Are fundamentalist universities guilty of encouraging sex abuse? Does “purity culture” encourage predators? Does the environment at fundamentalist universities force victims, at best, to suffer in silence and shame?
We don’t have all the answers, but the GRACE report of sex abuse at Bob Jones University offers a few clues. Short answer: BJU is guilty of establishing an idiosyncratic administration and campus culture that punished victims and rewarded loyalty over caring and competence.
I’ve taken some heat in the past for wondering if fundamentalist universities had been targeted unfairly on this subject. Certainly, fundamentalist schools have done a terrible job in handling sexual assault and abuse. But so have secular and liberal schools. Wasn’t it possible, I asked, that the no-drinking, no-partying culture at fundamentalist colleges helped deter some cases of assault? Given the large number of alcohol-fueled assault cases recently, I still think these are fair questions.
In spite of such questions, however, the recent GRACE report paints a damning picture of Bob Jones University. I’ll repeat: I do not think it is fair to assume that conservative schools will somehow automatically do a worse job of handling abuse and assault cases than other schools. However, the GRACE report points to systemic problems at BJU that are likely shared by smaller, less prestigious fundamentalist colleges and schools.
As I see it, BJU has failed in two significant ways. First, it has insisted on a climate in which student complaints of any kind were viewed as a moral failing for the complainer. Second, since the 1930s BJU has maintained a policy of rewarding staff loyalty over any other concern. As a result, leading administrators were woefully—perhaps even criminally—incompetent to deal with student victims of sexual abuse and assault.
I do not make these charges lightly. Nor do I have any personal animus toward BJU or other fundamentalist colleges. But the record is clear.
First, some brief facts of the case. Two years ago, administrators at BJU commissioned an outside study of their response to abuse claims. In itself, this sort of outside examination made a clear break with BJU tradition. The assembled commission, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or GRACE, recently published its findings. BJU’s current leader, Steven Pettit, has apologized for any suffering the university has caused or ignored.
That is a start. The university, in my opinion, has two main faults for which it needs to apologize.
First, the leaders of the school have insisted for decades on one cardinal rule: No “griping.” Students who complain have been consistently treated as disloyal, or at least suspicious. For example, in one statement made by the founder, Bob Jones Sr., on June 19, 1953, Jones advised the BJU community of the first rule: “Griping not tolerated, but constructive suggestions appreciated.”
In practice, the culture at BJU has promoted a suffer-in-silence mentality.
Second, and perhaps more problematic, hiring and promotion practices at BJU have encouraged loyalty above all other factors, including competence. In cases of abuse and assault, this has led to terrible consequences. As the GRACE report documents, administrator Jim Berg handled many abuse reports since 1981. Time after time, Berg demonstrated his lack of preparation. For a while, Berg was unaware of South Carolina’s mandatory-reporting law.
The blame here belongs to more than Berg alone. Berg’s leadership role was the product of an institutional culture that valued loyalty first. Berg’s decisions and professional intuitions were the product of a culture that saw itself as removed from all obligations to the outside world.
The evidence for this loyalty-first culture is abundant. In the same 1953 statement referred to above, Bob Jones Sr. warned faculty that he had an obligation to fire anyone “who is not loyal.” This statement came in the wake of mass resignations at the school in 1952 and 1953.
That was not the only time the school’s leaders made their emphasis on loyalty clear. In 1936, just before another group firing, Bob Jones Sr. warned one faculty member,
First: There must be absolute loyalty to the administration. If something happens in the administration which you do not like, your protest is your resignation. If you stay here you must not under any circumstances criticise [sic] the administration.
The results of such a sustained policy are clear. Those who remained in leadership positions at BJU were rewarded for loyalty first, competence second. In the case of student abuse and assault, such an emphasis left students in the hands of utterly unprepared administrators.
All schools—all institutions—can suffer from incompetence, of course, but the BJU policy of loyalty-first intentionally undervalued professional competence.
It bears repeating that BJU’s current leader has apologized for these faults. As he put it,
I would like to sincerely and humbly apologize to those who felt they did not receive from us genuine love, compassion, understanding and support after suffering sexual abuse or assault …To them I would say—we have carefully listened to your voice. We take your testimony in this report to our hearts. We intend to thoroughly review every aspect and concern outlined in the investigation and respond appropriately.
And, sadly, we must remember that fundamentalist institutions are by no means alone in establishing and protecting cultures of abuse. Other religious groups, such as the Catholic Church, and other colleges, such as Penn State University, have similarly criminal histories.
As it might at those institutions, perhaps the future at BJU and other fundamentalist universities will be brighter than the past.