Elmhurst College: A Small Change Makes a Difference

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A Small Change Makes a Difference

This year, Elmhurst College made a small change to its admission process that is coming to the attention of a large audience. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on Wednesday, “Elmhurst College has become the first institution to include a question about sexual orientation and gender identity on its undergraduate admissions application.”

The new application includes the question: “Would you consider yourself a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community?”  It joins several other questions—related to religious affiliation, language spoken at home, and other factors—that are presented to prospective students as optional, i.e., they can choose whether or not to answer them.  

As the institution notes on the application itself, it asks these optional questions because it is “committed to diversity and connecting underrepresented students with valuable resources on campus.” When a student chooses to answer the optional questions, he or she helps the institution to advance its diversity goals and to connect prospective students with the resources, including scholarships and campus organizations, that the College makes available to students from underrepresented groups.   

“We took this step in an effort to better serve each of our students as a unique person,” says Elmhurst President S. Alan Ray.  “It also allows us to live out our commitments to cultural diversity, social justice, mutual respect among all persons, and the dignity of every individual. These are among the core values of this institution. They provide the foundation for all of our academic, student and community programs.”

While the College did not seek publicity for this step, it has begun to receive it. A national organization, Campus Pride, has noted that Elmhurst is the first college in the United States to ask this particular question on its admission application. In a press release, Campus Pride congratulated Elmhurst for “setting the bar.”

It was the Campus Pride release that led to the Chronicle article.

That in turn led to a piece in the Chicago Sun-Times.

“As every member of our campus community must know, Elmhurst College is dedicated not only to nondiscrimination but also to providing a welcoming, safe and supportive learning environment for every one of our students,” says Gary Rold, dean of admission. “All of the information that we glean from our admission applications is used to provide a wide variety of opportunities, services and programming that is appropriate to each individual student.”  

Elmhurst is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, a Protestant denomination that frequently has been at the forefront of ecclesiastical efforts to embrace the whole of humanity. In the 18th century, the church was the first in the United States to ordain an African American to the Christian ministry. In the 19th century, it was the first to ordain a woman. In the 20th century, it was the first to ordain an openly gay person, William R. Johnson, a graduate of Elmhurst College, who became a United Church of Christ minister in 1972.

Elmhurst recently named its annual LGBT guestship in honor of the Reverend Dr. Johnson. In October, the College will mark the occasion with a panel discussion on Christian life and the LGBT person. It will include Johnson and other UCC and campus leaders.     

Elmhurst itself at times has been pioneering on social justice issues.

In the fall of 1942, for example, a new campus organization, the Student Refugee Committee, sought to bring to the College four transfer students from California: American citizens of Japanese descent. The Committee’s efforts came in response to an attempt by the federal government to soften the plight of Japanese Americans—interned by the War Relocation Authority—by placing some of them in colleges willing to welcome them. According to the College’s president at the time, Timothy Lehmann, the support of Elmhurst students for the committee’s work was “practically 100 percent.” However, despite the program’s federal pedigree—and the fact that the Nisei students were subjected to FBI investigations—the committee’s efforts created what the local newspapers called a “storm” of off-campus controversy.

In the summer of 1966, the College welcomed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the podium of Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel during Dr. King’s historic, yearlong effort to racially desegregate city and suburban neighborhoods in the Chicago area. It later established an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Guestship, which examines issues and ideas related to Dr. King’s work.

“Of course, we recognize that this question may signal to applicants that Elmhurst is ‘walking the walk’ of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons,” says Dr. Ray. “This is a source of pride for us. It is entirely consistent with our mission and vision to prepare students to “understand and respect the diversity of the world’s cultures and peoples.”

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