urbana 2012

You can’t beat New Year’s Eve with 16,000 super enthusiastic college students. I spent Dec 27-31 at a conference held by the group I studied for my dissertation/be-out-in-a-few-months book, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. It was a great opportunity to catch up with friends, spread the word about the book, and of course, make some observations about race. Urbana is a fascinating site to observe dynamics related to race, evangelical culture, and college students.

It was fun bumping into folks who were undergrads when I did fieldwork. One who is now on staff with IVCF gave me some updates on the chapter at “California University,” which made me realize how dynamic and ever-changing student communities are. Without giving away too much, when I ended fieldwork in 2008, Black student participation in IVCF was fairly low–which I argue was reflective of how institutional demography (all-time low Black enrollment at CU due to Prop 209, the statewide ban on affirmative action) intersects with organizational culture (IVCF somewhat dropping the ball on race during most of the school year and slipping in its intentionality around cultivating a multiethnic community). I ended the book with some pretty dreary conclusions–while IVCF made efforts to reignite its commitment to multiethnicity/racial reconciliation, including revising how Black and Latino/a student outreach/ministry was conducted and integrated into the community, the group was always going to hit a wall in its ability to support diversity due to the demographic limitations of the institution, where Black enrollment is around 3% of the student body. Simply put, it’s virtually impossible to sustain a racially diverse student subculture without a racially diverse student body.

Well, don’t discount the impossible, especially when it comes to college students.

According to my source, 4 years after fieldwork, Black student participation in IVCF has recovered substantially through Black Campus Ministries (the community’s small group for Black students) and BCM students who are involved in the broader, multiethnic IVCF chapter. The prior all-time high for Black participation in IVCF was 2003, when 41 out of IVCF’s 215 students were Black, and I think the #s are fairly similar now. When you consider that only about 1000 out of 28K CU undergraduates are Black, it’s pretty impressive that about 4% of all Black undergraduates at CU participate in IVCF. The deck is seriously stacked against this happening, given all the research on how interracial friendship and cross-racial interaction drop when campus diversity is low.

My initial reaction was “oh shoot, the book is already at the printer.” My second reaction was, “oh shoot, was I totally wrong when I said that having a multiethnic IVCF in a Prop 209 university was nearly impossible?”

Well, good thing I said “nearly” because really, it really is nearly impossible. When you consider that these racially diverse groups are hard to come by even at more diverse institutions where the demographic conditions are more favorable, what we’re really seeing here is a near-miracle in organizational culture. As my book argues, org culture + institutional demography = subculture demography. The optimal conditions for a racially diverse student subculture are where the organization is committed to nurturing an organizational culture that’s intentional about attracting and retaining diversity (Read chapter 1 for how IVCF at CU did this) AND one where the demographic conditions are favorable for diverse student subcultures (ie, a racially diverse student body). When one of the two is weak, you’re really swimming against the tide because of their interdependent nature. Both are necessary but insufficient on their own to produce racially diverse student subcultures.

In the case of the chapter at CU, the demographic conditions at CU are really flat out terrible for a racially diverse student subculture, but somehow the staff team and student community has really gone the extra mile to nurture an organizational culture that is squeezing the life out of the demographic conditions at CU–(in a good way) optimizing the tinnnnny amount of diversity that exists at CU.* So basically when demographic conditions stink, org culture becomes all the more crucial, and it looks like the IVCF chapter at CU has really stepped up the intentionality in making the best out of an unfavorable demographic landscape. Unfortunately, most student subcultures in higher ed won’t invest the intentionality that a group like IVCF is willing to nurture. As I document in the book, it takes serious effort to change organizational culture, reframe values, stick it out through discomfort, etc.

*The demographic conditions at CU are still terrible, but Black enrollment at CU is SLIGHTLY up from the time of my fieldwork. I don’t think it’s anything to write home about, but it’s something.

(Interestingly, according to my source, as Black participation in IVCF is thriving, White participation has gone down somewhat. This surprised me a little because when I was there, the White students in IVCF seemed to be a self-selected bunch that was fairly open to multiethnicity. As someone said during the study, if they wanted to be with all White kids, they would have gone to XYZ, another campus fellowship that was predominantly White. However, it might be that the White students who are pretty comfortable when diversity = White + Asian + a few Latinos may be less comfortable when Black participation goes up. It’ll be interesting to see if/how IVCF seeks to retain White students.)

So I think my findings on the interdependent nature between org culture and demographic conditions still stand (phew)–but am glad that the IVCF community at CU has been able to once again nurture an org culture that’s conducive to diversity/racial rec. They’re doing some pretty serious swimming against the tide.

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