Andrews University changed its leadership on diversity last month by eliminating a vice president position to add a new assistant to the president. Concerned faculty, staff, and students say the change is a step backward for the campus. In addition, the process raises questions among stakeholders about the new president’s commitment to a university mission and culture that officially connects seeking and affirming to changing the world.
The university created a vice president for diversity and inclusion position in 2017, following a campaign to address systematic racism on campus. The first person to hold that position, Michael Nixon, left in the summer of 2023 to become the chief diversity officer for a healthcare network. During his tenure, the CDO position covered university culture and inclusion.
After Nixon’s departure, the university named Danielle Pilgrim—who had been a campus chaplain—as the interim CDO, and the campus-wide scope of the position remained the same. Both Nixon and Pilgrim reported to the president.
The university saw other leadership changes in the summer of 2023. President Andrea Luxton retired in June and was replaced by John Wesley Taylor V, who carried the support of General Conference leadership on the university board.
Multiple faculty and staff report that when they asked Taylor about the vacant vice president role, a common refrain was “we’re working on it.” It was never stated who else was involved. Then, a job listing posted on November 21 signaled that Taylor intended to remake the position altogether. Instead of a vice president or CDO, the university would have an assistant to the president for university mission and culture.
Current interim CDO Danielle Pilgrim did not receive prior notification about the elimination of her job by the end of the year. She found out when the campus did. An email from the president finally arrived in her inbox at 11:58 a.m. the next day. “I stopped by your office this morning to mention to you that the position has posted, but perhaps I came by before you had arrived,” Taylor wrote. “The link for the position is as follows.”
In a few hours, Thanksgiving break began.
Campus Concerns Over Process
The campus response to Taylor’s announcement was swift. After reviewing the significant changes to the position, students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members began voicing their concerns. Many feared that the role alteration would erode campus culture and the autonomy of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts on campus. Some took to social media to express their disappointment, and on the first day back from break, a petition to “Save the Position of VP for Diversity and Inclusion” was circulated. It now has over 750 signatures.
On the first day the campus returned after the holiday, a general faculty meeting heard concerns about the role transition and frustrations with the process. Desmond Murray, an associate professor of chemistry and member of the university faculty for over 27 years, stated his “full and complete opposition and resistance to decisions and actions of the president." Calling for the current job post to be immediately removed and the search process halted, Murray asked that an “internal consultative process consistent with biblical principles be put in place to consider the merits of the proposed position.” He added that the “position as described in the current posting is problematic and flawed on several levels, including but not limited to its lack of clear limitations and boundaries vis-à-vis established university positions, and organizational structure, and the process by which it came to be.”
The use of the word “mission” in the language describing the new post is creating chaos on campus. Some wonder if it involves a new assistant to the president in everything from international mission trip planning to curriculum overview—a threat to academic freedom.
Since then, four faculty and staff have reported “blank stares” from the president when they inquired about the makeup of the search committee for the new position. During one meeting between faculty and the president, the question was asked and “obviously not responded to three times.” Finally, one faculty member—known for a quiet demeanor—shouted out, “Can you just tell us who is on the search committee?”
Fourteen days after posting the new job position, Taylor sent out an email listing two members of the committee. More recently, he stated that he would not release any more names.
In addition to the details of the role change, Taylor’s management competency increasingly concerns many on campus. According to people familiar with the university’s operations, multiple stakeholders on campus would usually be consulted for a change of this magnitude, if only to secure buy-in. But the job revision went through none of the relevant committees on campus. Following a recent meeting, a staff member speaking on the condition of anonymity stated that, “A more experienced admin could navigate through it, but he is making it worse.”
Students Seek Movement
In the last week, The Student Movement—the campus newspaper—has published at least three news articles about the job posting. Sophomore Andrew Francis reported that, driven by a group of student leaders, a “Town Hall” meeting open to all students was held on December 6. Only taking written questions, Taylor mostly restated talking points about the role change and corollary issues like student and minority representation in administrative decision making and how to understand the process of hiring senior university administrators. “Taylor used lengthy answers which were perceived to be avoiding the question,” Francis wrote. “A student from the audience bursted out, “Is that a yes or a no?’ Taylor declined to respond, and the program continued.”
In addition to misgivings about the meeting format and the president’s style of communication, because it took place in the week preceding finals, many students expressed concern that their questions remain unanswered. Reporting for The Student Movement, senior Lily Burke wrote that “many students are deeply concerned that they will not be able to adequately express their thoughts to administration, and hope for more Town Halls or other events or spaces after the break to communicate with administration.” She added, “Other reflections on the timing of the announcement are concerned that the holiday season and winter break will disrupt meaningful conversations about this change.”
One of the students’ specific concerns is that the president seems to be doing the opposite of what he is saying in public. Burke notes the existence of a circulating graphic that “shows a comparison, with the Assistant to the President position in red, slashed text showing what is absent from the new position that was present in the Vice President position, and black text showing what is consistent between the two.”
Graphics indicating the differences between the vice president and assistant to the president positions.
The additions—and subtractions—that Taylor has made to the role clearly reduce its diversity focus. In fact, the word “diversity” is cut 11 times from the new job description. Where it remains, it is qualified in telling ways. “Chief” is completely gone. This person is now simply a diversity officer on a campus where a chief financial officer, chief information officer, and a chief academic officer remain in place. In a statement to Spectrum that reiterated Taylor’s previous statements to the campus, the university stated that this change comes from the president’s “desire to assure that this position will be an administrative, cabinet level position with influence and impact across the campus community.” Three people with direct knowledge of the previous campus role confirmed that the chief diversity officer had that exact same scope. Despite repeatedly telling audiences that this is an expansion of the role, both the “chief” and “vice president” of the title have been removed by Taylor.
Also added are duties like, “liaison for missional activities involving students and employees locally and globally.” Of note is the responsibility of the new hire to create and maintain an “inclusive campus culture as aligned with biblical principles.” Beyond helping to plan missionary trips, this could reveal a campus expression policing role.
While the president emphasizes that this person will report directly to him—as do VPs at the university—it has not been reported what parts of campus will report to this new assistant role. The university statement to Spectrum defending these changes argued its “goal is to help assure that the influence and reach of this position might have an expanded and an even deeper impact on all areas of campus when it comes to issues of diversity, mission and culture.” Tellingly, the new role title omits one of those three words.
On December 1, the person most focused on Andrews University diversity, mission, and culture responded to the surprise job posting by releasing a resignation letter. Friday, December 8, was Danielle Pilgrim’s last day in office. Born in the Caribbean, she won Youth Pastor of the Year from the Gospel Choice awards in 2017 for her work as an associate pastor at the influential Berean Seventh-day Adventist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Southern Union’s Tidings magazine described her as a “powerhouse in ministry.” It goes on to note her thoughtful writing, including “the article ‘Church Beyond Walls’ in Spectrum Magazine, that have caused a shift in thinking for thousands. She has served in pastoral leadership in churches in Chicago, Illinois, and South Bend, Indiana.” Written in 2015, just after the General Conference Session, Pilgrim stated:
I am convinced based upon the word of God that our congregations are graying, our youth are leaving, and our engagement in mission is declining because we have not surrendered our wills, biases, perspectives, and ideologies to God. The fact remains that the call to surrender precedes the call to revival and reformation. It is only by daily surrendering our wills that our churches can be revived, our communities survive, and our mission thrive.
In her resignation letter, Pilgrim provided examples of things she identifies as harming Adventist mission at the university. “I am saddened that after having a meaningful working experience as an employee of Andrews University for nearly four years, my ending experience has been met with such harmful, demeaning, and dehumanizing practices.”
She described someone recording a presentation she gave on campus without her knowledge. The context-less recording was provided to Taylor, who proceeded to interrogate her about her personal beliefs. “Even more troubling,” she added, “after sharing my grievance with the new administration, my concern was met with a revisionist version of events. Additionally, the new administration took no accountability for the inappropriate questioning and disregarded my perception of the encounter.” In response to a question from Spectrum, the university did not deny that these conversations occurred and stated that it is “unable to comment on the specifics of personal conversations.”
The Pita Plant
Pilgrim also alleged a bizarre incident involving the new chair of the Andrews University Board of Trustees Student Experience & Faith Development Subcommittee. She wrote, “On Sunday, October 22nd, while presenting my office report to the Subcommittee, the chair interrupted my presentation and verbally disregarded it. Although my report reflected the work given within my job description, the chair said it was ‘not relevant to the committee and student experience.’” According to sources in the room, this reaction was triggered by Pilgrim's mention of diversity.
That chair is Gonzalo L. Pita, associate research scientist in the School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. An expert on hurricanes and structural engineering and a native of Argentina, Pita joined the General Conference Executive Committee last year. A brand-new member of the Andrews University board, October was the first time he set foot on the campus.
Pilgrim’s letter described the new chair of the Student Experience & Faith Development Subcommittee as “dismissive, disrespectful, and somewhat hostile.” She added that his “behavior was so concerning that everyone in the Subcommittee approached me separately to apologize and express concern about the encounter.” Although Taylor has been made aware of the incident, he has not addressed it with Pilgrim.
Although not listed among his professional CV publication record, in addition to journals such as Wind and Structures—without any degrees in religion or history—Pita has also written two articles in the Journal of the Adventist Theological Society. In 2014, Pita’s article on Waldesian and Catholic Theologies was directly followed by an article by Taylor, in which Taylor pitted Christianity against postmodern critiques, one of which he listed as diversity. Taylor wrote, “How does diversity fit with the Christian view? Christianity’s focus is on unity (John 17:21), not uniformity. It centers on transformation, not conformity (Romans 12:2). It also recognizes that God has ‘made from one blood every nation of men’ (Acts 17:26), despite their diversity.'”
A few Sabbaths before assuming the role of Andrews University president, Taylor preached a sermon at the Triadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church and prefaced his homily by telling the congregation that he would soon be in a different place “but with the same mission.” As Spectrum reported in March, until last year, Taylor was “the head elder of the Triadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland, Ted Wilson’s home church. In addition to not allowing women to serve as pastors, one member reported that no women have served as elders nor has it even been discussed at the church in over ten years.”
Pita appears often on the platform of the Triadelphia church. The week after the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown began, Pita joined Clinton Wahlen for a Sabbath School lesson on Daniel 11. Known for his use of headship theology to argue against ordaining women as pastors, Wahlen is a member of the General Conference’s Biblical Research Institute.
Beyond an ecclesiological interest and ecclesiastical connections, it's unclear what qualifications Pita brings to his new role directing Andrews University’s theological development and student experience. The engineering school where he works has its own office of diversity and inclusion, which is staffed by both an assistant dean for diversity and inclusion and a diversity program manager. His workplace DEI office has stated that its objective includes fostering an “inclusive intellectual climate in which all identities are affirmed and valued.”
A Growing Cloud of Witnesses
“I am deeply troubled by these regressive changes made by the leadership of Andrews University,” stated Tiffany Llewellyn, president of Adventists for Social Justice. “We have partnered with the DEI office in the past and participated in much needed campus efforts to advance campus mission towards justice and inclusion.”
Andrews University likes to market its top diversity ranking. But at the same time, the new president, supported by a majority on the board, is literally removing the word—and the people who embody it—from the campus. Calling it “institutional betrayal,” Llewellyn added, “Andrews cannot on one hand celebrate national rankings as a top diverse campus while actively denying equity and justice to be actualized in its practices.” She stated, “We stand in support of the courageous students, faculty, and staff calling for the DEI position to be reinstated immediately. We hope the leadership of the university will reconsider this decision.”
Joining the chorus of campus voices, former Andrews University CDO Michael Nixon, added, "Beyond being deeply saddened by this on a personal level, my heart bleeds for the countless individuals who came before me who put an extreme amount of effort into advocating for the eventual creation of the VP position." Placing this in the context of the 2017 It Is Time AU movement, he added, "my heart bleeds for the nine students who endured hate-filled messages—some even death threats"—for sparking public Adventist conversations about diversity. Praising who he calls "one of the greatest leaders the church has ever produced," Nixon stated that he is "angry at the way this decision—and the campaign against DEI that has fueled it—seeks to taint and tarnish the amazing legacy of retired president Andrea Luxton."
Noting "the multiple red lines drawn through the words diversity, equity and inclusion in my former job description," Nixon calls out, Taylor’s "unilateral creation" process and "lip service" that DEI will remain important on the campus role. Emphasizing that the president did this without "truly consulting any of the meaningful stakeholders on campus," Nixon asks everyone on campus, whether they care about diversity or not: "will you be meaningfully consulted when his pending decision impacts your work?"
Promising that he will have more to say on this, he concludes his comment by sharing what he said to Taylor at Pilgrim’s farewell event on Dec 8. Tiring of small talk with the president, Nixon decided to speak his truth: “I hope that whoever comes on campus next to continue this work is treated much better than you treated Dr. Pilgrim. Hopefully they are given the respect and decency and you never granted her. What you have done to her, and what you are doing now is not right.”
In some parts of Adventism, Taylor’s actions are already being heralded as a return to a purer form of religious practice. The campus has sustained years of attacks because of its embrace of diversity, equity, and inclusion. “We believe Jesus teaches that every human being is equally and infinitely valuable,” said Shandelle M. Henson, professor of mathematics and ecology. “People can call us whatever hateful names they wish, and they can heap up mountains of ravening vitriol against us. But the truth is that we at Andrews University are trying to follow Jesus.” A member of the academic community for over 20 years, Henson added, “As citizens of Christ’s Kingdom, we are intentionally learning to care about how our neighbors feel and how our society is structured. We love one another. We love Jesus Christ and we are learning to follow him.”
Alex Aamodt contributed to this report.
Alexander Carpenter is executive editor of Spectrum.
Title Image: Lucas Cardino / Adventist Media Exchange (CC BY 4.0). John Wesley Taylor V, President, Andrews University, carrying the Andrews University flag. Sabbath, at General Conference Annual Council, October 7, 2023.
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