Hattie Walker, member of Ho Cak UCC. Hattie played an important role in the creation of the Ho-Chunk Wellness Center, featured in the background.


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Navigating Between Worlds
Elmhurst College President S. Alan Ray draws on his Cherokee roots as he takes the institution in new directions

When S. Alan Ray in 2008 was inaugurated as president of Elmhurst College, a UCC-affiliated liberal arts school outside Chicago, the ceremony featured the usual trappings of academic high ceremony:  The chapel organ played flourishes, bells rang and scholars processed in robes and tasseled hats.

But Ray, a citizen of the Cherokee nation and a scholar of federal Indian law, wanted the event to include some altogether different traditions, too. So the procession of of faculty and guests from 44 colleges and universities moved to a cadence set by Native American drummers from Chicago’s interfaith Anawim Center, and the ceremony began with the smudging of the interior of the college chapel, a Native American rite of purification. Even the musical program featured not just classical organ and choral selections, but offerings from Native American flutists as well.

“It was a distinctive mix, especially for that academic setting,” recalled Rev. Rosemary McCombs Maxey, an Oklahoma pastor of the Muscogee Creek nation, the first Native American woman ordained in the United Church of Christ. Maxey was a featured speaker at the inauguration. “The way native communities were honored went beyond just novelty or quaintness. It was very welcoming and warm. Alan has that ability to navigate multiple worlds. He’s quite gifted at that.”

Navigating different worlds has been a theme of Ray’s Elmhurst presidency. During the past two years, he has steered an ambitious course that builds on the college’s 139-year history (it is the alma mater of theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and H. Richard Niebuhr and has educated generations of future pastors for the United Church of Christ and its forebears) while taking it in new directions. At his inauguration he spoke of “introducing new voices to the conversation” and also of winning national recognition for the college. (U.S. News and World Report consistently ranks Elmhurst among the top Midwestern colleges and universities with master’s degree programs.)  And in urging Elmhurst’s 3,360 students to engage what Ray calls “the realities of a complex and culturally diverse world,” he speaks from his own experience.

“I wanted to signal to the college community that the Native American experience was part of my life and would be represented in my work at the college,” says Ray, a former Catholic seminarian and Harvard theology graduate who practiced law before beginning his career in academia. “It’s important for our students to understand the complexity of the world as it is. Native Americans are part of a culturally diverse world, not artifacts of the past. So let’s hear their stories.”

Those stories have been part of Ray’s work throughout his academic career. As associate dean for academic affairs at Harvard Law School, he developed new courses on Native Americans and the law, and brought Native American scholars to campus as visiting faculty. The National Law Journal published an article that made prominent mention of Ray’s work, “Indian Studies Bloom Along the Charles.” When he moved to the University of New Hampshire in 2004 to become vice provost for academic affairs, he remained an active scholar of federal Indian law, publishing, lecturing and teaching on the subject. He was UNH’s liaison to Native tribes and bands such as the Abenaki throughout New England, and led efforts to return indigenous cultural materials held by the university to their tribal communities. During his Elmhurst presidency, he has helped bring native speakers to campus—most recently, Chadwick “Corntassel” Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. With Ray’s support, faculty in several academic disciplines have developed courses related to the Native American experience. And Elmhurst students have traveled to work in Native American communities. This spring, for example, a group of Elmhurst nursing students traveled to North Carolina to work in a health clinic in the Snowbird Cherokee community, part of the Eastern Band of Cherokees. “We are making a serious effort to look at ‘Native’ through many disciplines—history and political science, law, music, art, literature, even mathematics,” Ray told students in a Native American Awareness Week address last year. “Indians are here, we’re real, we do not all look the same or think the same.” Active in the Cherokee Nation, Ray was recently named by Chief Smith to an advisory board in support of the Nation’s innovative Cherokee language and culture immersion school, which serves Indian students in grades Pre-K through four.

Elmhurst’s embrace of indigenous cultures is part of a larger effort to engage the world beyond its placid campus. The college’s Strategic Plan emphasizes a mix of service and intellectual rigor, activism and academic excellence. Its orientation for first-year students includes trips to food banks and homeless shelters, as well as discussions of the best way to respond to injustice. Last fall, Elmhurst launched the Poverty Project, a yearlong series of lectures and events to raise awareness of poverty around the world and close to its campus in affluent DuPage County. (For the first time in American history, there are now more poor people living in the nation’s suburbs than in its big cities.) The project was featured in a New York Times article that praised Ray for challenging the College community “in a simple and profound way.”

Talk with Ray about what he hopes to accomplish at Elmhurst and it won’t be long before he mentions “student self-formation,” a process that involves their determining what they will stand for and how they will take action in the world. He points to the Poverty Project as an example of how Elmhurst students are exposed to the world’s complexities, and learn about themselves in the process.
“We want our students to think critically and constructively about their beliefs and values,” he says. 

Observers beyond campus have taken note of Ray’s impact.

“What I love about what Alan has done is the way he has revived the prophetic spirit of the UCC at the College. It’s most clear in the spirit of interfaith cooperation around the problem of poverty,” says Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and chairman of President Obama’s interfaith task force. “He’s quiet and unassuming but you don’t have to be around him long to realize that he has a burning passion and a fiery intellect.”

Ray was born in 1956 to a Cherokee mother in Oklahoma, and was raised from infancy by Stephen and Dorothea Ray, a white couple. Stephen Ray died of a heart attack when Alan was five, and Dorothea raised Alan and his older sister Margaret on her own while pursuing an advanced degree in library science at the University of Oklahoma. She also helped her adoptive son legally establish his Cherokee heritage. Ray says he grew up at once inspired by his adoptive mother’s character and proud of the identity he inherited from the birth mother he never knew.

His interest in “the big, metaphysical questions of life” led Ray first to St. Thomas Seminary College in Denver, from which he graduated summa cum laude in philosophy, then to Harvard Divinity School, where he received a master’s degree in theological studies. He became interested in the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, and completed his Ph.D. in the study of religion and philosophy through Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.  Determined to ground his academic interests in the real world, he next completed a law degree at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law. It was there that Ray began writing scholarly articles on federal Indian law, legal ground that he continues to work. He has published on the management of Native American sacred sites on public land, on indigenous peoples’ cultural property rights, and on the debate over how to define Cherokee citizenship.

Ray spent twelve years working in academic administration, first at Harvard Law School, then at the University of New Hampshire, before becoming president of Elmhurst. His appointment placed Ray in a unique position. He is the only citizen of the Cherokee Nation serving as a college or university president, according to Stacy Leeds, professor of law and director of the Tribal Law and Government Center at the University of Kansas. “He brings that unique background and a real commitment on the academic front,” says Leeds, who spoke at his inauguration.

Ray, who also holds an academic appointment as Professor of Religion and Society, quickly set an ambitious agenda for Elmhurst, declaring that it should be the premier liberal arts college in the Chicago area. He has also broadened the scope of its student-recruiting efforts, seeking to attract more students from beyond Chicago’s suburbs and surrounding states. And he has encouraged the kinds of internships and service-learning projects that expose students to the world beyond campus.

“I like the way he takes idealism and applies it to the real world so that students are going out into neighborhoods to take positive actions,” says Bill Hirstein, chair of Elmhurst’s Philosophy Department. “Students broaden their cultural understanding, and that’s needed here. Having someone like Alan, who is a member of two cultures, has been a very good thing for our students.” 

More work is ahead. Elmhurst is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the graduation of its most prominent alumnus, Reinhold Niebuhr, with a fall program, The Niebuhr Forum on Religion in Public Life. It’s an opportunity for celebrating the school’s affiliation with the UCC and exploring the potential of interfaith cooperation, one of Ray’s signature themes. Like college leaders everywhere, he is contending with a forbidding economic climate and cuts in public funding for higher education. But plans for a new science center and an improved venue for the fine and performing arts are moving forward. Meanwhile, Ray continues to look for ways to boost Elmhurst’s diversity and its intellectual energy. He says he would like to develop an exchange of students and faculty between Elmhurst and the Cherokee Nation. Ray continues, as he demonstrated at his inauguration, to navigate between worlds.

Early on in his Elmhurst presidency, he adopted as a campus motto the Cherokee term ga-du-gi, which translates as “all working together.” It now appears on banners around the college, a reminder of its president’s background and the spirit of social responsibility he has cultivated.

“It’s about our obligation to give something to the community to which we belong,” he explains. “It’s easy to see the application of ga-du-gi at this college. We come here voluntarily, but our hearts are bound to our mission. We work gladly to help Elmhurst flourish.”

What God has planned for people who love him is more than eyes have seen or ears have heard. It has never even entered our minds.

I Corinthians 2:9