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Abilene Universities Take New Steps On Diversity: McMurry

Courtesy of Elizabeth Behlen
A crew of McMurry students prepares to erect a tipi in 2015.

The racial reckoning since George Floyd’s death has made many institutions, individuals, businesses and local governments take a hard look at how they do things. Statues honoring Confederate figures have been removed. Products, like Aunt Jemima, re-branded. 

Higher education is also making changes. Take UT Austin, for example. After calls to address racism on campus, the university announced it would add statues honoring Civil Rights leaders, and rename some public spaces. And that movement extends beyond Texas’s flagship university. 

This week, we explore how Abilene's three private universities are reshaping their campuses to be more inclusive.  

McMurry was founded by James Hunt, a well-known Methodist educator, in 1923. Reverend Marty CashBurless is the University’s chaplain and director of religious life. “The start of the history is the start of the first president of McMurry who grew up as the son of a missionary in a missionary setting in a Native American community.”

CashBurless says, that upbringing inspired Hunt to make the Indians the school’s first mascot. In the early 1950s, the school leaned into that, starting a homecoming event called Tipi Village. Members of student clubs spent months learning facts about Native American tribes and built tipis on a university lawn. Club members dressed in costumes to greet guests from Abilene, and beyond, who’d come tour Tipi Village during homecoming week. 

It eventually became the central event of the university’s calendar. 

This summer, though, University President Sandra Harper said the school was contacted by a tribe member who had concerns about the event. Ultimately, McMurry’s Board of Trustees voted to end the Tipi Village permanently.

In a video publicizing the school’s decision, Harper explained: “The practice of unaffiliated tribal members wearing costumes and telling the stories of the tribes could be perceived by some to be dishonoring the tribes.”

McMurry alumni Elizabeth Behlen disagrees with the board’s decision.  “I understand where they are coming from with it, and I wouldn’t be as upset about it if we didn’t receive the tribes’ blessing and work with them closely," Behlen said.  "It was hard. It was something that meant a lot to the students and the alumni.”

Credit Courtesy of Elizabeth Behlen
Elizabeth Behlen, Caitie Dyer, and Kaitlyn Summers at McMurry's Tipi Village in 2015.

Conversations on the university’s Facebook page show Behlen was one of dozens of McMurry alumni disappointed by the move. Behlen says that extends beyond the campus.  “And then there’s so many children who have many fond memories of learning about these tribes. I personally believe taking that away from the community hinders many more children from learning about these cultures and histories.”

Others support the decision, and say it’s another positive step for McMurry. The University had already made one significant cultural change in 2006. That year, the NCAA forced schools to drop mascots with insensitive references to minority cultures. University Chaplain CashBurless says, McMurry’s generic “Indians” mascot was one of those.  “So we couldn’t really accurately reflect anybody.”

In 2011, the university adopted the War Hawk mascot. Something school leaders considered a nod to their founding history. Chaplain CashBurless wasn’t a part of that decision, but today, she is part of a team working to honor the longstanding relationships the University has developed with Native American groups.  “I’m trying to figure out ways for us to respectfully put some closure on it for our alumni, who are very sad, somewhat irate some of them, but also for the Native American communities that we’ve tried to represent.” Cashburless said.

Today, McMurray’s student body is fairly diverse, more than 45 % of its 1,200 students have a minority ethnic background. Vice President for Student Affairs Sam Ferguson says the university works to develop leadership skills that help students bridge gaps between unique experiences, while acknowledging differences.  “I think the credit truly goes to our faculty and our staff who really empower our students to believe in themselves and step-up to take on leadership roles.”  He points to a partnership between students and staff called the Better Together Alliance. It’s created things like a safe prayer room for Muslim students and supported the founding of a Black Student Union on campus. 

Those efforts are encouraging to student body president Jaquay Thomas.  “As much as the university promotes diversity it has also had a humble check as well.”  This summer, Thomas has been a part of reading groups the school hosted, where Black students can share their experiences with faculty. “Within those book readings, I can say that, faculty and staff has honestly really been open to suggestions, really been open to listening.”  Thomas is excited that students have returned to campus this week so more of this work can take place. He says it will be easier to evaluate what works and what doesn’t when McMurry can get feedback from the whole campus community on how they can all make positive changes together.