Righting America

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 “Yes, Dr. White, your Cedarville students need revival” | Righting America

By Alex Mattackal

Picture of protestors without there faces holding posters that show support for the silences; they are wearing jeans or sweat pants with white sneakers.
Image of Survivors Protesting at Cedarville University. Image credit: Emilie Schulze.

Alex Mattackal is a current J.D. candidate and holds a B.A. in International Studies and Spanish from Cedarville University. She took two years after her undergraduate degree to serve as an AmeriCorps Disaster Recovery Fellow, securing and disbursing federal funds for victims of Dayton, Ohio’s Memorial Day tornadoes. She is located in the Atlanta metro area and is passionate about public service and advocacy.

(This was written in response to Cedarville University President Dr. Thomas White’s February 13th chapel. All quotes are taken directly from his message.)

I’ll begin with the legal issue: under Title IX, as soon as a university is made aware of an incident involving any sex discrimination, sexual harassment, or sexual violence, it must immediately and formally investigate. If the investigation uncovers evidence, the university must take immediate action to remedy the situation and its effects. If a school knowingly allows the hostile environment to continue, they are in violation of Title IX. Action can be taken before an investigation concludes to protect the claimant and others.

On February 13th, Cedarville University students planned a protest in response to the administration’s mishandling of Title IX cases. Said mishandling is broad and recurring.  

The plan was to walk out after worship, once President Dr. White took the stage to give the sermon. He disrupted this routine and their plans, taking the stage for a surprise announcement. One would think that the university president, in his first address to a crowd of students processing through a serious on-campus incident colored by Title IX claims, would say anything other than:

“These past few months have been really difficult for me.”

The optics of the message are dystopian. White stepped off a plane from a two-month hiatus culminating in a vacation in Fiji (perhaps sponsored by his “friend of the university”) and onto a campus community eager for direction from their President.

“My name is Thomas White,” he opens, and pauses expectantly for the cheers that follow. He smiles at the student who yells “nice tan!” and confesses: “these past few months have been really difficult for a lot of people. . . difficult for me.” He supports this with a laundry list of things that are, no doubt, personally difficult for him, including his mother-in-law’s passing. His voice is thick with emotion, and though he doesn’t mention the protest once, it’s clear he’s minimizing it in comparison to real problems. It’s a guilt trip – as clumsy as it is clever, as tone-deaf as it is manipulative.

His tone is gentle, pastoral, and confident in its power to influence from the pulpit, in its certainty that this issue will blow over. (Why shouldn’t it? It always has.) After all, the university’s mishandling of Title IX cases is only substantiated by what White calls:

“Rumors,” “gaps in information,” and “guesses.”

White launches into a strange anecdote about feeling convicted about being nosy about a fictitious death’s attendant circumstances. He condemns this behavior with a tut-tut: it’s our “typical sinful inclination” and “human nature” to “wanna know everything” and, damningly, “assume the worst.” Under this interpretation, students’ concern for how the university handles Title IX cases relegates them to mere busybodies and gossips. Wanting more information about what White would consider to be people’s personal lives, not a pattern of university behavior, is sinful. It’s telling that he does not contemplate that, according to statistics, at least a sixth of his audience are survivors, maybe wondering: how will the University treat me if I come forward? Instead, White puts himself and the students in the same category of mutual confusion: “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

This is a cunning misdirection. A university and a student do not “walk together, hand in hand, shoulder in shoulder towards Christ.” Cedarville University shoulders the ultimate weight of responsibility for the well-being of their students. They are morally, biblically, and legally responsible for their safety. These are young adults. Some are minors. The appropriate response to a victim’s cry of “you should have protected us” surely cannot be “I’m not perfect. This institution’s not perfect . . . You’re not perfect.” What blatant blame-shifting. Students are hardly asking for perfection – just accountability. 

Another misdirection surfaces when White blames Title IX confidentiality requirements for the lack of university transparency: “they can’t tell you or others about every detail.” While Title IX reporting is confidential, it is wholly inaccurate to say that the university has no impact on how, or whether, cases are investigated and complainants are given adequate redress. White argues that the administration’s responsibility was ended when:

“We spent money. We increased budgets.”

White stresses the university’s establishment of the Title IX office 2.5 years ago (not addressing that the timing lines up with his Title IX scandal). He says that they exhausted resources and found “professionals with extensive training.” (Author’s note: I’m making no comment on their qualifications here, merely quoting White’s rhetoric.) Unsaid, but implicit here, is an exasperated: what more could you possibly want?

White attempts to distance the administration and Cedarville policies from the Title IX office, lest their errors fall on his shoulders. (“In case you’re wondering, the President’s office is not involved in those policies and procedures.”) In doing so, he shifts the blame yet again onto a familiar target: “the federal government complicates everything in life.” Yet it’s counterfactual to say that the administration has no impact on Title IX’s work.

Cedarville’s Title IX policy, in Section VI(B), “Amnesty,” provides the university an exemption. Everything besides the specific issue in the complaint can be grounds for discipline as set forth in the University Handbook. While students cannot be dismissed for reporting, they can be subjected to “institutional or counseling remedies consistent with our values.” It appears that if a student reports that they have been sexually assaulted while spending the night off-campus and drinking, they have no protection from “institutional remedies” for that behavior – especially if they don’t disclose the full situation up-front.

Screenshot of Cedarville University's Title IX policy that shows its rule on Amnesty.
Screenshot of Cedarville University’s Title IX Policy.

Of course, it makes sense that a culture which demands that victims be silent can’t hear how they are affected by institutional policies. Purity culture is a suppression machine that grinds on, oiled by university policy. The Cedarville handbook expressly forbids sexual contact of any kind. There are dress codes in place; curfews; segregated dorm rooms – if something bad happened to you, you were doing something bad. Accordingly, if you report, you can’t be expelled, but you are subject to discipline of some kind.

So White says that he tells Title IX administrators, just as he tells every other member of university faculty, to:

“Do what’s right and let God sort it out.”

White defends the administrators against the students claiming that the administrators “don’t care for victims.” He delivers one last clinching guilt-trip: students accusing the administrators of mishandling Title IX cases is “like me saying to you who are in social work, ‘you don’t care about people.’ All of you would go — I’m giving my life because I care about people! I wanna make a difference in the world. And our team does. I know them personally. I know that they care.”

While I’ve been critical of White’s handling of the issue, it’s my position that the Title IX administrators probably do care about victims. It’s valid to assume, as he does, that they entered that profession for that reason. However, whether or not they care about victims is, unfortunately, not at issue. Whether they see all victims as victims, with undiscriminating equity, is at issue. Whether cases are handled fairly and appropriately is at issue. Whether university policy, fundamentalist culture, victim blaming, and fear of retaliation affects those cases is at issue. We have to consider those biases in a way that is honest and non-pejorative.

His introduction, full of redirection and sleight of hand, sets up White’s final manipulative masterstroke. He pivots to an attempt to manufacture a spiritual revival, apropos of Asbury University. Here, it functions not as a genuine movement, but as another powerful manipulative tool. What Christian doesn’t want revival? Unsubstantiated “rumors” fade in the light of Glory; difficult questions need not be answered. Now, if you protest, you’re interrupting revival. Whether White should have forced revival is an entirely separate spiritual issue. What it did there, in that chapel, in that context, is help make a problem go away.

After White made it as socially, emotionally, and spiritually difficult as possible to do so, a small crowd of students walked out of the chapel after worship. The recording captures the jeers and laughs of the crowd that ushered them out. 

However, the Facebook livestream was edited to remove almost everything that this article mentions. Alumni commented “Support the silenced. Stand with survivors” in solidarity – most of those comments were removed with the edit. If everything is truly above-board, why was this done? (The archive site has the full version available, but it’s far less front-facing than the Facebook page; also, no comments are allowed.)

I spoke to students following the chapel, and many were elated, riding an emotional high, grateful to White for bringing campus back together, for explaining that the protest really was just silly and misguided. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether White wanted to replicate the movement at Asbury with genuine earnestness or obfuscate the Title IX issue. It’s an age-old tactic with age-old results: bow your head and close your eyes.