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Berea College: Injustice is Arbitrary

February 23, 2010

Major journalistic kudos go to the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Ryan Alessi for his story on Berea College in yesterday’s issue.  Berea boasts one of the largest private nest-eggs in the entire country (among colleges), and like most higher education institutions, Berea has faced significant losses to its endowment in the past year since stock prices have declined and speculative markets have collapsed across the world.

Berea College President Larry Shinn

A shrinking endowment is a particularly worrisome problem for a college that funds all of its undergraduate students and is committed to social justice and equity in higher education.  According to the Berea College website, the school was founded by ardent abolitionists who took seriously the scriptural premise that “God has made of one blood all the peoples of the earth.”  It admits students, many from Appalachia, who come from a limited economic background.  The mission and premise of the college has always been to promote equality through justice.  Berea was founded by people who recognized the arbitrariness of injustice and how unjust societies wreak violence when they refuse to take consistent moral stances that show grace to all people.  Its leaders despised a society that discriminated according to social, gender, or racial difference, and it has always provided a curriculum that has demanded its students to think about the patterns that perpetuate poverty and hatred.

Alessi’s article shows just how far Berea has now deviated from that ideal.  Recently Berea has held several forms, in which President Larry D. Shinn and other university administrators collaborated with the student body to reshape the direction of Berea.  Here’s a record, from Alessi, of one conversation that took place at these forums:

Student Elizabeth Vega, a 43-year-old grandmother majoring in sociology with a social justice minor, approached him to seek permission to address Berea’s board of trustees. She wanted to present her petition calling for Shinn to cap administrators’ salaries to no more than six times that of the lowest-paid college employee.

Her idea — an offshoot of the broader debate over Berea’s future, mission and financial situation — is in line with one of Berea’s key principles of plain living, she said.

Shinn disagreed, calling her plan arbitrary and potentially harmful to hiring future campus leaders.

“The question is: How do we put ideals and reality together,” Shinn told her, as the auditorium emptied out. “I think we’re doing pretty well.”

“We could do better,” Vega responded.

Even if we assumed that the lowest-paid college employee makes $20,000 per year, which is almost below the poverty line, such a policy would ensure Shinn a six-figure salary.  Berea should set itself apart from the status quo in higher education.  It always has, and Elizabeth Vega should be commended for her concrete model of justice for Berea College.

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