Felony Football Assault at Fundamentalist U

The world of evangelical higher education is reeling at the revelations from Wheaton College in Illinois. Five football players have been charged with felony assault in a brutal hazing incident. The incident reminds us of the long tensions between aggressive, win-at-any-cost college athletics and the behavioral rules of evangelical colleges.

1940s MBI banner and patch
Rah rah.

 

It’s easy enough to forget nowadays, when big evangelical schools like Liberty are making their mark in the competitive world of college athletics. Since the beginning, however, as I detail in my new book, thoughtful evangelicals wondered if the pressures that inevitably accompanied sports success threatened the mission of their religious institutions.

The story from Wheaton is gruesome. A freshman football player was attacked in his dorm room by senior teammates. His wrists were duct-taped together and he was thrown into the back of a car. His teammates piled in on top of him, threatening him with sexual assault. As Chris Gehrz has pointed out, the language they used—crudely blaring that Muslims commonly engaged in bestiality and sexual aggression—points out the deep structural flaws that can cocoon students at evangelical schools. Even worse, Wheaton seemed to be willing to sweep this assault under the rug, letting the players keep playing after they performed some community service and wrote apologetic essays.

The victim ended up abandoned half-naked in a field with torn muscles in both shoulders. He immediately left the school.

Sadly, there’s nothing unique about this sort of brutal collegiate assault, done under the banner of team-building “hazing.”

Schools like Wheaton, however, have built their reputation as different sorts of schools, schools that hold their students to a higher standard of conduct. As long as there have been evangelical colleges and universities of this sort, however, there have been deep tensions about athletic programs. For many schools, hosting winning sports programs are an intrinsic part of being a “real” college.

Back in 1944, for example, one Wheaton student wrote home in excitement that the new sports program (it only started in 1939 at Wheaton) gave her school a tradition to embrace. As she prepared to head to the weekly football game, she told her mother that the game against rival North Central College was a big deal on campus. “You see,” she explained to her mother,

Wheaton is to N.C. what Army is to Navy, or Harvard is to Yale.

Even in the sequestered world of the Moody Bible Institute, students glowered at their relative lack of athletic success. In 1945, one student complained that MBI teams should earn more wins. In spite of their large student body and their good athletic facilities, this student wrote in the student paper, the MBI “A” team still lost at basketball to the Wheaton “Bs.”

There had always been anxiety about the behavioral implications of athletics. In its first years, for example, Bob Jones College (it became Bob Jones University only in 1946) fielded teams under the name the “Swamp Angels.” The school’s leaders soon canceled the athletic program, however. As Bob Jones Jr. later remembered,

We found the people were betting on our games, littering our campus with whiskey bottles.

Even in that first generation of evangelical higher education back in the 1920s, critics charged that school leaders cared more about sports success than soul-saving. The short-lived and ill-fated fundamentalist experiment at Des Moines University demonstrated this conundrum better than any other school. When Toronto’s fundamentalist firebrand T. T. Shields stormed into town and took over the school, he fired all the faculty and forced them to reapply. Every potential faculty member went through an intrusive personal interview regime to get their jobs back. The entire faculties of the science and math departments quit in disgust. But not the football coach. Observers quickly noted that the coach was welcomed back in spite of his open cynicism about evangelical religion. When asked if he had been converted, for example–“born again”—the coach reputedly sneered, “Yeah, lots of times.”bju banner

Even elite Wheaton can’t claim innocence about questions of athletic influence. As soon as it started its athletics programs in the 1930s, critics on and off campus charged that football coach Fred Walker was not an appropriate evangelical role model. Walker was accused of a non-Christian tough-guy approach to coaching, cussing at players and using foul language to belittle them. In spite of all the charges, Wheaton kept Walker on.

Even back then, the college wanted to be seen as a real college. It wanted students to think of Wheaton as more than just a dumpy second-rate church school. Part of the package, since the very beginning, was a game-winning athletics program.

The behavior of students and administrators in this recent assault are nothing new. They only remind us of the ever-present tension at evangelical colleges like Wheaton. Like every school, Wheaton gives its athletes too much leeway. The results are often criminal and catastrophic.

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Forget Evolution, Sex Ed, and “Christian History.” Here Is the REAL Culture-War Issue in Schools

We Americans can’t stop fighting over our schools. Should we teach evolution? Can we teach kids about sex? Can students read literature that includes “mature” themes? Do schools need to teach kids to be patriots? For at least a century, these questions have roiled our culture-war waters. There is a better way to think about these fights. As we see in a sad recent news story, a profound AGREEMENT about schooling lurks beneath all of our culture-war battles.

The news itself is grim: As reported by the Associated Press, over four years, America’s public K-12 schools logged 17,000 official reports of sexual assault among students. Not only are students targeted by other students, according to the AP story, but schools often downplay the seriousness of the dangers. Legally, schools are required to intervene to protect students. If sexual assaults took place among students, schools could legally be held accountable.

sexual assault at school

A dangerous place…

The story is troubling, but it points to the underlying fact about schooling that undergirds many of our culture-war battles. It is not only in the disturbing field of sexual assault, but in every area. No matter what our ideological or religious beliefs, we all tend to agree on one thing: Schools need to keep students safe. This assumption—often so widely shared that we don’t even need to mention it—has always played an influential role in our educational culture-war fights.

In the sexual-assault story, we see this often-implicit function of schooling come to the surface. As one academic expert said,

Schools are required to keep students safe. . . . It is part of their mission. It is part of their legal responsibility. It isn’t happening. Why don’t we know more about it, and why isn’t it being stopped?

I agree. But for a moment, let’s try to put our strong feelings about sexual assault to one side to consider the implications of this notion. If schools have an absolute mandate to keep children safe, how does that drive our discussions about common culture-war topics such as evolution, racism, and religion?

As I saw during the research for my book about educational conservatism, deeper arguments about student safety often drive the surface arguments about other topics. So, for example, when conservative activists oppose evolution education, they often do so on the grounds that evolution is a dangerous idea for kids. And, when progressives argue in favor, they say that students will be dangerously ignorant if they don’t learn real science.

Consider a couple of examples from 1920s battles over evolution education.

The fight in the 1920s began in earnest on the campus of my alma mater. Anti-evolution activist William Jennings Bryan wanted to clamp down on evolution education at the University of Wisconsin. Ever the sensitive populist, Bryan articulated one anti-evolution argument that played on this notion of student safety. If Wisconsin continued to teach evolution, Bryan noted sardonically, it should attach warning signs to each of its classrooms. What would they say?

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to watch the spectacle.

Pish-posh, evolution advocates responded. Savvy progressive politicians attacked the notion that learning evolution was somehow unsafe. As Fiorello LaGuardia argued in 1924, the only way to make sure that students were “safe in schools” was to make sure they were “learning to think.” Banning evolution, LaGuardia argued, was only “hysteria” that would hurt children.

The same assumptions about student safety energized school battles throughout the twentieth century. In the explosive school fight in Kanahwa County, West Virginia in the 1970s, for example, both sides assumed that schools must keep students safe. They disagreed about what that meant. Conservatives often argued that a new set of textbooks put students in danger, since the new books mocked traditional religion and threatened students’ souls. Progressives insisted that the new books kept students safe by helping them see different perspectives and encouraging them to think critically about religion.

At one turbulent school-board meeting in Charleston in 1974, activists made familiar arguments about student safety. The meeting was crowded. Speakers had to sign up in advance. The crowd booed progressives and cheered conservatives. Conservatives often suggested that multicultural textbooks threatened students by deriding their religious beliefs and eroding their faith. Progressives countered that students could only be kept safe by learning about people different from themselves.

Figure 5.1

Conservative leader Alice Moore at the packed 1974 school-board meeting.

For example, from the conservative side, PTA member Rory Petrie warned that the new books were “very objectionable” because they were “very subtly . . . undermining the religious beliefs of our children.” Similarly, concerned parent Robert Steckert warned that the books threatened his kids when they “cast doubt and skepticism upon my child.”

Progressives agreed on the goal of student safety. But they came to the opposite conclusion. Real student safety meant more, not less, cultural diversity. In order to keep students safe, the school board needed to make sure every student encountered different cultural perspectives. As one progressive parent and former teacher put it, the world was a complicated place. If students didn’t learn about the true diversity out there, they would be in danger. Yes, the real world could be a scary place, but the solution was not to be found in telling students that it was not. School needed to teach students about reality. As this parent put it, “we cannot hide it from our children.”

Another progressive activist from the West Virginia ACLU agreed. Students would be in danger unless they learned about the real world. Students needed to learn that different people saw things differently; students would only be safe if they acquired an “understanding of why people and groups of people are different.”

In all these school fights, whatever the apparent topic, the notion of student safety was paramount. All sides agree that students must be kept safe. All sides used the notion of danger to mobilize support for their positions.

And it continues today. When you hear rumblings of a culture-war battle in school, listen for it. Whether activists are ranting about sex ed or school prayer, evolution or Christian history, someone is sure to say it: Only my side will keep students safe.

Fundamentalist Colleges Save Lives

Maybe they were right. One of the hallmarks of conservative evangelical colleges has always been a clampdown on student behavior. The goal was to protect student morals, but a side benefit seems to have been protecting student health. A new study finds…surprise, surprise…that smoking pot and binge drinking lead to more risky sex among undergrads.

A hundred years ago, conservative evangelical Protestants reeled from the horror stories oozing out of America’s elite colleges. Fundamentalist preachers warned their flocks that colleges in the 1910s no longer protected students’ faith or morals. As a result, fundamentalists founded their own network of rigidly conservative schools. In addition to fundamentalist theology, all of these colleges adopted draconian rules for students: No smoking, no dancing, no drinking…and certainly no unmarried sex.

The view from 1931, Bob  Jones-style.

The view from 1931, Bob Jones-style.

As I work on my new book about the history of these schools, I’m struggling to make sense of these ubiquitous student rules. It’s easy enough to find the paper trail in the archives. At Bob Jones College, for example, founder Bob Jones Sr. placed the burden of avoiding sex on women.

Jones explained his thinking in an open letter from the 1920s:

The Bob Jones College discourages extravagance in dress AND INSISTS UPON MODESTY.

We request our girls to wear simple dresses in classes. We have a laundry where these dresses can be laundered.

The girls in the Bob Jones College voted to wear their dresses two inches below the knee cap. This is short enough for style and long enough for decency.

The girls in the Bob Jones College last year had the reputation of being the most attractive group of girls in the country, and as a whole, they dressed very simply.

There is one regulation which we wish our girls to thoroughly understand. WE DO NOT ALLOW OUR GIRLS TO WEAR EACH OTHERS CLOTHES. The only exception is in the case of sisters.

Bob Jones College was not alone in the effort to control sex by controlling women. One student who attended Wheaton College in the 1920s remembered a similarly strict regime of sexual policing. “Well,” this former student remembered in a 1984 interview,

The control was rather tight. Of course, that was in those days when . . . when the separation of the sexes was very strict, and the . . . the regulations were . . . dress regulations and so forth were quite strict.

Did students find ways to get around these rules? Of course. It’s harder to find, but as I delve into the archives of these colleges I find examples of students being punished for drinking, smoking, attending movies, and, of course, hooking up. One student at Bob Jones College was caught climbing out of his girlfriend’s dorm window at midnight. He said they had been praying together. A student at Wheaton remembered his roommate speaking to his girlfriend through a system of prison wall-taps.

All in all, though, the draconian system of student rules meant a different campus experience than at non-fundamentalist colleges. Over the years, the rules have loosened up, but they remain more restrictive than at other schools.

What has been the result? On the one hand, the system of sexual policing seems to pushed sex on campus into dangerous and degrading directions. Bob Jones University, for example, admitted its terrible and terrifying record of ignoring and even tacitly encouraging sexual abuse and victimization.

But we can’t help but think that stricter rules against drugs and alcohol must do something to protect students, as well. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no apologist for evangelical universities. I’m not evangelical myself; I don’t work at an evangelical college; I don’t dream of a school in which students don’t use drugs or have sex.

However, there seems to be demonstrable evidence that drinking and using drugs leads to risky behaviors. The researchers at Oregon State found direct connections between smoking pot, binge drinking, and unhealthy sexual practices. Students who used more drugs on any given day were more likely to have sex without a condom, for example.

The stricter rules about drugs and sex at evangelical colleges were put in place to protect student morals, not their health. As I’ve argued before, if we want to understand conservative attitudes about sex, we need to shift out of the medical mindset. However, perhaps there has been a positive side-effect.

I would love to see a study like this in which researchers looked at student behavior at a variety of schools. Did school rules against booze and sex discourage risky behaviors? Or did the added illicitness simply push students to take more risks?

Are Schools Guilty in Sexual Assault Cases?

It is a sobering question to ask: Do schools—all schools—put kids in danger? Another terrifying news story of rape at school demonstrates the point. Because schools take authority over young people, because schools put young people together, because schools necessarily put students in close private contact with peers, coaches, and teachers, schools of all sorts become the arena for rape, assault, and abuse. No type of school seems immune, but each type of school has its own unique blend of dangerous cultural components.

Exception?  Or rule?

Exception? Or rule?

The story of Owen Labrie at the elite St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire proves that parents can’t buy themselves out of this dilemma. Labrie was accused of participating in a tradition of a “senior salute,” in which students target younger students for sexual conquests.

Before we look more closely at the Labrie case, though, we need to ask some uncomfortable questions:

  • Do all schools inadvertently support rape culture?
  • Is there no way to protect vulnerable young people?
  • Does the culture of school push administrators to downplay the sexual dangers of their institutions?

In recent years, I’ve been exploring the troubled history of evangelical colleges and universities. As we’ve explored in these pages, such schools have a history of sweeping cases of sexual assault under the rug. At some of the more conservative schools, loyalty to the administration has trumped care for victims of assault and abuse.

But such schools are not alone. Though I’ve been accused of ignorance and insensitivity for pointing this out, secular and pluralist colleges also have a terrible record of ignoring sexual crimes on their campuses.

What’s worse, these things are not incidental or accidental. The history and culture of these schools contributes directly to the atmosphere of sexual aggression. In some schools, for example, football coaches and players have been elevated to godlike status. They have been protected from punishment for terrible crimes. At other schools, administrators pointedly ignore an alcohol-soaked “party culture” that attracts students but leaves them woefully vulnerable to assault and abuse.

As the recent case at St. Paul’s School shows, even the fanciest private prep schools haven’t avoided this dilemma. Though the school has denied it, some involved parties have accused St. Paul’s of fostering a culture of entitlement, a culture of callous arrogance, which turned vulnerable students into sexual targets.

Both sides agree that Owen Labrie and a younger student met on a school rooftop. They engaged in some kissing at first. Then the sexual activity escalated. The victim accused Labrie of ignoring her repeated attempts to stop. Labrie denied that they had had vaginal intercourse and denied that the victim had said “no.” The jury seems to have split, acquitting Labrie of the most serious felony rape charges but convicting him of several counts of electronic predation.

Who is guilty here? The victim’s family charged that the school “allowed and fostered a toxic culture that left our daughter and other students at risk to sexual violence.” As the New York Times reported, even Labrie’s defense accused the school of creating “an educational haven with a troubling culture of sex, entitlement and misogyny.”

Is the school culpable? Even more troubling, we need to ask if schools in general are culpable. Elite schools create environments of entitlement. Football schools create environments of hero-worship. Fundamentalist schools create environments of victim-blaming. Secular schools created environments of drunken hook-ups.

All schools, it seems, have their own dangerous mix of cultural factors. It can’t be enough for school administrators to issue statements of remorse, if those same administrators have tacitly condoned the things that encouraged sexual assault and abuse in the first place.

Teaching Kids about Rape

How can we lessen the horrible frequency of sexual assault in colleges? The New York Times wants us to start in middle school. Their proposal suffers from a terrible case of Manhattan-itis.

NYT editors pointed to studies from Illinois and New York that seem to bolster their case. When kids learn to communicate their feelings, when they learn explicitly about safe places and violence, the amount of “sexual harassment” and “inappropriate touching” drops.

Manhattan, Kansas

Manhattan, Kansas

It makes sense to me personally. As a teacher and a parent, I’ve seen the positive results when young people learn to speak openly and frankly about all aspects of sex.

But as a historian, this proposal seems to willfully ignore reality. The NYT editors note that “some parents may object to their children learning about sexuality in middle school and even before.” Yet they seem not to worry about such predictable objections. If such programs succeed in the Netherlands, the editors assert, they can work here.

As I argued in my recent book, folks like these NYT editors (and me) have always woefully misunderstood the true political and cultural equations of schooling in the US of A. Things that may seem possible in a clinical trial are just not possible on a wider scale.

Consider just a few examples from recent history. In March, for instance, Kansas considered a law that would open teachers to prosecution for teaching children about sex—even from an approved sex-ed curriculum. That’s right: Teachers who taught explicit sexual terms could be prosecuted as sexual predators if they taught their classes as those classes were designed to be taught.

This is not just another case of something being the matter with Kansas. Last summer, parents in the San Francisco Bay Area protested about a sex-ed textbook that taught their middle-schoolers about sex. The problem was not that the textbook was not accurate. The problem was not that the material might not help students get a fuller and better understanding of sexuality.

The problem, rather, was more fundamental. Parents in these United States do not want their children to learn about sex in an explicit way. They do not want their children to know about rape, sexual assault, and other things.

And this is the problem with the New York Times editorial. The central question is not whether or not such programs are effective. The central question is not whether or not such programs work in the Netherlands. Rather, the most important question—and one that the New York Times sidesteps—is how to implement such programs in the face of the predictable and powerful opposition they are sure to elicit.

Too titillating?

Too titillating?

We have a difficult time understanding a seeming paradox: Americans want their schools to do more than teach kids things that are true. In many subjects, Americans insist that their schools help keep children ignorant. Or perhaps a better term is innocent. Sex, evolution, lynching . . . there are a host of truths that public schools are meant to un-teach. Not only can schools not do a good job teaching these things frankly and fairly, but in practice—considering the political realities—many schools are expected to do a good job of keeping children ignorant of such things.

Rule of thumb: schools won’t do anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in a formal toast at a church wedding. Is it possible to use such a platform to speak frankly about sexual assault? Yes, and in some schools (and some weddings) it is done. But by and large such tactics are not considered acceptable by Americans. Teaching a child to say “vagina” and “penis” is difficult enough. Any hope to convince parents of the need to teach kids to say “rape” and “sexual assault” must be far more fraught with difficulty than the New York Times admits.

College Sex

More bad news: Sexual assault is more than just another crime on college campuses. It is a crime that has been woven into the fabric of college life itself. Will it cause an exodus to conservative colleges?

The Washington Post recently released the findings of its new poll of college life. After surveying 1,053 students and interviewing fifty, the pollsters concluded that a quarter of college women had suffered “unwanted sexual incidents in college” and a fifth had endured “sexual assault.” That is bad news. The worse news is that the cause of these alarmingly high numbers is college itself. Part of what Americans want out of college has long been a licentious student atmosphere. For Frank the Tank and millions of other Americans, the allure of college includes binge drinking, casual sex, and “streaking the quad.”

These numbers have become—like most contentious issues in education—something of a culture-war football. As the Washington Post report points out, different polls have come up with very different results. The Post poll used a broad definition of sexual assault. Victims are those who have experienced

five types of unwanted contact: forced touching of a sexual nature, oral sex, vaginal sexual intercourse, anal sex and sexual penetration with a finger or object. . . . assailants used force or threats of force, or they attacked while their victims were incapacitated.

It is this last phrase that has caused the statistical battle. Last year, a government Bureau of Justice Statistics claimed that only 6.1 out of 1,000 college students experienced sexual attacks, a lower number than non-college students of the same age. But the BJS poll did not include sex that occurred when people were too drunk to give consent.

These days, there are orthodox positions on campus sexual assault. Progressives generally push for harsher punishments for perpetrators. Conservatives often lament the absence of due process on campuses. Hardening culture-war positions can be tested with high-profile cases: Do you think Emma Sulkowicz is a hero or a kook? Do you think Lee Bollinger is a monster?

All sides agree, however, that today’s student culture contributes to the problem. It is normal for students to binge drink. It is normal for students to engage in casual sexual encounters. In such an environment, it can be devilishly difficult to determine if and when students crossed a line from casual drunken sex to incapacitated sexual victimization.

For college leaders, this situation presents an unsolvable puzzle. As historian Roger Geiger has argued, by 1890 most schools participated in the emergence of the modern student lifestyle. Instead of days packed with required chapel visits and several recitations, modern colleges and universities offered students an array of possible majors and a much freer daily schedule. As a result, now-familiar student organizations such as fraternities and athletic teams became important parts of college experiences.

What Geiger called the “collegiate revolution” soon became an expected part of a full college experience. University leaders these days might huff and puff about fighting binge drinking. They might offer counseling and classes about appropriate sexual behavior. But if school leaders really cracked down on the drunken partying that leads to so much of this sexual assault, they’d quickly find themselves out of a job. Alumni donors insist on it. Potential students look for it. Like it or not, one of the expected parts of a college education these days is irresponsible behavior.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m working on a book these days about a dissenting group of colleges and universities. These conservative evangelical schools—schools such as Wheaton College in Illinois and Bob Jones University in South Carolina—have often participated in many elements of modern academic life. For example, like mainstream schools, fundamentalist colleges divided their work into academic disciplines. They encouraged faculty research. They insisted that students complete high school before entering college. All of these things seem obvious to us, but they all came as revolutionary changes between roughly 1870 and 1920.

But fundamentalist schools resolutely refused to accept some of the revolutionary changes at mainstream colleges. For instance, they did not agree to the emerging concept of academic freedom for faculty. At fundamentalist colleges, professors had to agree every year to various school creeds. For students, fundamentalist college life also looked very different. Though most fundamentalist schools allowed student clubs and athletic teams, most of them banned fraternities. They also banned smoking, drinking, and sex.

Fundamentalist colleges have plenty of problems of their own when it comes to sexual assault. Most egregiously, as we’ve noted in these pages, some schools have accused victims of causing the problem. Others have participated in the kinds of shameful cover-up common among mainstream colleges as well.

Yet students at fundamentalist and conservative evangelical colleges will not likely suffer from the same sort of drunken, incapacitated sexual assault that seems so depressingly common at mainstream schools. I’ve been accused of ignorance and insensitivity for pointing this out in the past.

I still can’t help but wonder, though: If the sort of sexual assault reported in the WP poll really shocks people, will the teetotaling atmosphere on conservative campuses begin to seem more attractive? Will secular or liberal Protestants think about enrolling their children at conservative schools just to avoid drunken hookups and assaults?

Harvard Brings Lynching Back

Have college campuses welcomed a new generation of lynch mobs? It is a disturbing question raised recently by Harvard Law School Professor Janet Halley in the pages of the Harvard Law Review.

New home of the academic lynch mob?

New home of the academic lynch mob?

Last November, Halley publicly critiqued Harvard’s new policy for handling accusations of sexual assault. Under pressure from the federal Office of Civil Rights, Harvard and many other schools, Halley charged, felt

immense pressure to decide flimsy, weak, doubtful and difficult cases favorably to complainants, or face the wrath of a government agency that can cut off all federal funding to the entire institution.

In her commentary in the Harvard Law Review, Halley takes her argument a step further. How can we decide cases of alleged sexual assault, Halley asks, when policy is decided more by emotion than by reason? As she asks, new policies at many schools include

a commitment to the idea that women should not and do not bear any responsibility for the bad things that happen to them when they are voluntarily drunk, stoned, or both. This commitment cuts women off — in theory and in application — from assuming agency about their own lives. Since when was that a feminist idea?

More disturbing, Halley raises the obvious but horrifying parallel. In America’s brutal history, there is plenty of precedent for what can happen when those accused of sexual assault have no legal right to defend themselves. We call it lynching. As a new report from the Equal Justice Initiative makes painfully clear, America’s white population often brutalized and murdered African American men on the merest whiff of accusations.

Is it hyperbole to suggest that today’s campus-rape rules threaten to bring back such lynch-mob mentalities? The danger, Professor Halley suggests, is that colleges are under intense pressure to convict someone accused of sexual assault, even if there is not enough evidence to do so. She cites a widely publicized case from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. In that case, the college decided that it did not have enough evidence to charge anyone with sexual assault, in spite of ample evidence that a rape had occurred.

Halley does not suggest that the victim was lying or making it up. But she worries that colleges will feel pressure to convict someone in such cases, even when there is not enough evidence to do so. In this case, Halley argues that the rush to bring justice for the victim blinds us to the rights of the accused. As she puts it,

the Colleges had to assign blame to one or more of their students despite their complete lack of direct evidence about which of them actually deserved it.

Halley wonders if such policies will bring lynching back. She writes,

American racial history is laced with vendetta-like scandals in which black men are accused of sexually assaulting white women that become reverse scandals when it is revealed that the accused men were not wrongdoers at all.

These are difficult charges to hear, much less evaluate. After all, the more obvious moral challenge facing colleges is not the violent history of lynching, but the shameful history of ignoring the pleas of victims of sexual assault. For decades, universities—including the evangelical schools I’m studying these days—covered up campus rape in an ill-conceived quest to preserve their reputations as safe havens for young people.

Nevertheless, these are vital questions we must ask. Do Professor Halley’s worries have merit? Are colleges these days—in an understandable rush to correct past abuses—heading too far in the other direction? Must the rights of the accused be protected with the same vigor as the rights of the accuser?

Colleges Call for Cop Killings

Do radical professors encourage violence? That’s the question some conservative commentators are asking in the wake of the vicious assassinations of two New York City police officers. As I argue in my upcoming book about educational conservatism, this sort of conservative worry has a long history. It goes much farther back than the campus radicalism of the 1960s.

Available soon: the more things change...

Available soon: the more things change…

At National Review Online, for instance, Katherine Timpf shares a story from Brandeis University. At that prestigious school just outside of Boston, student Daniel Mael has published violent tweets from fellow student Khadijah Lynch.

Mael blasted Lynch for advocating violence against the government, and Brandeis for supporting her. According to Mael, Lynch had tweeted that she had “no sympathy for the nypd officers who were murdered today.” Earlier, according to Mael, Lynch had written, “I am in riot mode. F*** this f****** country.”

Instead of being punished for such incendiary language, Mael noted, Brandeis had made Lynch an official campus student officer, responsible for advising younger students. She had been a featured speaker at university events and, according to Mael, remained an undergraduate student representative of her academic department.

Is the university to blame for encouraging racial violence?

Timpf is not the only conservative pundit to ask the question. At Minding the Campus, Peter Wood blasts college culture for nurturing violent extremism. Today’s leftist-riddled faculties and administrations, Wood charges, encourage and condone wild-eyed radicalism among students.

Students and faculty, Wood writes, have been implicated in recent anti-police violence in New York City. But that’s not all. On the bitterly divided campus of the University of Virginia, the administration has turned a blind eye to student violence against innocent fraternity members.

Wood gives several examples of graduate students and faculty who have encouraged racial violence. Does this implicate universities? As he concluded,

the links don’t have to be guessed at. They are there to be seen.  Some of the connections are in the form of forceful declarations. . . . Some of the connections are in the form of heedless enthusiasm from individuals who have no sense of where this goes.

Wood’s indictment goes beyond the murders of New York policemen. At the University of Virginia, Wood writes, violence against innocent fraternity members has been winked at by the administration.

After the debacle of the Rolling Stone article falsely accusing fraternity members of a horrific sexual assault, a group of UVA students attacked the fraternity house. They were not punished, even though their identities were well known, according to Wood. Wood writes,

faced with the real crime of serious vandalism against a fraternity that had been falsely accused, and having the opportunity at hand to charge the culprits, President Sullivan [of UVA] decided to take no action.

Virginia is not alone, Wood argues. At other schools, a certain sort of student violence is condoned or even encouraged by faculty and administration who sympathize with student attitudes. The radical likes of Ward Churchill and Bill Ayers, Wood implies, are only the most famous cases of red professors guiding student malfeasance.

Wood argues that this campus radicalism has been a problem “Since the 1960s.” But in reality both campus radicalism and conservative denunciations have a much longer history. In some cases, conservative denunciations can seem eerily eternal.

For example, Wood calls out a doctoral student by name at Teachers College Columbia. Aaron Samuel Breslow, Wood writes, has been an active supporter of violent resistance. In 1938, it was Teachers College doctoral student William Gellerman who attracted conservative ire. Back then, Gellerman published a denunciation of American Legion activism. The Legion, Gellerman accused, represented nothing more than

an expression of entrenched business and military interests which attempt to hide their true purposes under democratic guise.

Legion leader Daniel Doherty accused Teachers College of coddling this sort of inflammatory leftist claptrap. Doherty asked an audience at Columbia University,

Why not rid this institution of such baleful influences? The name of Columbia is besmirched from time to time when preachments containing un-American doctrines emanate from those who identify themselves with this institution. . . . Do you like having it called ‘the big red university?’

As I argue in my upcoming book, this sort of anti-higher-ed accusation was a standard part of conservative activism long before the 1960s. Indeed, its roots can be clearly seen in the 1920s.

In the 1930s, the question was clear: Should universities purge their leftist faculty? The same question echoes throughout conservative punditry today, with an inflammatory twist:

Are universities morally culpable in the assassination of police officers?

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.

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.