Black Students at Fuller Theological Seminary Launch #SeminaryWhileBlack Protest

Fuller Protest Faithfully Magazine
(Photo: YouTube/Andrea Gacs)

School Creates ‘Associate Provost for Faculty Inclusion and Equity’ Position

Black students at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, launched a social media protest to address what they considered as toxicity within the seminary. Using the hashtags #SeminaryWhileBlack, #ToxicFuller, and #BlackExodus to spread awareness, the protest took on public form on June 7 at Fuller’s Baccalaureate service. Students and non-students, both Black and non-Black participants, wore surgical-like masks and held signs in a demonstration against the seminary’s alleged cultural toxicity toward Black students, faculty, and staff.

Black students at Fuller listed seven reasons why they considered the seminary as toxic toward Blacks in a document entitled Black Student Concerns and Social Media Protest that has been circulated widely on social media. “White normativity is a noxious agent that permeates every aspect of the institution and suffocates [B]lack Fuller community members,” the document claims. Among these reasons are an alleged culture of anti-Blackness that is embedded within the seminary and the administration’s mishandling or ignoring of reports of racial impropriety. The document also lists four demands of the administration on behalf of Black students at Fuller. One of these demands includes the development and implementation of Title VI (non-discrimination) and Title VII (non-discrimination in employment) policies to address incidents of racial discrimination.

Ally Henny is an online student at Fuller who has been intimately involved in the development and dissemination of content for the protest on social media. Henny wrote an article for The Witness: A Black Christian Collective titled “Seminary While Black: How One Institution’s Toxic Culture is Causing a Black Exodus.”

In an interview with Faithfully Magazine, Henny commented on what she says is a disconnect between Fuller’s stated vision for diversity and its practice of prioritizing White culture:

“There has been an exodus of Black faculty, and that has been the result of what we feel is Fuller’s toxic culture. Fuller gives the impression that they want to be racially inclusive and racially and ethnically diverse. They say they want to do that, but the faculty and staff are overwhelmingly White. The culture of the institution is White culture…the curriculum is very White-cultured.”

Henny made special reference to the loss of a Black female faculty member whose scholastic abilities Fuller has been accused of not valuing. Henny made reference to claims that the faculty member’s work was plagiarized by another faculty member, although the seminary denies the claim.

Esperanza Terrell, one of the students at the forefront of the Fuller protest, spoke at the June 7, 2018 Baccalaureate service, saying in part:

“…We have experienced a significant Black exodus of faculty and staff during Dr. Labberton’s presidency. This is not a matter of the past. This is the past and the present. This is a current crisis not to be mocked, not to be swept away, and not to be pacified. We are not pacified. God is not mocked. This is not a joke. The way we treat each other is the way we treat Christ. Jesus is not playing with his children. This is a seminary. For us to be a declaration to the world of racism is against the gospel of Christ. It is the spirit of the antichrist. It is a delusion of who Jesus truly is and it is a disgust to the witness of God to this broken world. It is already trying to search for answers in other places besides God.”

Following the demonstration, Fuller released a series of responses. In a response dated June 22, 2018, seminary President Mark Labberton remarked:

“African American narratives, thought, scholarship, leadership, formation, and influence must become a deep, significant, and permanent part of Fuller because we want to be a place where African Americans can thrive. But we also need these gifts from African Americans for Fuller to thrive as we internalize the changes that face us and that Christ calls upon us not just to claim but to embody for all members of Fuller’s community.”

To take steps toward institutional change, Fuller recently created the position of Associate Provost for Faculty Inclusion and Equity and appointed longtime Fuller Professor of Psychology, Dr. Alexis Abernathy, to take on that role. In this position, Dr. Abernathy is responsible for “foster[ing] transformational change in the mission and life of the seminary by identifying barriers and promoting advocacy through recruitment, retention, and development of faculty from underrepresented populations.” Additionally, Dr. Abernathy will be tasked with ensuring that “syllabi content and teaching approaches will reflect a more culturally informed lens, helping to build capacity for persons and for the institution as it relates to diversity, inclusion, and equity.”

Whether these responses and actions by Fuller will spearhead the necessary and sufficient institutional changes protesters have demanded is still unclear. Overturning longstanding institutional cultures, habits, policies, and preferences is no easy feat, and simple, quick solutions or minor adjustments are unlikely to make lasting positive impacts. Likewise, only time will tell if #SeminaryWhileBlack will be a trailblazer for movements and protests at other Evangelical educational institutions and seminaries similar to Fuller.

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    Written by Charlotte Beard

    Charlotte R. Beard's inspirational byline has appeared in The St. Louis American and her weekly bylines appear on the front pages of the St. Louis County – Community News. She also writes a monthly feature for their magazine. Follow her on Instagram @char_writesforyou and read more of her work at clippings.me/charthewriter.

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