Leaders of Southern Adventist University (SAU), a Seventh-day Adventist institution of higher learning based in Collegedale, Tennessee, United States, highlighted the student diversity of its 3,000 students and the school’s ongoing approach to foster meaningful interactions, in the wake of a racial incident by a former student during a social event on Feb. 3.
“[SAU] is tied for being the most diverse university in the South, the second of Adventist universities in North America,” wrote the school leaders after the incident, adding, “[We] don’t actually have a majority on campus, [as] 53 percent of our undergraduate students represent racial minority groups.”
Social media exchanges began after a student who had been expelled from the school in the past uploaded a video to a Snapchat account not affiliated with SAU. The video, recorded during the Feb. 3 annual Christian Black Union night on campus, included a racial slur tag.
The Snapchat account was eventually removed for violating the community guidelines, but not before the video garnered considerable attention and thousands of views. The school reported that although the individual had posted the offensive content anonymously, students came forward with eyewitness accounts and identified the person, who had previously been banned from campus. An official trespass is in process.
In a letter to the school community on Feb. 4, SAU president David Smith said that he was “sickened” to learn about the “highly offensive, racist language” used. “I stand firmly with our students, employees, and…our student association president, in denouncing these harmful words and actions,” he wrote. “Those who hide behind anonymity to spread hate and ignorance toward any person or group are not representative of SAU’s values and have no place in our community.”
Smith reminded the community that one of SAU’s core values is “to be Christ-centered in every aspect of life on campus, allowing His love in us to influence our behavior, words, and thoughts.” It is something based on Christ’s ministry on this earth, which transcended earthly divisions, wrote the president.
A Proactive Approach to Fostering Diversity
SAU has long advocated respectful interactions among its students, faculty, and staff. School leaders shared that they held monthly race dialogues with employees to tackle issues surrounding race, privilege, and the marginalized, to raise awareness and sensitivity.
Since the 1970s, SAU has celebrated black history in February. New this year, the university is working with the Student Association to display banners on light poles across campus featuring prominent black individuals who have impacted American history and SAU’s history. Similar banners will also be hung in future months celebrating Asian history and Latin American history, leaders said.
SAU has three strong cultural student organizations—the Black Christian Union, the Latin American Club, and the Asian Club. “All are open to any student, regardless of race,” leaders said. “Each holds a Saturday night event once a year in which members share food, music, and other unique parts of their culture.”
Smith not only attended the Feb. 3 event shown later in the Snapchat video, but he also participated in a skit. The school reported that before the Saturday night event, he preached on the very topic of race at Orchard Park Seventh-day Adventist Church, and joined a panel discussion on the topic of race that afternoon.
In addition to the Spanish-American Seventh-day Adventist Church on SAU’s campus, students and faculty of the university started a multicultural worship service called “Merge,” that has been meeting for over a year.
SAU’s Student Association (SA) has been active in encouraging dialogue and building bridges. This year, SA is planning a multicultural night titled “This is Us,” said SAU leaders.
The Importance of Prayer
Following the Snapchat incident, Smith met with SAU’s current SA president, Phillip Warfield, along with other representatives of the black community on campus. In addition to the statement he sent on Feb. 4, Smith will be speaking at a convocation on Feb. 8 to address the student body on the topic.
In a message to employees this week, Smith asked, “What can we do to prevent negativity from overwhelming good on our campus? One answer is prayer,” he answered. “I’d like to ask each of you to pray in your staff meetings, in your classrooms, and in special gatherings with your student workers. Pray for the individual who posted this hateful comment. Pray that each one of us will have hearts that will abundantly overflow with love and forgiveness for our neighbors. And pray that our own blind spots regarding race will be revealed so that we can grow in grace and understanding.”
Quoting Luke 6:45, where Jesus said that it is “out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks,” Smith called everyone on campus to recommit to kind, meaningful relationships. “Join me in striving to make our campus known for the goodness of our hearts!” he said.