Investigative Report: Sex Abuse at Fundamentalist U

HT: DW

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.

Why Don’t More College Christians Fight Campus Rape?

The fight against sexual assault on college campuses has cranked into high gear. At least one conservative intellectual is asking where the conservatives are in this fight. We could get even more specific: Where are all the campus Christians? Wouldn’t it make sense for conservative religious folks to lead the charge against drunken fornication?

California attracted attention recently for its new “yes means yes” law. Both (or all) partners in any sexual activity must give continuing and explicit consent to every new advance. Just because someone grinds on the dance floor, the reasoning goes, she or he has not consented to sex. Even the White House has gotten involved, launching a task force to investigate campus rape culture.

Allies in the fight against hook-up culture?

Allies in the fight against hook-up culture?

In this week’s Weekly Standard, Heather Mac Donald wonders why more conservatives aren’t participating in the current campaign against campus rape. As she puts it,

Sexual liberation is having a nervous breakdown on college campuses. Conservatives should be cheering on its collapse; instead they sometimes sound as if they want to administer the victim smelling salts.

She argues that the so-called “epidemic” of campus rape is a figment of the overheated leftist imagination. Yet Mac Donald acknowledges that college leftists have succeeded in their fight to redefine sexuality on many college campuses. They have done so, Mac Donald writes, by unintentionally creating a “bizarre hybrid of liberationist and traditionalist values.”

As we’ve seen, some evangelical groups have found themselves at loggerheads with secular schools. Why don’t they jump on this bandwagon? Could campus evangelical groups such as Intervarsity Christian Fellowship build bridges to campus feminists on this issue?

In the past, we’ve seen efforts in this direction. This same not-coalition of feminists and cultural conservatives has struggled to come together to fight against pornography.

Of course, what seems like an obvious partnership has even more obvious reasons to stay separate. Even when both groups staunchly oppose pornography or fornication, their yawning differences tend to split them apart.

The new batch of anti-rape rules, for example, never suggest that casual sex should be avoided. Rather, the rules imply that pleasurable, consensual sex is a valuable experience.  Schools should improve this experience, not eliminate it. In other words, the new campus affirmative consent rules do not hope to limit fornication, but rather to encourage it by making it safer and more pleasurable for all. As one proponent of affirmative-consent laws put it, “good communication between sexual partners can be fun, even sexy.”

It might make conservative campus Christians a little queasy to become political partners with activists who have this sort of attitude about the proper relationship between sexual partners. But historically, conservative evangelicals have managed to forge political partnerships with other groups they found theologically objectionable.

Perhaps the most dramatic example has been in the fight against abortion rights. As historians such as Daniel Williams have demonstrated, at the time of the Roe v. Wade decision, many conservative evangelical Protestants viewed the anti-abortion cause as a peculiarly Catholic issue. Yet over time, the pro-life cause united conservative Protestants with conservative Catholics. Though it may be hard to remember in retrospect, for decades—centuries even—conservative evangelicals viewed the Catholic Church as the embodiment of the Anti-Christ. For evangelicals to team up with Catholics required—for some—an enormous amount of nose-holding.

Couldn’t conservative evangelicals do the same here? They don’t need to agree with the sexual-liberationist ideology that guides many campus activists. Instead, they could partner with feminists to fight campus rape, while maintaining their own very different reasons for doing so.

From the Archives: Campus Rape in the 1930s

Do fundamentalist colleges encourage sexual assault?  It’s a terrible and difficult thing to talk about.  As we’ve seen in these pages, some alumni insist that fundamentalist schools force victims of sexual assault to blame themselves.  But we’ve also seen that sexual assault is not at all unique to religious schools.  As I continue the research for my new book about the history of evangelical colleges and universities, I’ve stumbled across a story that might shed light on these tricky questions.

Despot in Denver

Despot in Denver

The way we word the questions themselves is controversial: Are fundamentalist schools cults that pander to the lusts of authoritarian leaders?  Or do the strict sexual ethics of conservative evangelicalism help protect young women and men from predatory teachers and authority figures?

Critics of conservative evangelical colleges warn that that the pervasive “purity culture” of these schools leads directly to rape.  Bloggers such as Samantha Fields have accused fundamentalist colleges of blaming victims of sexual assault.  Journalists have blasted schools such as Patrick Henry College for fostering a rape-friendly environment.  Prominent evangelicals have suggested that the problem is not one of theology, but of an authoritarian institutional culture.  For example, Boz Tchividjian famously suggested that abuse can happen “in any culture, elevating leaders beyond accountability, leaving victims’ rights to their whim, and sidelining critics who challenge their rule.”

I’ve stumbled across a story from the 1930s that might illuminate the longer history here.  In 1936, a high-powered panel of fundamentalist leaders convened to investigate Denver Bible Institute (now part of Colorado Christian University).  At the time, DBI was led by charismatic founder Clifton L. Fowler.  Fowler wanted to join the Evangelical Teacher Training Association, and to do so ETTA demanded that rumors be cleared up.

Unfortunately for Fowler, an extremely disturbing picture emerged.  Fowler, the investigators concluded, ran DBI like a sex-crazed despot.  Students and faculty were pressured to declare lifelong commitments to the schools.  Married faculty members were pushed into pledging “continence.”  (I’m not sure what was meant by “continence” in this context.  Any suggestions?)  Students were encouraged to separate from parents and home churches.  Community members felt pressure to offer Fowler detailed confessions of their sexual sins.  And, yes, Fowler apparently routinely engaged in sexual activities with male students.

From one perspective, this historical episode might seem to confirm the dangers of authoritarian fundamentalist schools.  For as long as there have been fundamentalist schools, we might conclude, leaders have felt free to engage in predatory sexual practices.  Community members felt constrained by their own admitted sexual sinfulness from criticizing the dictatorial leadership.

On the other hand, as Michael Hamilton argued in his excellent 1994 dissertation, Fowler did not have a free hand to do as he pleased.  The accusations against Fowler forced DBI out of decent fundamentalist company.  Local fundamentalist churches cut off DBI.  The Evangelical Teacher Training Association would not let DBI join.  Fowler, in other words, was restrained in his behavior because of the network of fundamentalist schools and churches in which he worked.

As usual, history does not offer any pat solutions.  But this episode does demonstrate the long lifespan of these questions at fundamentalist schools.  It shows that school founders have always been accused of sexual predation.  But it also shows that fundamentalist leaders and communities worked hard to police their own ranks.

In this case, at least, both national leaders and local community members refused to look the other way.

Conservatives and Campus Rape

No one defends rape.  But these days conservative intellectuals often defend students accused of rape.  Why?  What is “conservative” about defending accused rapists?  And what does it have to with higher education?

This is a different question than a similar one we’ve asked lately.  At some conservative religious colleges, we’ve seen a debate over the relationship between theology and sexual assault.  I’ve asked if religion might deter some students from booze-fueled assault.  I’ve also wondered if the top-down authoritarian culture of many fundamentalist schools might encourage assault.

In this discussion, however, we see secular conservatives complaining about the process by which colleges handle accusations of assault.

For instance, columnist George Will attracted a firestorm of controversy when he suggested that assault victims win extra privileges on college campuses.  Liberal-dominated campuses, Will accused, were learning that “when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.”

Other commentators also take the system to task.  Legal scholar David Bernstein worried that the bar for proving guilt had been lowered to dangerous levels.  At some universities, Bernstein commented, any touching that did not have explicit approval could count as rape or assault.  By that measure, Bernstein argued provocatively, only prostitutes and their clients were safe from accusations of rape.

Peter Berkowitz, too, demanded a revision of campus assault rules.  In a case from Swarthmore College that attracted a great deal of attention, Berkowitz insisted that the accused rapist did not get a fair hearing.  Too many “elite” schools, Berkowitz argued,

convene kangaroo courts to adjudicate accusations of grave crimes that should properly be left to the police and government prosecutors. Although they cannot sentence students to jail time — the cavalier manner in which these proceedings treat evidence would never pass muster in the criminal justice system — the campus bureaucracies nevertheless impose penalties capable of upending students’ lives.

None of these writers condones sexual assault. Their gripe is with the process by which those assaults are handled. Too often, being accused equals being condemned. Too often, campus committees do not respect the American traditions of being innocent until proven guilty. Each of these writers warns that a rush to convict—even with the best intentions of protecting the innocent—risks trampling the rights of the accused.

But there’s also a deeper rumbling in these essays that points to an important element of conservative thinking. In each case, by attacking campus procedures, these conservative writers condemn the leftist-dominated culture of higher education as a whole.

Peter Berkowitz, for example, located this discussion within a broader problem. Elite schools, Berkowitz wrote, have struggled with

the hollowing out of the curriculum, the aggressive transmission of a uniformly progressive ideology, the promulgation of speech codes, and the violation of due process in campus disciplinary procedures.

And George Will blamed “academia’s progressivism” for its current sorry state. “Academia,” Will concluded, “is making itself ludicrous.” But left-leaning professors and administrators brought it on themselves, Will believes. Colleges have asked for ridiculous rules and short-sighted policies, Will said, “by asking for progressivism.”

There is something more going on here than just procedural complaints. Conservatives are not only complaining about the rights of accused students. Rather, these arguments about sexual assault are part of a longer conservative tradition of fretting about university leftism. For these conservative writers, recent cases of sexual assault serve as yet another example of college radicals gone wrong.