An Open Letter to the Biola Community
After discussions and deliberations comes decisions on diversity that go well beyond the future of the Jesus Mural.
From the Office of the President
September 22, 2010
Dear Biola Community,
When I arrived at Biola University in the summer of 2007, I began to listen as members of this community shared their convictions on Biola University’s commitment to the breadth of God’s people. This was not only a conviction I held deeply, but the openness of Biola to all people has been a founding principle of this institution, long before diversity was being championed in contemporary American higher education.
I spoke about this during my inauguration address, November 2, 2007:
At the laying of the first cornerstone of Biola in Los Angeles in 1913, its leaders stated that “its doors [would be]…open every day in the year, and all people, without reference to race, color, class, creed, or previous condition, will ever be welcome to its privileges.” Now more than ever we must reinforce this expectation of Biola [University] to attract and nurture a diversity representing different ethnicities and cultures across both faculty/staff and student populations. In so doing we are moving to become more than ever a university that reflects the breadth of God’s people across the country and around the world.
I also began to hear my first year at Biola about the varying perceptions of the Jesus Mural, The Word, and its place as the only piece of prominent public art on campus. Many loved this mural because it was Jesus Christ, the center of our university, holding out the Word of God, the foundation of our university. To them, the mural was a symbol unifying the community. Others believed that this singular piece of art portrayed a Jesus whose skin color resembled the dominantly white composition of Biola, leaving a sense of marginalization for students of color. To them, the mural was a symbol dividing the community. Both of these perspectives, and every opinion in between, needed to be heard and unpacked. It was obvious, like a healthy family, we needed to talk to each other. But more than that, we needed to listen to each other.
Within my first year, a proposal came across my desk to restore The Word. Though this was a decision I could have made then, it was not a decision I should have made then. And so, I deferred indefinitely any approval of a restoration. We still had a lot to talk about as a community before any steps would be taken on what to do with the Jesus Mural, and we had a bigger conversation that needed to take place about the role of theology, race, art and community. This would take some time. We needed to wait before any decision on restoring the mural was made as we set up intentional times to talk as a community, and to talk deeply, honestly and with grace. Much of our talking really meant listening carefully to each other with a desire to understand what we heard. We also needed to pray and seek the heart of God.
Much has happened since that spring semester of 2008. And during these intervening two years, no one has given more time to a measured, thoughtful and well-organized process to these conversations than Dr. Pete Menjares, Associate Provost for Diversity Leadership, and Mr. Glen Kinoshita, Director of Multi-Ethnic Programs. Dr. Menjares was the champion Biola University needed as we opened the conversation beyond the Jesus Mural and the lingering question: should it stay or should it go? On behalf of the global community of Biola University, I am and future generations will be indebted to the work and Christ-honoring leadership of Dr. Pete Menjares and Mr. Glen Kinoshita. I have been deeply impressed with the integrity and the sincerity of the process, a process I pray will go a long way toward reconciling strained relationships.
Coming to a decision about restoring or removing the mural was a small part of the answer. More than an answer, though, we needed a conversation. We needed to become more comfortable talking about issues that are often uncomfortable, with strong opinions on every side. Those who felt that keeping the Jesus Mural was a “no brainer” were not listening to those who felt that this piece of art we inherited into our family needed a fuller discussion because it was alienating others. More than anything, what Biola University needed to do was to walk through this issue in a way that was both biblically faithful and Christ honoring. This would take time. We have been, are and will be on a God-ordained journey in this important Jesus Mural discussion. What I desire—and I believe we all desire—is simply to know the heart of God and make decisions in that spirit.
Much has happened over the past two years. We commissioned papers. We held open forums. We planned chapel services. The artist, Kent Twitchell, visited campus and addressed the students. Faculty held symposia. We held a series on “Art and the City.” We produced and presented a document on the theological imperatives for diversity. Members of the community posted blogs and wrote articles. We arranged structured sessions for opinions to be expressed. In a beautiful expression of our faith, people began to pray—alone and collectively—for wisdom, reconciliation, healing and renewal. I was amazed and humbled at the thorough—though far from exhaustive—way in which this community, under the wise direction and counsel of many faculty members, students, staff, alumni and administrators, led these intentional conversations.
We are in a process, a journey, that has no end line. I pray, therefore, that my decisions are not chapter closers. Rather, my deepest desire is that we are creating a culture of conversation around an important and complex issue, an issue about which we all should care deeply. Even with my decisions, the conversation should not end. Even with my decisions, no group should feel it won or lost. It’s not about claiming a victory, nor about acknowledging a defeat. It is about learning together and moving forward with a deeper understanding of who we are as Christian sisters and brothers and as a community where we are moving toward being reconciled with each other through Christ.
In preparing this memo, I was reminded by Dr. Menjares of the last statement of affirmation that appears in the faculty-authored Statement of Theological Imperatives for Diversity document, and in particular the part that speaks to ongoing challenges and momentary setbacks:
We will model and champion a campus environment that celebrates achievements in diversity with humility while also acknowledging the reality of ongoing challenges and momentary setbacks leading to a renewed and heightened commitment to the theological imperatives that form the basis of our diverse community.
Toward the end of this letter, I will lay out my decisions regarding the Jesus Mural and the larger context of my aspirations for Biola. This prologue, however, is meant to dissuade those at Biola and beyond from celebrating or grieving my decision as an end in and of itself. Decisions have to be made, and they must be made after a season of listening. But I need to say again, the conversation is not over. Those are nearsighted who think that a decision means we can shut the door and move on. In a Christian community, decisions are never the occasion to exacerbate divisions and harden opinions on both sides. If my decisions cause this, I will be deeply grieved. Why? Because we have spent a lot of time giving opportunity to talk through the broader themes of racial reconciliation, of the role of art at a university like Biola and of our biblical convictions. These discussions must not end.
At the same time, disappointment is inevitable, given the nature of the controversy and its complexities. We can have confidence, however, in the fact that the process of discussion and engagement of the issues surrounding the controversy has been conducted with integrity, humility, prayer and out of a sincere desire to honor God. Dr. Menjares shared with me over the summer that he is praying—a prayer that many of us have also been praying—that Biola University will emerge with a “renewed and heightened commitment” to diversity and to the theological imperatives that form their basis.
I also pray that through this process we will continue to be repentant people. I confess that repentance and forgiveness must be evident whenever any of us has been too quick to dismiss another’s opinion. True repentance must come about from those who have sinned by being slow to listen and quick to judge, and this is true as individuals as well as a community. May the Holy Spirit in the right time open hearts to acknowledge our transgressions and to seek each other’s forgiveness. The only issue where I pray for closure is marking an end to the 20-year debate and the beginning of a new sense of Philippians 2 living:
• Share in the same love
• Be one in spirit and purpose
• Don’t do anything out of selfish ambition or vain conceit
• In humility consider others better than you are
• Look not only to your own interests, but also to each other’s
I agree with others who suggest the need for a confession of our imperfections and inadequacies in the areas of inter-ethnic relations and our shortcomings at achieving a diverse and grace-filled community. I also pray that this will come about in a way that diminishes blame and enriches the bigger picture of a Christian community that acknowledges, understands and appreciates the uniqueness of “the other.”
In order for Biola University to be positioned to provide a quality education for all of our students and continue to foster a climate of mutual respect and understanding, we must keep the conversation going. I can’t say enough about how important this will be for us to thrive in our increasingly multi-cultural university. As I met with some campus leaders on Monday to give them a pre-announcement of my decisions, I was once again struck by the caliber of this community and the wisdom of our many faculty, staff and student leaders who share in the desire that we work hard toward understanding and embracing each other amidst our differences.
As president, I have made some decisions and through this process have also reinforced and accelerated some existing recommendations where actions will need to be made in the coming year. Dr. Menjares has given me feedback on my decisions and their implications, feedback that I have listened to and trusted. But the decisions are mine to make, and I acknowledge that no decision is perfect.
The following are the four dimensions of my decisions, and I recognize that some of these steps have already been communicated to the Biola community:
1. A Renewed and Heightened Commitment to Biblical Diversity: Our University Plan makes it clear that we will not unwind the movement toward being a campus that embraces and celebrates diversity at all of its levels. We have made much progress in recent years, but we are far from being done. As one person in our community has said, our efforts will have no finish line. Our University Plan lists twelve aspirations—all to include programmatic implementation—several of which speak directly to our multi-cultural ambitions. They read:
a. Biola University will equip our students as whole persons to be followers of Christ in service to a needy world. We commit to prepare our students to view others as God views them, courageously loving those different than themselves and taking on the great challenges of our day.
b. Biola University will acknowledge, value and embrace a diversity that enriches our community as we become a place of reception for people across the breadth of God’s people.
c. Biola University will prepare our students to be intellectually and experientially cross-cultural Christians, effectively able to live out the gospel in diverse settings and provide servant leadership across the world.
2. The Jesus Mural: The Jesus Mural has been a part of our community for nearly 20 years. As I have thought about this mural, I have not been convinced that removing well-intentioned—though provocative—objects of art from a campus like Biola is the answer. Rather, I prefer it be restored to its original condition to retain the artist’s intent and desire to depict the important and time-honored Biola conviction of Jesus as the Word made flesh. I have decided to approve the restoration of the Jesus Mural, complete with the replanting of an olive tree, an important element of the original artwork. This will take time to coordinate and to complete. With this restored mural, I am proposing the following to give necessary context to the important conversations this mural has elicited over the years:
a. A marker will be placed at the base of the mural explaining: i) the artist’s intent and inspiration, ii) a visual display of a sampling of Kent Twitchell’s other works (e.g., 111th Street Jesus) and iii) an explanation of and an acknowledgement that the mural has been a source of controversy and even pain within our community.
b. Campus tours for incoming students will include a discussion about the nature of the Jesus Mural, its contribution as well as its controversy.
c. Faculty will be encouraged to teach to the issues surrounding the controversy as there will always be an element of discomfort with the mural on the part of some. In this regard, we are fortunate to have generated a corpus of papers and presentations that can serve as a teaching resource for use by faculty, staff and students. A key point here is that we should never intentionally stir up controversy for the sake of debate but we should also not shy away from the issues. Instead, we should be active in addressing racial sensitivities or insensitivities, theological differences, artistic expressions and academic freedom concerns.
3. Commissioning of a New Mural: As a campus short on public artwork that captures the full expression of our community’s convictions and multi-cultural diversity, we need to accelerate the variety of art we have on campus. I have made the decision to begin expanding our art expressions by commissioning the conception of a new mural to be painted on the face of a prominent Biola building. I also anticipate this will mark the beginning of other large and prominent pieces of public art that will continue to create a montage of creative expressions reflecting our convictions and our aspirations.
A special task force will be commissioned to establish the themes and to guide the process, and this task force will be diverse in its composition, its members drawn from the University Diversity Leadership Committee, Art Department faculty, University Aesthetics Committee and student leadership. This task force will begin this fall 2010 semester with the task of researching new artwork, a project I hope will begin in earnest toward a start date in 2011. We need to step up the role and place of public art at Biola University.
4. In these recent months, I believe that a “renewed and heightened” commitment to diversity should be more clearly visible and concrete, unequivocally communicating the university’s values in this area. A few of the areas that stand out as having particular promise in this regard are:
a. Create a Mosaic Cultural Center: The University leadership is committed to getting behind a formal launch of the Mosaic Cultural Center. This will take some time in determining the right physical space for the center where dialogue, fellowship and programming can take place and to allocate the University funding. A launching of the center would communicate the value of diversity and learning in a university setting and also go a long way to validate the center and its purposes.
b. Cross-Cultural Initiative Next Steps: We will make movement this year toward several of the recommendations made to the President’s Administrative Council (PAC) regarding the findings of the Cross-Cultural Task Force charged with investigating what it would take to provide every Biola undergraduate with a significant cross-cultural experience by the time they graduate. To do so, we will allocate funding and personnel this year toward its first stages of implementation.
c. A Restructuring of the Office of Diversity Leadership: Over the course of the next six months, Provost David Nystrom will be seeking input, giving thought and taking steps to restructure the Office of Diversity Leadership toward an approach to diversity that is campus-wide, framed positively and empowered to effect change. This includes measurable steps toward our general educational requirements that are more multi-culturally relevant.
d. Returning to Los Angeles: Given our location and history with the city of Los Angeles and the globalization of the greater Los Angeles metropolis, we have a unique opportunity—a calling—to reconnect with the city in new ways. We have a lot to offer the city, and we have a lot to learn from the city. It is my intention that by this winter we will have begun rolling out our Los Angeles initiatives assuring that our educational mission is being fulfilled in the city so as to return to our historical roots and remain biblically faithful in serving the city.
e. Celebrating Art at Biola in 2011-2012: We need a campus-wide renewal of the arts as they are understood publicly. Several among the leadership at Biola have been working with me on selecting a theme for 2011-2012 and integrating that theme through a celebration of the arts, beginning with the national conference of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) being hosted by Biola University in June of 2011. My anticipation is that this theme will be integrated into our academic work of the university next year and will include significant artwork loans, speakers, specialty events, a visionary/artist-in-residence, additional commissioned artwork (such as a sculpture) and integration into the curriculum and co-curriculum.
These are the decisions, but the hard work is just beginning. We have many action steps before us as well as the work of preparing each other for a “living” conversation that will have no end date. There’s been a lot of talking. Now it’s time for our work to begin. And we have a lot of work to do.
This letter reflects countless hours of work that have taken place these past several years by many as we’ve prepared to take some specific steps that I did not feel prepared to take when I arrived. Listening has made for me a remarkable difference. The decisions I have made will certainly be questioned by some and celebrated by others. Still others will agree with some dimensions and disagree with other dimensions. I understand this.
But as I shared with the faculty during its conference in August, my prayer is that our unity grows and our influence in the wider Christian community continues as we move forward with a common vision and kindred spirit. I know firsthand that sometimes leadership demands standing alone when making decisions, but more often than not leadership is a shared virtue rather than a solo act. And so it must be for the community of Biola University as we head into the years to come. We are a family at Biola.
May our prayer be like that of the Apostle Paul, that our love will overflow more and more, and that we will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding and in doing so, uphold the words spoken in 1913 by our founding father, Lyman Stewart, that all people, without reference to race, color, class, creed or previous condition, will ever be welcome to the privileges this institution has to offer.
Yours in Christ,
Barry H. Corey