Art by Samantha Miller
On March 18, Seaver Dean Michael Feltner announced Paul Begin, the former divisional dean of International Studies, would begin a three-year contract as associate dean of General Education and Curriculum starting Aug. 1. Before his official appointment, Begin worked as the interim dean since 2019.
In his role, Begin — and the other nine members of the GE Review Committee — said he is leading the charge to overhaul the Pepperdine General Education program, which hasn’t been updated in over 20 years.
Begin said he and the committee are focusing specifically on the Humanities and Teacher Education (HUTE) Division, because it is the least diverse division — both in faculty and curriculum — at Pepperdine. Although all undergraduate students must interact with the division because it houses several of the GE requirements, it doesn’t reflect the cultural makeup of Pepperdine students or the subjects they want to study.
“The issue that we’re looking at on the GE Review Committee is diversity,” Begin said. “I want Pepperdine to be a welcoming place. I want people to be able to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Black man from Michigan, and yeah, I had to take this Humanities 111 class, but I also got to take this course that is a little more what I like to learn about,’ so people can also dabble a bit in their own identity. I want students to have a little bit of both — learn about others and also deepen what [they] know about themselves.”
The Division Doesn’t Reflect the Student Population
Data shows the faculty within the HUTE Division, as well as the curriculum they teach, do not align with the ethnic makeup of Seaver College. According to Pepperdine’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness Fall 2020 Enrollment Census, the ethnic breakdown of Seaver students is 42% white, 18% Hispanic/Latino, 10% Asian, 10% International, 12% Other/Unknown and 9% African American.
Despite these statistics that present a diverse student population, the faculty at Seaver College is largely homogenous. According to the OIE’s Fall Semester Census of full and part-time faculty members, Seaver faculty are 77% white. Even less diverse are the HUTE faculty, who are 88% white.
“Implicitly, this lack of diverse faculty is a disservice to all our students who should experience diverse faculty and learn from them, imbuing them with tacit knowledge that competency comes in all shapes and sizes,” Film Program Director and Professor Joi Carr wrote in an email.
Except for that of the Film department, the curriculum in the other departments within the HUTE Division focuses almost exclusively on Western or Eurocentric history, literature, art and culture.
Begin said he recognizes classes within the HUTE Division, specifically the 3-class GE Humanities sequence, focus too heavily on Western culture, and this is something he wants to change.
“In our case, it’s actually more than three classes because a lot of classes, whether we realize it, are informed by and privilege Western culture,” Begin said. “But let’s try and say, ‘Here are other ways of being like, here are other cultures to learn about,’ and not privileging one so much over the other. It’s so overdone here.”
Why Are Pepp Faculty so Homogenous?
Begin said there are many reasons why academia at Seaver College, especially in the HUTE Division, is so whitewashed. As a small, Church of Christ college in Southern California, Pepperdine’s niche environment can be a barrier in attracting diverse faculty, despite the University’s efforts to hire more people from underrepresented groups.
“Our Church of Christ identity really impacted early in Pepperdine’s inception — and still impacts to this day — our hiring practices,” Begin said. “We always tried to hire people who have ties to the Churches of Christ, and we still pursue that. So you’ve got to have people who are from the same faith background but also have PhDs.”
According to recent data from the Pew Research Center, the Churches of Christ in the United States were 69% white in 2014. Additionally, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that in 2014-15, white students earned 61% of all doctoral degrees. Finally, a 2004 study from the Modern Language Association of America found that 82.6% of Humanities faculty members at four-year institutions were white or non-Hispanic.
These statistics exemplify Begin’s point: the number of candidates who meet Pepperdine’s unique criteria for the HUTE Division — Church of Christ-affiliated, PhD-level, Humanities-specialized — who are also people of color is severely limited.
It shouldn’t be assumed, however, that professors of color want to work at Pepperdine.
“I don’t think the problem is necessarily that Pepperdine doesn’t try to recruit people of color — we do try very hard,” Loretta Hunnicutt, associate professor of History, said. “But how much are we contributing to the lack of availability of people of color by not being intentional about creating a curriculum that recognizes a wide variety of people? And here’s the other problem: Even if there were people of color with PhDs, why would they want to be at Pepperdine? We’re not always super welcoming to faculty of color.”
Carr and Jennifer Smith, who is an associate professor of English, both identify as women of color and said they have experienced unfavorable interactions with both students and faculty at Pepperdine. A game of Kahoot that Smith had her students play in Elkins Auditorium took a turn for the worse when one student posted white supremacist language to the game’s public message board, followed by another who typed out anti-Asian racist slurs.
Carr is one of only two Black women in the HUTE Division. This inequity, Carr said, often creates the opportunity for negative interactions with other faculty members as well as an uneven distribution of work.
“Personally the lack of diverse faculty at Seaver creates more work for me, invisible work that is not captured in the tenure/promotion process, work that requires soft skills and critical thinking and presence,” Carr wrote. “I am present in ways that most of my white colleagues are not required to be and in some cases cannot be — some by a stream of requests from every institution level, from administration to student affairs, and in private spaces I am present toward healing and gifting courage to students.”
While Carr said it is vital Pepperdine hires more faculty of color in the HUTE Division, Smith pointed out Pepperdine seeking out potential faculty solely on their perceived racial or ethnic background is dangerous.
“It’s dehumanizing,” Smith said. “It says, ‘I don’t value you for what you know; I value you for what you were born with and could never have changed in the first place.’ It takes away people’s capacity to say, ‘I am here because of the hard work I put in and what I worked on and I achieved,’ and instead it says this other thing is more integral to the community.”
Additionally, just because a faculty member is a member of a community that is traditionally underrepresented in academia does not mean that person should be expected to teach diverse subject matter, Smith said. Smith specializes in Medieval rhetoric and literature.
“I think people have to be fully respected and included in the multiple ways that their cultures, ethnicities, racial backgrounds or their gender or sexual orientation contribute to the conversation,” Smith said. “But we’re first and foremost a university. I’m not going to teach someone how to be Asian.”
Hunnicutt said another reason people of color may not be attracted to Pepperdine is that, from the outside, there doesn’t appear to be much opportunity for upward mobility for non-white faculty.
“There are some ways in which we’ve failed as a university,” Hunnicutt said. “The fact that our upper leadership is all white, and all male? It’s not a good look for a university, because it tells faculty of color, ‘You can’t go that far here.’”
This sentiment was exemplified recently when Pepperdine failed to promote a person of color to the position of provost, Hunnicutt said. This incident caused controversy on Twitter after an equally qualified Black candidate, who was a finalist for the Provost position, was denied in favor of a white candidate.
“We failed somehow,” Hunnicutt said. “I don’t know exactly where the failure is. Unless you solve the problem, it’s going to perpetuate because I do know faculty of color are polishing up their resumes at Pepperdine, because they’re not sure they want to hang on for the long haul.”
Despite this, Hunnicutt and Carr both emphasized how important it is for students to learn from faculty members of diverse backgrounds.
“Every student should have the opportunity to have diverse teachers,” Carr wrote. “Universities know how to hire and keep faculty. If they want to have a diverse faculty population they will have one. There is no magic formula. It is simple. Hire them and keep them.”
The Whitewashing of Academia
Similar to the issue of homogenous faculty, there are many factors that contribute to the curriculum in the HUTE Division favoring Western and European subject matter.
“History in the 1800s, was written as a state discipline to make people feel proud of the country that they were in,” said Nicole Gilhuis, assistant professor of History. “That stems from a kind of national pride building, and then minority histories or communities that are different were not often given a voice and a place because it didn’t serve that main narrative.”
History, Gilhuis said, also tends to be written from the perspective of the victor, conqueror or colonizer, which has left other cultures out of the narrative over the course of history. This has caused Europe, perhaps the greatest colonizing force in history, to be seen as the pinnacle of ingenuity in terms of art, literature and culture, excluding other areas from the main narrative.
Alumna and art major Erica Lewis (’21) said her GE courses, specifically the Humanities sequence, emphasized Europe so significantly that she felt other countries and cultures were neglected.
“It just points to a prioritization I don’t think should exist,” Lewis said. “In one of my HUM classes, we had test questions, a guest lecturer come in, and a whole lesson on Greek pillars. Yeah, it’s interesting, but it was a little weird to me that we honed so much into that when we didn’t even approach entire continents. I felt like I knew so much about Europe halfway through college but couldn’t tell you the first thing about a lot of other places.”
Lewis, who identifies as Native American, said it also bothered her she never was able to learn much about Native American culture because her History courses mostly focused on native people in reaction to white colonizers.
“I feel like we’re looking at them through the perspective of the Europeans in history because that’s traditionally how we would learn, but it’s too late for that,” Lewis said. “You don’t ever learn about the native culture before — you learn about what happened to them after the Europeans came. It’s time for a change.”
Seaver students have the choice to opt-out of several GE requirements in favor of the Great Books Colloquium. This four-course series is designed to educate students in the “classics” and to teach them to think critically about issues of “justice,” “the grounds of moral choice,” “political leadership” and more, according to the Colloquium’s website.
Excluding the optional fifth class in the Colloquium, Asian Great Books, almost every author mentioned on the Great Books website as being a part of the curriculum — ranging from Plato and Aristotle, Voltaire and Rousseau, Darwin and Freud — is white and male.
The field of classics has, in recent years, received increasing criticism from scholars for its ties to racism and white supremacy. A February New York Times Magazine feature by Rachel Poser highlights Dan-El Padilla Peralta, a Princeton professor credited by many with leading the charge toward dismantling the classics. In the article, Padilla points out the connection between Aristotle and white supremacy — the philosopher often claimed some people were “slaves by nature,” a concept that would later be used to justify slavery during the Civil War.
Begin said the problematic nature of the classics and the fact the Humanities favor white authors is something brought up in his GE review committee but said it is something some professors are resistant to change. Begin said he would like to see more authors of color, like Ta-Nehisi Coates or Toni Morrison, be incorporated into the conversation around what constitutes a literary classic.
“Faculty are scared of change,” Begin said. “They’re worried if we change up our programming, then people will lose their jobs. I fight back against that idea really hard in my conversations with people because we’ve never lost a faculty member because we lessened a major or made it into a minor or got rid of a requirement; we always let people retool and learn something new, which I think is actually exciting.”
Some Pepp Professors Strive to Promote Diversity in Their Classes
Not every Pepperdine professor is resistant to change. Hunnicutt said she feels it is not only an obligation but her calling from God to teach her students about issues of race, class and gender as they relate to history.
“Honestly, 10 or 15 years ago, I was not as much of an ally as I could have been to people who are victims of racial and gender and other marginalization,” Hunnicutt said. “I come from a family that doesn’t recognize the existence of those in many cases, and I was shaped by that, and I’ve had to be on a learning journey — I think the Holy Spirit has guided me.”
Hunnicutt said the biggest focus in her role as a History professor is to teach her students how to examine history with a critical lens so they can see which communities have been marginalized or left out of the historical narrative entirely.
“That’s really what being a historian is — the skills you bring to studying the past,” Hunnicutt said. “I want [students] to be able to evaluate information — you know, ‘What’s missing?’ I want students to do that themselves when they see something — ‘Oh, who’s represented here, who’s not?’ and just think about that and be aware of it.”
In the past few years, Hunnicutt said she has made a conscious effort to incorporate the perspectives of scholars of color, specifically through using their work as primary sources in her history classes.
“You just have to be intentional,” Hunnicutt said. “I want to seek out scholars of a variety of backgrounds. Not a lot of people of color go into history — it’s a problem. Maybe that’s because they don’t think it’s relevant to them. I don’t want to be a part of that. I want to think about who my students are and make sure they feel like this curriculum represents them.”
Gilhuis said she feels similarly to Hunnicutt. As a white woman teaching classes about Native American and African history, Gilhuis said she tries to remove herself from the narrative as much as possible and focus on the stories of the people who actually lived the experiences she is teaching about. Gilhuis centered the classes this past year around guest speakers and authors who represent the communities her students were learning about in her curriculum.
“The fact that I feature native authors and African authors — the fact that they can walk through something that was created by somebody who lived through the event or identifies with the community — offers more realm of conversation than what I can bring to the table,” Gilhuis said. “It situates them in that time in place, because history is about transcending our own identity and understanding something that’s different in the past.”
Carr said that in her classes in the Film department, it’s important for students to learn diverse subject matter so they can be better equipped to understand the world around them.
“Why would we offer only Western films and filmmakers?” Carr wrote. “Beautiful and compelling stories drive the choices I make, and I would do students a disservice if I did not expose them to the range of aesthetic styles and stories around the world.”
What is Being Done To Promote Diversity at Seaver?
Begin said there are many reasons he and his colleagues on the GE Review Committee want to implement changes within the curriculum to increase diversity. One is because of findings from a study the OIE published in its’ Fall 2016 Institutional Learning Outcome Report: Diversity. The study surveyed 73 Pepperdine students and evaluated their understanding of the concepts of self-awareness, cultural diversity, empathy, social responsibility, understanding systems and faith.
In the “Conclusion” section of the report, the OIE found a significant number of students only had a limited understanding of the issues they were surveyed on, leading them to draw two conclusions:
- “These findings may suggest that the Pepperdine GE curriculum does not adequately address issues pertaining to diversity. One focus group participant pointed out that students could easily go through four years of college without taking a class that raised issues pertaining to diversity. Other participants explained that they had learned about diversity primarily through living and interacting with people of diverse backgrounds in the residence halls, but they noted that it would be easy to avoid such interaction. Quality interaction with—rather than merely being in the presence of—people of diverse backgrounds is necessary to help students develop deeper understandings of diversity.”
- “Based on the results of this study, Pepperdine should consider developing more curricular and co-curricular programs that can help students gain deeper understandings of cultural diversity, self-awareness, empathy, social responsibility, and how faith and establishment systems affect issues of social justice and societal bias.”
Begin said these conclusions drawn by the OIE in 2016 factored into the Proposed Learning Outcomes he and the GE Review Committee created last year for students who complete the GE Program at Seaver. One of the Committee’s goals for students is that each develops intercultural knowledge and competency, according to the Seaver GE Report.
The GE Report outlines several ways in which the intercultural knowledge and competency goal is fulfilled for students at Seaver. The first is the GE language sequence, which ensures that students are at least competent in a second language at the low-intermediate level. The second is the World Civilization requirement, coupled with other GE courses offered in humanities, art history, film, literature and Great Books.
Third, the Committee created an Intercultural Requirement to be added to GE requirements, which students can fulfill “through participation in one of Pepperdine’s International Programs, through completion of the SAAJ Colloquium, by volunteering with [specific campus organizations] or through an overseas internship.”
Begin said he believes the Intercultural Requirement is a step in the right direction but Pepperdine could be doing more to help students understand and combat injustice.
“We need something with a little more teeth that demonstrates a concerted effort to give students the language and tools to live in a diverse society,” Begin said. “That’s going to be a hot debate. On one end of the spectrum, I have people who are saying, ‘As Christians, we already claimed that all God’s people are created equal; we don’t need to make this an explicit thing.’ And then you got people on the other side that say, ‘As Christians, we need to be fighting, disrupting, doing things to reduce oppression.’”
Another reason Begin and his team want to implement change in curriculum is because, in his former role as divisional dean of International Studies, he often heard from students they wanted to learn more diverse material.
“As divisional dean, you read the [evaluations] from all the faculty in your academic area at the end of the year,” Begin said. “One of the things I would read over and over is when students would walk away going, ‘I learned so much stuff about Rome and Greece and American history in high school and I had to learn three more semesters of it here; I wish I could have taken a little more Japanese history — that would have satisfied me more.”
Lewis said there are many different cultures and artistic styles — like Hawaiian and Pacific Islander art — that she would’ve liked to learn more about had her coursework not fixated so much on European art. Lewis wasn’t able to learn about non-Western artwork until her junior year, and even then, she only had room to take one or two classes that discussed art from Africa, South America and Asia and still graduate on time.
Begin said one of the ways he will go about making sure students can learn diverse material is by striving to hire faculty who are diverse both in background and specialty while ensuring they still meet Pepperdine’s hiring standards.
“It doesn’t mean you stop hiring other people, it just means you’re trying to be really concerned about having a representative mix of different faculty members,” Begin said. “We are always hiring, but it’s a big commitment to a faculty member who’s going to get tenure, so we do that really cautiously.”
Carr said she thinks hiring more diverse faculty members is the key to diversifying the curriculum in the HUTE Division.
To bring in more diversity and variation in the curriculum in the HUTE Division, Begin said he plans to keep providing professors grant money to redesign and modify their courses.
Ultimately, Begin said he plans to approach the GE Review Committee about reducing the number of required GE units by about 12 so students have enough room to take the classes they want. This reduction may involve cutting the First Year Seminar and consolidating Humanities courses.
“Increasingly, you see students reaching for second majors, or a major with two minors, or a major, a minor and a certificate,” Begin said. “We want to give them the space to do those things that they want to do, so they feel like they came here, they put down the money and the time to go to Pepperdine, and they’re really getting out of it not just what we think they should get but also some things that they want to get.”
Regarding the Humanities GE requirements, Begin said he would like to redivide them up using the same model as Occidental College in Los Angeles.
At Occidental, three distinct culture/fine arts classes are required — U.S. Diversity, Global Connections, Regional Focus outside of the U.S. — in addition to a language requirement. Occidental students have their choice in which classes they want to take to satisfy those requirements, and Begin said he thinks implementing a system like this at Pepperdine would allow students to learn a variety of subject matter that pertains to what they are interested in.
Alumnus and Hispanic Studies major Logan Varra (’21) said a system like this is something he wished he could have experienced during his time at Seaver College.
“I think that would still satisfy the motive of having a liberal arts education — being exposed to a variety of different disciplines — but also giving the opportunity for people to branch out and diversify their education to a more personal level,” Varra said.
Varra said if this system were in place during his time at Seaver College, he would like to go back and learn more about Eastern Asia.
“I have no new knowledge, since Pepperdine, of Eastern culture and customs,” Varra said. “And it’s a disservice.”
Lewis said Begin, the GE Review Committee and all Pepperdine administrators owe it to the students who come after her to follow through on their promises to diversify faculty and curriculum in the HUTE Division.
“In college, that’s when you’re forming your world perspective, and then you go on to work in workplaces and experience the world, and it’s the right time to get this world perspective that isn’t biased,” Lewis said. “If you can’t get it at college, it’s hard to cultivate on your own after. I think acceptance and understanding other people has to do with understanding their history. And if we refuse to acknowledge minorities’ histories as much as our own, that perpetuates into life. It cuts us off from each other and our world experiences.”
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