small steps

The 1980s held promise for increasing the diversity of students, staff, and faculty. With a grant awarded to Admissions to increase minority recruitment, the Aid Association for Lutherans (AAL) donated $30,000 to the College to support a two-year  project for the recruitment of 15-20 minority students, as well as a staff member who would be responsible for minority recruitment.19  To that end, joining the campus community in the Fall of 1984 were Assistant Professor Daniel Tate (Communications Studies)  and Susan E. Toms, Admissions minority recruiter. 

Professor Tate, Muhlenberg’s first minority faculty and a graduate of the Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania, brought a wealth of teaching experience to help expand the communications studies program. Also new to campus was Susan Toms, Assistant to Dean of Admissions as a minority recruiter,  who sought to enhance the cultural diversity of Muhlenberg by expanding the appeal of the college to minorities.

Toms recognized and appreciated the support of the Lutheran Church and the College for funding her work but thought the College couldn’t be considered a liberal arts institution without cultural diversity. Several months into the semester, Toms spoke at the Coffee and Fellowship Lecture about the lack of racial and ethnic inclusivity and emphasized the major issues including the absence of racially inclusive programs, the small pool of students available to recruit, and the ethics involved in recruiting non-white students to a predominantly white college. 

She illustrated how the curriculum lacked diverse offerings for minority students and how the college had not asked minority students what they needed to succeed.20 In response to Toms’ lecture, Dr. Jennings, activist and Professor of Religion, also speaking at the Coffee and Fellowship, said, “I believe that this is the most important thing going on at this college.” This important work meant working toward diversity and inclusion in minority numbers of students of color, in a more diverse and inclusive social life, and in course offerings. 

“Black and white have been caught in a history we have made together. There ought to be a time and a place to study that history at Muhlenberg College.”

– Dr. Daniel Wilson, March 1986, Muhlenberg Weekly

Coinciding with the arrival of Toms and Tate was that of Dr. Jonathan Messerli, ninth president of Muhlenberg College, in August 1984. Without a doubt, students wholeheartedly welcomed the change of leadership. President Messerli’s openness to listening and responding to students, recognizing their worth and thoughts, seemed to ignite a positive shift in the campus culture from apathy to engagement. 

The president’s philosophy of education put the quality of student life first. In a Muhlenberg Weekly interview in his first weeks on campus, Messerli was quoted as saying, “If it’s important to students, it’s an important issue. Every Muhlenberg student is important.”21 He was keen on having everyone, especially Admissions, telling Muhlenberg’s story to attract qualified students, believing happy students would tell their own story about why they chose Muhlenberg. 

But, as Susan Toms recognized, Muhlenberg did not have that many happy Black students telling their own communities about why they should join the campus. 

As the Minority Recruitment Director, Toms thought one way to improve the social life for Black students, to close the gap in total socialization, was the formation of the Black Collegiates United (BCU).22 Built on the previous Black social groups, including the Association of Black Collegians and other local colleges’ organizations, the group planned to host both local events and participate in other Black group events in the area. Unfortunately, there seems little evidence that the BCU ever got off the ground.

Working against the hope for increased minority enrollment were the costs associated with recruiting more students of color, new course development focused on race and ethnicity, the availability of financial aid, and the rising costs associated with food service and maintenance of buildings and grounds. In March 1985, a particular forum about long-term issues involved selected students who met with members of the Board of Directors and President Messerli.23 In the discussion about the size of the student body and the college’s aim to increase minority enrollment, issues about minority students’ preparedness for Muhlenberg academic rigor, financial aid, the declining influence and importance of the Lutheran Church, and geographical diversity discussed revealed the complicated politics of such an aim.

As revealed in the Muhlenberg Weekly, the Ciarla, and other archival documents, much of the 1980s found students concerned about meeting other students in Europe as a form of cultural exchange, studying abroad, working against drunk driving and poverty or working for peace, divestment, animal welfare—but very little about minorities. 

Often their notions of diversity on campus paralleled the nation. “Diversity” often meant more choices in academic experiences, study abroad programs, different religious services, the legitimacy of human rights for gays and lesbians, the variety of dining options and international students.

As Muhlenberg drafted a new strategic plan, the issue of minority recruitment came up multiple times in student conversations. On November 10, 1986, at an open forum, President Jonathan Messerli acknowledged that Muhlenberg’s efforts to recruit a more diverse student body had been unsuccessful.24 Of eleven Black students admitted for the Fall of 1985, only two had chosen to enroll. Not for the first time, the challenge was defined as intense competition among colleges to offer scholarships and intensive targeted recruitment to talented Black students.

In the Fall of 1988, President Messerli appointed Edgar Berry as Muhlenberg’s Director of Minority Affairs. On September 15, 1988, Berry introduced himself and his role to the Student Council: “My office is designed to implement programs to heighten awareness of minorities on campus. Diversity here on campus is the way of the future, and we plan to get involved in all aspects of college life.”25

Berry’s mandate to serve and diversify26 meant recruitment of and support for minorities as well as culturally rich programming. For example, then-mayor of Philadelphia, Wilson Goode led campus discussions and small seminars in 1991 and returned in 1992 to conduct the seminar, “The American City in the 1990s- Prosperity or Chaos?” Lt. General Julius Becton, one of Muhlenberg’s first Black students whose education was interrupted by the Korean War, returned to Muhlenberg as a guest speaker for a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event.

Edgar Berry also helped to establish the “Culture Club,” a multicultural organization open to all students. 


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