Race on Campus

Engage in higher ed’s conversations about racial equity and inclusion. Delivered on Tuesdays.

March 30, 2021

From: Sarah Brown

Subject: Race on Campus: A 'Toxic' Campus Climate?

Welcome to Race on Campus. California Lutheran University nearly doubled its share of faculty members of color in four years. The numbers pointed to success, but feedback on campus climate says the story is more complicated. Our Sarah Brown reports on how the college is responding.

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Numbers Don’t Tell the Whole Story.

Five years ago, California Lutheran University had a diversity problem. While half of its students were people of color, more than 80 percent of its faculty members were white.

Cal Lutheran’s leaders brought in consultants and revamped the hiring process, nearly doubling the share of faculty members of color, to 30 percent from 17 percent, by 2020.

By numerical measures, the college succeeded. But that’s not the whole story.

Last month, Cal Lutheran’s accreditor sent the college a “notice of concern” describing troubling issues with its culture.

“The issues of campus climate, retention of faculty of color, the rate at which faculty of color leave Cal Lutheran rose to the forefront of every faculty discussion,” wrote the accreditor, the WASC Senior College and University Commission, in an accompanying report. “Campus climate was repeatedly referred to as toxic.”

There was a “shared campus perception” that professors of color were overextended. The accreditor praised the university’s new equity and retention programs for students of color, but noted that professors of color ended up largely responsible for creating, managing, and seeking funding for those new programs. And those faculty members didn’t feel like their time and efforts were rewarded.

The accreditor also noted that Cal Lutheran had created new affinity groups, and that departments had taken steps to support their faculty members of color. But there was “no formal mechanism” for people to raise concerns or enact change.

Cal Lutheran remains in good standing with its accreditor, but the notice means it’s “in danger” of violating the commission’s standards. Colleges that violate such standards are at risk of losing accreditation and access to federal financial aid.

The accreditor’s report also pointed to a troubling reality for students of color, noting that Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ students felt “less physically safe on campus.”

Cal Lutheran must now take steps to improve student inclusion, address “pockets of toxic work culture,” and improve the diversity of the senior leadership team and board, the report said.

Faculty members contacted by The Chronicle declined to be interviewed.

Lori E. Varlotta, Cal Lutheran’s new president, said the accreditor’s points largely affirmed what she and other leaders already knew.

The university’s diversity efforts were well intentioned, said Varlotta, who arrived in September, but there wasn’t a structure in place to support them. Programs and resources across the campus were disconnected. No one was in charge of diversity at the highest levels of leadership.

Cal Lutheran is now about to hire its first vice president in charge of inclusion, a cabinet-level position, as well as a director of faculty development and inclusive excellence, who will be responsible for helping professors diversify their curricula. (The accreditor directed the university to “commit to culturally sensitive pedagogical practices.”) Cal Lutheran is also about to unveil a revamped bias-incident reporting system.

Varlotta believes the negative perceptions of the campus climate were influenced by the timing of the accreditor’s visit, which happened virtually in December, amid the difficulties of the pandemic and continued conversations about racial injustice. “We’re part of the larger world situation right now where the pressures of social justice are acutely felt, and they should be,” she said.

Moreover, she said, the university community was never able to fully process what happened in February 2020, when racist social-media posts by students shook the campus shortly before learning went remote.

“It was the perfect storm,” she said.

Growing Diversity Can Cause Tensions.

The notice of concern is the latest development in Cal Lutheran’s years-long, bumpy journey to improve faculty diversity and racial equity. The university, located in Thousand Oaks, Calif., has sought to unite Lutheran values with a campus that reflects the demographics of the state’s diverse population. The university became a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a status given to colleges with at least 25 percent Hispanic students, in 2016.

Cal Lutheran’s accreditor pointed out a lack of faculty diversity during its 2015 campus visit. The team noted that the faculty’s racial diversity had not improved between 2007 and 2014, and described “a passive, even anemic approach to faculty hiring and recruitment, in spite of good intentions.”

After that visit, Cal Lutheran leaders hired the University of Southern California’s Center for Urban Education to work with the campus throughout 2016 on reshaping faculty searches, spending $100,000 for the center’s help.

The 2016 review prompted big changes. The university targeted candidates who’d want to work with the university’s diverse student population, created an anti-bias checklist for different stages of the faculty-search process, and added an equity advocate to each search committee. The advocates are trained faculty members who intervene when they hear biased language, or when committees stray from the university’s equity principles.

Leanne Neilson, the provost, said the university is proud of the progress so far. When recruiting faculty of color, Neilson said, she and others emphasize the strides made at both the faculty and student levels, such as the fact that retention and graduation rates for Hispanic students are higher than those for white students.

But she acknowledged that success doesn’t just come from changing job ads, rubrics, and processes. As diversity grows in any organization, there are tensions.

The university is taking steps to ensure that faculty members have a voice by redoing its shared-governance structure, Neilson said. Cal Lutheran’s faculty created a Faculty Senate a year ago. The university is also reviewing promotion and tenure standards to ensure that scholars of color are rewarded when they shoulder more responsibilities, she said.

“Right now the criteria are a bit vague,” she said. “There’s not a real place for acknowledging the DEI work that faculty are doing and the extra efforts in the areas of service that our faculty of color are putting in.”

Read Up.

  • When Black surfers were called a racial slur on Manhattan Beach in California, it started a movement to end racism in surf culture. (Los Angeles Times)
  • After Howard Bauchner said on a podcast that structural racism is an “unfortunate term,” the deputy editor at The Journal of the American Medical Association was placed on administrative leave. (The New York Times)
  • This year Harvard University will publish a report about its ties to slavery. The institution’s statements about the report center around slavery, and rarely mention Harvard’s run-in with the Ku Klux Klan during the 20th century. The student newspaper chronicled the history. (The Crimson)
  • A history professor at the University of Texas at Austin breaks down the history of the song “The Eyes of Texas.” Spoiler alert: His research shows that the song was, in fact, inspired by a statement made by General Robert E. Lee to encourage Southern troops during the Civil War. (Medium)


Sarah Brown covers campus culture, including Title IX, race and diversity, and student mental health. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at