Investigative Report: Sex Abuse at Fundamentalist U


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.

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.


Liberalism Leads to Campus Rape

Well-intentioned liberal rules—plus “binge drinking”—led us to an epidemic of campus sexual assaults.  That is the equation offered recently by conservative intellectual Patrick Deneen.  Deneen argues that the abdication of control by universities in the 1960s, meant to liberate students, has pushed the federal government to step in.

In recent days, we at ILYBYGTH have wondered about the connection between conservative Christianity and campus sexual assault.  Do overzealous reporters try to use uniformed bluster about “fundamentalism” to smear conservative religious peopleOr does there seem to be something peculiarly dangerous about authoritarian institutions such as fundamentalist colleges?

Professor Deneen has different concerns.  He notes the recent announcement by the federal government that it is investigating fifty-five universities for their handling of sexual-assault cases.  When universities and colleges fail to maintain the safety and security of their students, the Office of Civil Rights will step in.

As Deneen points out, this responsibility for the sexual morality of students used to be the responsibility of the universities themselves.  College graduates of a certain age may remember the elaborate rules that enveloped college-student social lives before the 1960s.  Female students at mainstream colleges—even at public institutions—often had to check in with “dorm mothers” at nine o’clock.  In every aspect of student life, the college took on the role of the parent.  In every way, the college acted in loco parentis—in place of the parent.

Of course, in the 1960s campuses in the US and around the world became hotbeds of political and cultural upheaval.  Students demanded more freedom, and they got it.  At many schools, in loco parentis rules were scrapped.  In many schools, indeed, core curricula were also scrapped in the name of freedom.  For instance, at my own beloved school, Binghamton University, students staged the “Bermuda Revolution.”  Not quite up to the office occupations and shotgun-wielding demands that rocked our neighbors at Columbia University or Cornell, but Bearcats managed to come together to protest strict student rules.  At Binghamton, the Bermuda Revolution brought students out to our Peace Quad clad in Bermuda shorts.  At the time, this was against the stern, traditional dress code that required shirts and ties for men and skirts and blouses for women.  As a result, the university changed those rules, giving students more freedom over their own lives.

Campus Revolutionaries, Binghamton Style

Campus Revolutionaries, Binghamton Style

One unintended consequence of this freedom is that more young people on college campuses have been exposed to sexual violence.  When students have more opportunity to drink alcohol and stay out late, more students find themselves in situations that lead to sexual assault.  As a result, the federal government has stepped in to investigate the way universities respond to charges of rape and sexual assault.

Professor Deneen argues that this tale of freedom gone awry can be seen as the history of liberalism in a nutshell.  As he puts it,

Longstanding local rules and cultures that governed behavior through education and cultivation of certain kinds of norms, manners, and morals, came to be regarded as an oppressive limitation upon the liberty of individuals. Those forms of control were lifted in the name of liberation, leading to regularized abuse of those liberties. In the name of redressing the injustices of those abuses, the federal government was seen as the only legitimate authority for redress and thereby exercised powers (ones that often require creative interpretations of federal law to reach down into private institutions) to re-regulate the liberated behaviors. However, now there is no longer a set of “norms” that seek to cultivate forms of self-rule, since this would constitute an unjust limitation of our freedom. Now there can only be punitive threats that occur after the fact. One cannot seek to limit the exercise of freedom before the fact (presumably by using at one’s disposal education in character and virtue); one can only punish after the fact when one body has harmed another body.

Conservative Christian colleges may have a unique set of challenges when dealing with the issue of sexual assault.  But Professor Deneen argues that sexual assault on other campuses has been a result of liberalism, not traditionalism.  Loose rules and permissive attitudes, Deneen notes, have led to an anything-goes culture.  The resulting “sexual anarchy” has left victims vulnerable to attack, with little recourse after the fact.


Florida, Football, and Fundamentalism

Is football a religion? Do the high priests of college football act like the leaders of the nation’s most conservative fundamentalist colleges? In some ways, when it comes to responding to accusations of rape and sexual assault, the similarities seem creepily prominent.

News emerged today that the case of football star Jameis Winston at Florida State will undergo a new round of scrutiny. Back in December, Winston evaded charges about an alleged sexual assault. At the time, pundits accused FSU of coddling Winston because of Winston’s star power.

As we’ve seen in these pages, conservative evangelical Protestant colleges–“fundamentalist” schools–have weathered similar charges of stonewalling and covering up charges of sexual assault on their campus.

Are these cases similar? Does football function like fundamentalism? That is, does the culture of big-name, big-money football create an environment in which everything else takes a back seat to success on the gridiron? Where any questioning of the football team becomes similar to questioning basic tenets of orthodox religious belief?

Let’s take a look at some of the similarities and differences.

At least according to some accusers, fundamentalist schools actively target victims of sexual assault. Both men and women, students and administrators, are steeped in a “purity culture” that encourages all involved to see female victims as sexual temptresses. When accusations of rape emerge, victims are attacked by students and administrators. The threat of making such accusations intimidates many other victims into a scarred silence.

Similar hostility emerges with college football. The alleged victim of the FSU rape, for instance, eventually dropped out of school and moved out of town due to constant harassment and death threats.

Also, it seems both football and fundamentalism push college administrators to worry first about the school, and only secondly about the complaints of victims. With football, the stars must be protected. No one can win a Heisman Trophy or a national championship from a jail cell. And with fundamentalism, schools must protect their reputations as uniquely safe environments. Publicity about sexual assault would certainly threaten that reputation.

But there are also significant differences. First of all, non-fundamentalist schools are almost all subject to review by federal guidelines. In the case of FSU, for example, the case has come back into the headlines because of accusations that the FSU administration might have violated provisions of Title IX in its handling of the case. Most fundamentalist schools refuse all federal funding, so they can operate without such oversight or federal review.

More profoundly, cases at fundamentalist schools are about more than just administrative cover-ups. Some pundits insist that the culture at fundamentalist schools operates as a hyper-charged version of broader cultures that blame women victims. More than at pluralist public schools such as FSU, critics allege, fundamentalist schools promote both sexual assault and victim-blaming by insisting on a “purity culture” standard. Women involved in sex of any kind often find themselves accused of instigating sinful acts.

Victory we have heard on high

Victory we have heard on high

There’s no doubt that big-time college sports look like religions, in lots of ways. They have weekly rituals, with ceremonial outfits and traditional musical accompaniment. They have high priests and acolytes who huddle to make important decisions. And, at least in the eyes of many fans and players, they involve the community in a staged fight of the powers of good versus the powers of evil.

But does this quasi-religious adoration of college sports bleed over into the treatment of accusations of rape as well?


Jesus College and the Rape Smear

I’m no fan of Patrick Henry College.  But I’m even less of a fan of the cultural politics of smearing.  Smears are the biological weapons of cultural warfare; they poison the ground for generations.

Last week we read with interest an “expose” of the rape-friendly campus at the attention-grabbing conservative school.  Rape is a terrible problem.  And campus rape seems to have taken on a life of its own.  But the author of this article seemed more intent on smearing Patrick Henry and conservative religious people in general than she did in exploring the real issues.

This sort of smear attack is doubly dangerous. First, smears like this convince the already convinced that their Christian enemies must be fought tooth and nail.  After all, the article implies, conservative Christians support rape.  What kind of monsters are they?  Second, conservative Christians will easily be able to point out the unfair guilt-by-association tactics this writer resorts to.  For Christians, this sort of smear simply provides more proof that Bible-loving Christians are a beleaguered minority, under unfair attack from an aggressive, hostile, secularizing liberal elite.

Let me be crystal clear: I am not defending Patrick Henry College.  I am not saying that the administration and students did or did not react badly to allegations of sexual assault.  I am not saying that assaults did or did not take place.  I am certainly not saying that allegations of sexual assault need not be taken seriously, nor that female victims ought to blamed.

But the author of this article, Kiera Feldman, repeatedly resorts to insinuation and smear in an attempt to demonize this conservative Christian institution.  The article tells the story of Claire Spear, a freshman, who was attacked by a fellow student.  Feldman also describes the case of Sarah Patten, who was assaulted on campus.  Feldman accuses the college administration of pooh-poohing the incidents.  More powerfully, Feldman implies that the conservative Christian campus culture actually encourages male-on-female sexual assaults.

To build her case, Feldman relies on some tried-but-false McCarthyite tactics.  Patrick Henry College, Feldman notes correctly, was opened in 2000, in large part to provide a congenial collegiate home for the burgeoning numbers of conservative Christian homeschooled kids.  But Feldman asserts with wild inaccuracy, “Underlying homeschooling culture is the Christian patriarchy movement.”  Of course, some Christian homeschoolers—even some members of the ILYBYGTH community—have had horrific experiences with this sort of quiverfull-esque homeschooling monstrosity.  But to imply that homeschooling culture is dominated by this sort of attitude demonstrates woeful ignorance about the true contours of American homeschooling.

Similarly, in her attempt to tar Patrick Henry as a hotbed of rape culture, Feldman mentions Missouri Senator Todd Akin’s terrifying discussions of “legitimate rape.”  As far as I can tell, Akin has absolutely no connection to Patrick Henry College, but Feldman mentions Akin’s accursed name, only to point out that Patrick Henry College “sponsored similar ideas.”  This is the smear tactic at its worst.  Did you know, for example, that the Communist Manifesto listed a graduated income tax as one of the ten top goals for communists?  Therefore, President Wilson must clearly be a communist, since he sponsored such a tax a century ago.

Campus rape is a real problem.  The most common statistic we hear is that one in five female students will experience some sort of sexual assault during their school experience.  This is an issue that has justifiably attracted the attention of activists and politicians.  For instance, state senators in California have introduced a bill that would mandate consent for every sexual act as the new legal standard.

But this problem is not somehow related to the Christian theology of school such as Patrick Henry.  Indeed, even if we take Feldman’s numbers of assaults to be accurate—which the administration of the school vigorously denies—it seems Patrick Henry has been a remarkably safe school, compared to other colleges.  Indeed, as the California legislators pointed out, complaints about assault and rape at schools such as UC-Berkeley and Occidental College far outstrip the complaints Feldman chronicles at Patrick Henry.

Indeed, it might seem more accurate to ask if Patrick Henry’s conservative culture PREVENTS sexual assault.  After all, the drinking, partying lifestyle that seems to be such a big part of student life at many secular schools will find no home at Patrick Henry.  As Caitlin Flanagan recently described in the pages of The Atlantic, fraternities and sororities at public and more secular schools have astonishing rates of sexual assault and injury.

Not that such things would excuse Patrick Henry’s administrators if they did downplay the seriousness of sexual assault charges.  But it must give readers pause.  If the Christian culture at Patrick Henry encourages sexual assault, as Feldman implies, surely we’d expect to see more cases pop up at Patrick Henry than at secular schools.  That’s just not the case.