the challenges of building diversity.

“We had a 50-50 community in the late 19th century,” Roelofs told me in a conversation after the ceremony.

In 1904, the Kentucky legislature specifically targeted Berea and outlawed racial integration in education. Berea lost appeals in state and federal courts. Siding with Berea, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, son of Kentucky slaveholders, issued a vigorous dissent, deploring “prejudice of race.” 

Not until 1950, when Kentucky’s shameful Day Act was amended, did Black students return to Berea.

It was not easy for them, said Roelofs. And, more than 70 years later, Berea has yet to regain equality in enrollment. Non-white students make up 42% of Berea’s enrollment; 30% of the next freshman class identify as Black or African-American.

“An institution that’s been all white for 50 years develops all these patterns that people don’t question, don’t think about,” said Roelofs. “It takes courageous people, some of whom are on our board of trustees now, to come in and do their part. They probably think, ‘Why do I have to do this? Why don’t these white people around me take this on?’ It’s hard.”

Roelofs noted that Black enrollment dropped in both the University of California system and University of Michigan after those states banned affirmative action in admissions. 

At the center of this controversy are about 100 selective schools. A diploma from many of them is a ticket into the upper ranks of business and government and into medical and other professional schools. These “elite” institutions remain free to give preferential treatment to “legacies” — applicants whose parents and grandparents are alumni or donors. 

In fact, it all feels a bit removed from the lives of many young Kentuckians, who must weigh whether they can afford any college at all. 

Enrollment in higher education is in decline nationally and in Kentucky — in no small part because many question whether  the debt incurred to finance ever-rising tuition justifies the expected return.

That should worry everyone because educational opportunity has long been the door to economic advancement and good citizenship.

Berea’s new President Nixon was right when she said the nation needs Berea’s values “more than ever.” 

What Cheryl Nixon, Berea College’s new president, said about the affirmative action ruling:

I must say that I am disappointed in the court’s decision and what it may mean for the future. I’m sure that you, the Berea community and trustees,  students, faculty, staff share in this disappointment. Despite our shared disappointment, I must affirm that Berea College is unique in higher education and our situation is very different from most other colleges and universities. 

We were founded to enact interracial education. We were founded to educate black and white together equally, we know that this diversity has been the source of our excellence. I must thus state, as strongly and emphatically as possible, that the court’s decision will not cause us to change or back away from our founding value of interracial education.

Interracial education has been both the firm foundation on which we stand and the shining light that guides us to a more perfect future for over 165 years. And it will be that foundation and that shining light for hundreds of years to come. Over the coming days, I will ask you to join with me to ensure that our values, our commitments are only strengthened, that we stand together and we stand firm in putting these ideals into action.

It is our duty to ensure that our founding vision not only endures, but thrives. We were founded on the principle of equality. This is our commitment and we will not waver.

We were founded on the principle of integration. This is our commitment and we will not waver. We were founded …

(Audience burst into applause.)

These are principles worthy of applause. We were founded on the principle of social justice. This is our commitment and we will not waver  and we were founded on the principle of educational opportunity for all. This is our commitment and we will not waver.

Berea College’s commitment to interracial education has certainly been challenged, even violently tested before, and as we have done when challenged in the past, we will come together to strengthen, even to improve and to expand our commitments. At a time like this, I would like us to not only reaffirm our commitments, but to position them as active. The active values that lead us indeed can lead the whole nation to new understandings. 

As we determine our next steps forward from the Supreme Court decision within our values, we have ideals that are truly unique again, that no other school expresses and no other school enacts in quite the same way. We must be proud, stand firm and lead from those values. We connect equality to the idea of impartial love to true emotional bonds, and we connect the idea of equality to kinship, to the idea that we are all truly interrelated at our heart. 

Berea expresses an all-embrace,  …  (a) loving interconnectedness that seeks to find the best in ourselves and each other, and we seek to radically expand that interconnectedness to welcome all into the educational opportunities we provide. 

These are the values from which we can lead and which the nation needs more than ever. We serve only those students who cannot afford a high quality residential college education. 

None of our students can be described as persons of privilege. Very few are children of alumni and donors. Indeed, more than half of last year’s graduating class  were the first ever college graduates from their families. Many are from Kentucky and Appalachia, and we serve our region, we serve our neighbors. Most Berea applicants have overcome significant obstacles, whether it be racial discrimination, extreme poverty, family or personal challenges, just to be ready and able to come to us and to excel in college. 

Our mission and our size is such that we can and will continue to consider every aspect of an applicant’s personal journey, their perseverance, their commitment, and their ability to take advantage of every opportunity that Berea can offer. We will do this together through the efforts of our students, our staff, our faculty, our trustees, our friends, both here in Berea and across the country. 

As Berea’s next president, I pledge to uphold the great commitments, the college’s Christian identity statement and our service to Kentucky and Appalachia. I pledge to uphold our commitment to interracial education. The idea that we are equal and that we are united in that equality is in Berea’s very marrow, in our very bone.  It is in our very heart. It is in our very blood. I am grateful, indeed, privileged for the opportunity to serve Berea as president in the spirit and tradition of our founders. In those words, we know so well and resonate so deeply. God has made of one blood, one blood, all peoples of the earth. Thank you. 

 Cheryl Nixon, Berea College’s 10th president, responded to the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling, during a transition ceremony, June 30, 2023. (Berea College photo)