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Abilene Universities Take New Steps On Diversity: HSU

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The racial reckoning after George Floyd’s death has sparked change across the country including at some high profile universities in the Lone Star State. At Texas A&M this summer, black students shared their stories of racism on campus. A&M leaders responded by committing to a race relations task force, a large scholarship fund to support diversity and a commission to evaluate statues and monuments on campus. Some students are still calling for the school to remove a statue of Sullivan Ross, a confederate general. 

The momentum extends beyond the state’s largest universities. This week, we’re looking at how three small private universities in Abilene are trying to reshape their campus culture.

About 2,400 people attend HSU today. Holly Edwards, Associate Dean of Students, says the university emphasizes celebrating the diversity of its student body. About 40% identify as ethnicities other than white.  “We do believe that we learn from each other’s differences and we learn about ourself and we learn about others in those,” Edwards says.  “And so this is an important piece of our education here at Hardin-Simmons.”

Outside of this corner of Texas, you’d be forgiven for not knowing about the school. But it got some unwanted media attention this summer, when one of its students, a white woman, dressed in an HSU shirt, posted a racist TikTok video.  In it, the student mocks responses to the deaths of Black people killed by white people.  The video went viral. HSU junior Alize Dragoo says while she thinks that woman’s entitled to share whatever she wants, she should not have been wearing a school shirt.  “Whether it’s right or whether it’s wrong, she has her opinion. That is not what Hardin Simmons as a united campus stands for.”Dragoo says.

It is, quite literally, not what the school stands for. The Simmons in its name refers to James B. Simmons, a Baptist preacher and abolitionist who provided seed funding for the university. On it’s website, the school notes Simmons believed, “education should be available to students no matter their race, gender, or social class.”

HSU responded swiftly to the incident. Days after the viral post, the school shared a video from university president Eric Bruntmyer. He said, the student behind the racist TikTok post was no longer enrolled.  “We do not want to condone behavior that questions people’s worth, their value, their dignity or their equality,” Bruntmyer said in the video.

HSU President Eric Bruntmyer speaks with families outside of his office.
Credit Courtesy of Hardin Simmons University

Alize Dragoo thinks the university handled the situation well, though she says not all students agree with her.  “A lot of people think President Bruntmyer didn’t say what he was supposed to say or what he should have said. I think he did an amazing job. He kept us in the loop.”

Dragoo’s also noticed changes on campus. Like at new student orientation. She says HSU’s Black Student Union, Proven, shared their plans and goals for the year.  “Last year I can’t remember that happening. They got to talk to the new incoming students that are Black about what to expect on campus and how to get involved in different things like that.”

Dean Holly Edwards says that getting involved, meeting and interacting with new, different people, is an essential part of creating a safe and quality college experience.  ”Knowing we have these students for a really limited time and so we have the opportunity to teach and to grow them, and for them to be transformed then citizens of the world. We’re providing more opportunities to connect ethnically and experientally.”  Like in a seminar all first year students participate in. Edwards says it includes self-discovery exercises designed to help them understand their own life experiences, and hear the unique experiences of others. 

The Dean says there will be more changes coming, to help faculty, staff and students challenge their own racial biases.  “We’re creating a diversity council that has faculty, staff and students that sit on it. So I think out of that will come some programming. Something good we’re adding in this year that allows for voices across campus, from the students to the faculty.”  The HSU human resources office will require diversity training for faculty and staff this year, as well as mandatory diversity education training for student leaders. 

That resonates with student Alize Dragoo. She says raising awareness is the primary way to combat the anger and hostility in society that continues to hurt Black students at Hardin Simmons, and Black people everywhere. The last few months have been challenging, but Dragoo says she’s hopeful.  “It’s been hard to figure out how I can share my passion for Hardin Simmons and my passion for not having a white and a black side, but having one because that is what Christ created us to be - is one!” Dragoo says.  “But Ultimately Hardin Simmons is my home and it's the place where I belong. I have faculty and staff that care about me.” 

She thinks the university’s focused on guiding students like her to be impactful members of any community they join.