Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
No Safeguard, No Whole: Why I Left Cedarville University | Righting America

by Julie L. Moore

Julie L. Moore is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Full Worm Moon, which won a 2018 Woodrow Hall Top Shelf Award, and which received honorable mention for the Conference on Christianity and Literature’s 2018 Book of the Year. She now teaches at Taylor University, a long-standing member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).

Painting of Saint John Henry Newman in priestly garbs looking contemplatively ahead.
Photo Credit: CNS/courtesy of the Catholic Church of England and Wales – Blessed John Henry Newman is seen in a portrait provided by the Catholic Church in England and Wales, via https://www.cardinaljohnhenrynewman.com

As you may have heard, this past week, Tim Bray, a Vice-President at Amazon Web Services, announced he quit his job because Amazon would not establish safe working environments in its warehouses, as Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ) had demanded a year ago. With the COVID-19 pandemic, conditions only worsened, and eventually, Amazon fired AECJ leaders who’d blown the whistle on the company. 

Bray walked out, saying: 

Firing whistleblowers isn’t just a side-effect of macroeconomic forces, nor is it intrinsic to the function of free markets. It’s evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture. I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison.

I made a similar choice when I walked away from Cedarville University (CU) in 2017.

As a CU alumna who attended the then-college under President Paul Dixon, I have always appreciated my undergraduate experiences. To be sure, the school was known more for its strict rules back in the 1980s than for its educational prowess, and those rules were sexist (women had to wear skirts) and ridiculous (movie theatres were banned but VCRs weren’t). 

Yet, somehow, Cedarville still fostered open discourse. I have fond memories of debating the ideas behind free will and predestination with Calvinist and Arminian friends alike. Likewise, professors disagreed, amicably, upon such beliefs. Furthermore, while most professors did ascribe to the conservative “complementarian” views of women’s roles, some were beloved egalitarians who helped me realize my own potential. In college, I read Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, philosophers like William James and John Dewey, and a wealth of literature and literary criticism (I was an English major) in addition to many other theological works. No one ever told me certain works of literature should not be read.

Graduate school at the University of Dayton and a decade teaching at Wilberforce University followed. By 2000, CU had dropped most of its illogical rules and under Dixon’s last years, was progressing toward even more open discourse as well as sensitivity toward marginalized people groups. Because WU was facing financial stresses, it seemed like a good time to return and join the effort to bring CU into the 21st century. 

Shortly after I began teaching there, Dr. Bill Brown was hired as its new president, and CU enjoyed an unprecedented time of renewed scholarship and investment in culturally relevant discourse. Students became deeply concerned about human trafficking, care of the environment, and other social justice issues, and the university began to connect with organizations like International Justice Mission, the Preemptive Love Coalition, and The Luke Commission. A Young Democrats organization even began, led by a veteran Education professor. In short, although Dr. Brown’s decade at CU was far from ideal, CU did earn a reputation for its educational excellence, and expanded its student population beyond just Baptists.

Unfortunately, though, Brown’s presidency also suffered through an abundance of internal conflicts between fundamentalists and open-minded conservatives (yes, there is such a thing). Amid such conflicts, a fundamentalist Bible professor was fired, who then sued the school. The conflicts and the litigation both communicated to the fundamentalist constituency that CU was “going liberal,” a fate worse than death for such folks. Thus, these troubles drained the school of money, energy, and unity of vision, leading to Brown’s eventual (forced) resignation and the hiring of Dr. White.

Righting America  —  here and here – has done an excellent job tracking what led up to that point and thereafter, so I won’t repeat that information here. 

Suffice it to say, in 2012, CU set off on a trajectory of purging perceived liberalism from its school. Of course, such a mission rests solely on perceptions. 

After teaching at CU for 18 years, I left to escape the toxic environment and to pursue the idea of a real university. (I didn’t leave CU because White hired Anthony Moore—that happened a month later—and covered up Moore’s sexual assault. I do believe White’s decision was unethical and rooted in cronyism, however; he should be fired.)

Cardinal John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, written in 1852, imagined the university as a place where students would discover the connections and relationships between disparate fields of knowledge because of their common Creator. Newman’s work resonates with me because, as a CU student, I’d been taught that all truth is God’s truth, so discovering it anywhere we could find it is as necessary and invigorating as, say, reading our Bibles or attending church. Though Jesus and the Bible are God’s “special revelation,” the rest of the world’s knowledge, when true, is God’s “general revelation.” One Creator of all truth. 

Yet, under Pres. White, there was a massive shift away from this understanding. This shift has not really been visible to parents, prospective students, or even present students (they don’t know what they don’t know), but those students who endured the transition between Brown and White saw it clearly. Many professors suffer under it. White has elevated the Bible Department above all else. Now that the vast majority of professors there are his chosen people (he forced out a dozen of the professors he inherited), and the long-time veterans have been demoted to teaching mostly general education classes, that department is the crown jewel. It’s what White values most and admires most.

Science and math are necessary, but not profitable, thus the reason the physics major was also cut. They don’t make money like engineering, nursing, and pharmacy, which are also non-suspect. White and his Vice President of Academics are suspicious of psychology and social work as well as all the liberal arts: literature and philosophy (the latter, a major CU also got rid of), film and creative writing, art and theatre. 

Indeed, under White’s administration, all the liberal arts must now be “pure,” a la the censorship policy, which was foisted upon faculty in 2017. Then VPA Reno, who is now the acting president in the wake of White’s administrative leave, wrote the policy. Reno resigned as VPA immediately after enacting the policy against faculty opposition—no faculty vote was allowed, by the way. The present VPA, Tom Mach, now enforces the policy. 

Supposedly based upon Philippians 4:8, the policy requires faculty to choose materials that balance the pure with the noble, the true with the lovely, and the admirable with the just, but should not merely focus on what is “just.” Simultaneously, however, the policy bans anything the administration considers “pornographic,” “erotic,” “obscene,” or “graphic.” As a result, the policy clearly elevates sexual purity above all else, introducing an incorrect interpretation of and application of the verse (and even the term “purity” itself, as CU limits its meaning only to sexual purity, but no other kind of purity). All academic disciplines’ standards, scholarship, and best practices are, therefore, subjected to and censored by that narrow view of “purity.” 

And so, the policy dictates that faculty “run material and media by their dean or chair prior to presenting it to students if it approaches the category of ‘unacceptable.’” And it ends with this bold-faced threat: “Before God and the administration, faculty are accountable for their choices, and deans and chairs for their oversight of this material.” 

Once censorship begins, it’s hard to stop, and it gets enforced in pell-mell fashion, as complaints arise. So films like Schindler’s List, a Latina author’s memoir about surviving sexual abuse at age 9, certain Native American trickster myths, acclaimed graphic novels such as Persepolis—and the list goes on—are all banned. Inexcusably, many censored published works are written by authors of color, showing a complete lack of understanding about cultural differences, a disregard for diversity, and in some cases, a lack of compassion for the “least of these” caught in poverty and war.

In fact, despite the policy’s claim that it is “not designed to restrict the free discussion of ideologies, philosophies, or schools of thought that may or may not run counter to biblical truth,” the reality is, administrators have, indeed, used it to censor many ideologies, such as literary theories, books by Shane Claiborne, and even non-Republican political views. (A student Democratic organization used to exist on campus, but it’s long gone now.) 

Even worse, CU administrators often kowtow to infantilized high school students and freshmen who don’t have the maturity to encounter certain legitimate assignments. Faculty, therefore, now teach at CU fearing that at any time, a student may complain (through their parents, of course) to Dr. White or the VPA about assigned material, then get reprimanded, or worse, forced out (complete with a non-disclosure agreement required for severance). 

The main goal of every faculty member now is to stay off the administration’s “purity” radar. 

In short, CU’s toxicity is just as bad, if not worse, than Amazon’s. Present and former CU professors have now spoken out about the toxic culture, which includes public shaming of sexual abuse victims via the censorship policy: https://julieroys.com/professors-describe-public-shaming-toxic-culture-at-cedarville-u/.

This policy certainly does not cohere to the idea of a University. Nor does it cohere with much of Christian Higher Education, as represented by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), which White yanked CU out of in 2016. It doesn’t abide by the accreditation guidelines the Higher Learning Commission mandates either. (CU’s accreditation was renewed in 2016, just months prior to the censorship policy’s enactment.)

Cardinal Newman warns against disconnecting disciplines from each other, as has happened at CU. He explains that doing so distorts the teaching of truth: “There is no science but tells a different tale, when viewed as a portion of a whole, from what it is likely to suggest when taken by itself, without the safeguard, as I may call it, of others.” Indeed, a censorship policy removes the natural “safeguard” of other disciplines themselves, much like John Milton argued in Areopagitica:

And though all the windes of doctrin were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falshood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the wors, in a free and open encounter. Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.

How can there be true education without such encounters and juxtapositions? Truth is strong, not weak, and God is big enough to handle the challenge. 

And what of multiple truths existing simultaneously—paradoxes, those apparent contradictions inherent in any Christian faith? 

That’s the meat we must teach and allow our students to chew on, for doing so will help students develop both a “philosophical habit” and a “truly great intellect,” which, according to Newman, see a “connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near, and which has an insight into the influence of all these one on another; without which there is no whole, and no centre” (emphasis mine).

After all, any university education is so much more than job preparation. Students will not become mere workers serving the state or the GDP. They’ll become active citizens, too, who hopefully will vote and continue to educate themselves about their local and global problems and solutions. They may become church members, spouses, and parents. Perhaps, they’ll become blood or organ donors, activists, or ministers. They may even become community organizers, volunteers, and political leaders.

Their intellects matter. 

Incidentally, the same year the CU administration passed the censorship policy, they also became the first university in Ohio to allow concealed carry consistent with state law. I couldn’t abide the thought of any one of the antagonistic male administrators, who often boasted about their gun play, packing heat on campus. 

So like Tim Bray, I had to leave the culture engineered on fear, an environment so in love with its own homogenous ideology that anyone who appears even slightly different is likewise assumed to be out of line, liberal (gasp!), and worst of all, unChristian. Indeed, the climate was and is poisonous.

Even a CU alumna like me—Christian to my core!— no longer felt welcome there.