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“You Are Made to Feel Like an Enemy”: Even More Stories from the Toxic Academic Community that is Cedarville | Righting America

Introduced by William Trollinger

Photo of University President Thomas White dressed with a green and yellow bowtie and black stripped sports jacket in front of a lectern.
Cedarville President Thomas White in Chapel. Photo credit: Anna DeWine, Xenia Daily Gazette

For those of you who have not kept up on the ongoing Cedarville scandal, see here, here, here, here, and here

And here are some questions I have (a few of which I have asked before):

  1. How is it that President White, General Reno, and other top administrators still hold onto their positions?
  2. How is that Cedarville can get away with what appears like an “internal” investigation, and is hiring a public-relations “guru” (which Cedarville has done) really an appropriate response to this ongoing scandal?
  3. How does all of this relate to Cedarville’s accreditation, and how will the Higher Learning Commission – which is scheduled to visit Cedarville this fall – respond to these accumulating stories about what it means to teach at and attend Cedarville?
  4. Regarding one of the stories told below, how long – according to the “Biblically Consistent Curriculum Policy” – can a Cedarville student look at the “Statue of David ‘below the waist’ without it being considered a sin”? 

And thanks to the following Cedarville alumni for sharing these disturbing stories, which raise one other question: Is the current Cedarville really a “university,” or – under the leadership of Thomas White – has it simply devolved into being a glorified fundamentalist Bible school?

Brandon Best, Class of 2018:

In spring of 2017, I started a forum to protest the censorship policy now called the Biblically Consistent Curriculum Policy. Other students and I protested that policy’s implications for academics. Afterwards, administrators rescinded publication opportunities already offered to me, and they refused to publish my work henceforth because they said it “espouses views that [they] believe are unbiblical.” My friends and others who attended this forum began facing attacks on their work and character as well. We were disappointed and scared when campus leaders used our protest as an excuse to be vindictive and go after students who disagreed with them.

The following year, certain administrators hired a family friend, despite her lack of experience, to supervise the debate team, which I captained. Throughout the academic year, the supervisor attacked my reputation to other students, harassed me directly, and told faculty members I was bad at my job and weakened other students’ faith. When I submitted a Title IX complaint and met with John Davis, the Director of Human Resources, the supervisor actually admitted to targeting me to advance “the administration’s principles,” and she suggested that her husband, a Cedarville University (CU) professor, might retaliate with a lawsuit against me. Even though the department chair dismissed her from her job during our meeting, within a week administrators intervened and said that, if she were not running the debate program, the program would be eliminated. 

Timothy Mattackal, Class of 2018:

I started my freshman year at Cedarville University in 2014 which was right at the start of Dr. White’s presidency. Throughout the course of my four years at Cedarville, I witnessed the school become more and more totalitarian and intolerant of any opposition to their ideology. The most profound way in which I was personally impacted by this was through my experience on the University debate team. When I joined the team my sophomore year, Cedarville had one of the most prestigious debate programs in the National Parliamentary Debate League which we competed in. We achieved this success by being well-versed in a wide array of viewpoints and arguments on all ends of the political and ideological spectrums. Because of this, the debate team was one of the few places in Cedarville where one could openly discuss points of view which were outside of the Cedarville orthodoxy. We would converse about LGBTQ+ issues and critical race theory, as well as study the work of a wide variety of economists, philosophers, and theologians. There was also a wide range of viewpoints on the team, with some team members being very conservative and other being more to the left, but this never negatively affected our ability to discuss these issues and ideas together. 

Over the next several years, however, the Cedarville administration became increasingly hostile toward the debate team. When I started on the team, we were without a coach as the previous coach had recently been fired. The captain of our team that year was a senior and after he graduated he got the administration to agree to let him coach the team the next year while he was attending graduate school. However, he was fired by General Reno less than halfway through the year without explanation. The year after that, which was my senior year, my friend and I volunteered to lead the team to keep it alive. Professor Derrick Green, the chair of the Communications department, agreed. However, under orders from Academic Vice President Dr. Thomas Mach, he also hired the wife of a prominent Cedarville professor, who had no debate experience or academic credentials, to supervise us and be in charge of the team. 

It quickly became clear that hiring this individual was part of the University’s broader attempts to clamp down on unapproved ideologies. Whereas previously we would be able to discuss a wide variety of topics and arguments without any interpersonal difficulties, even if everyone did not agree with the arguments, the atmosphere instead became increasingly hostile. The individual they appointed would harass myself and my co-captain by making pointed comments in an attempt to spark conflict, disparaging us to other team members, and attacking us for being “too liberal.” Eventually, she started writing posts on the team Facebook page attacking us. We later discovered that she had been talking to other team members and faculty, and telling them that we were bad teachers and that we were attempting to turn people into atheists (both my co-captain and myself were and still are committed Christians). After this, we attempted to do something about the situation and eventually set up a meeting with Professor Green and representatives from HR to discuss the situation. Despite communicating our grievances, Dr. Mach still hired her to continue leading the team for the next school year. After we graduated, she took even more control and started requiring all arguments to have her approval before the team could use them in a debate round. This was a level of censorship which was unprecedented until that point. 

This is just one story among countless others which show Cedarville’s increasingly fundamentalist environment. If you do not agree wholeheartedly with their theological, economic, and political viewpoints, you are made to feel like an enemy. There are many other students and faculty who have had similar experiences, and I only hope that a culture of tolerance and acceptance of differing viewpoints can prevail at Cedarville again someday.

Anonymous Alumnus, Class of 2018:

In spring semester 2017, my friends and I grew concerned about rumors regarding a censorship policy that we had heard about from faculty and from classmates whose parents held professorial positions at CU. For most of us, Cedarville had provided a space to openly pursue our research interests, interests which were often connected to questions of faith us and our own personal identities. A threat to that opportunity — that is, to have taken from us and from future students like us (who desperately needed a professor or mentor to affirm them in their pursuit of greater understanding and knowledge of who they are in Christ) — seemed like the end of the world as we knew it. Waiting around to hear confirmation about the proposed “Philippians 4:8” policy was enough to make us go stir crazy. Rumors were becoming too slippery to hold onto for very long.

I heard from a friend – advisor, mentor, faculty member – that a faculty meeting was scheduled to answer questions regarding the policy in question. The person who made me aware of this meeting was and has been integral to my personal spiritual growth. At first, I entertained the idea of attending this meeting merely as a joke. It came up during a few study sessions before I could take myself seriously. By then, the joke had turned into a call to action proposed by my friends. In a way, I think this was good, because in the end it wasn’t the burning desire to know for myself exactly what was going on that drove me through the doors of the building that day, but the encouragement of genuinely concerned peers who were counting on me to provide a measure of certainty.

Actually, sitting in on that meeting was another thing altogether. I was no longer blanketed by the crowd of my friends. I stuck out like a sore thumb, as I was obviously too young to be there. I did end up spotting an acquaintance who had come with his father (a faculty member); we acknowledged one another with a nod and a knowing look. 

At the opening of the meeting, VPA Loren Reno (whom the Trustees named acting president last month) asked that all non-faculty people dismiss themselves. I’m certain he looked at me after this declaration. But I didn’t budge, somehow, and the meeting proceeded. What followed was a summary of the policy itself, including specific details about how long students were allowed to look at the Statue of David “below the waist” without it being considered a sin. 

I do not remember much of what was discussed, but I remember feeling proud of particular faculty who challenged the policy with quotes from Milton’s Areopagitica and from educational psychology that promotes dealing with difficult material. All the while Reno and Dr. White stonewalled question after question and point after point, refusing to address them. I recorded this meeting (since in Ohio, the law required only one-party consent).

And perhaps this is part of the problem. Perhaps a student’s education should not be left to a board of trustees whose talking heads ask curious and concerned students to dismiss themselves from a conversation about the future of their education. Faculty and staff would often tell us students that we actually held more power than them and that our voices mattered more than our professors’ voices. Perhaps this is why our voices were excluded from such meetings. Perhaps this is why students of Dr. Faulkner’s class (other than the one who complained) were not invited to speak about their experiences either before the book she assigned—When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago—got banned.

I loved my time at Cedarville. I still feel nostalgia when I drive past Exit 54 heading east on I-70 to see my parents over the holidays. I can only hope and pray that recent events will shed light on the school’s current direction, to give it a new direction in which students have the freedom to experience all aspects of life, in order to better understand their part in life as Christ followers.

Katie Malik, Class of 2018:

I was a student at Cedarville from 2014-2018, and thus, I was in my senior year when the censorship policy was put into place. Although my professors were respectful of the administration, my peers and I noticed changes in their teaching styles. My professors, who had previously openly discussed “censored topics” that helped develop my thinking, started glancing worriedly at the door when these topics were broached by students. I remember how prevalent this was in one course in particular. Due to a previous scheduling conflict, I had the opportunity to take a literature course my senior year (post-censorship policy) that several of my close friends had taken freshman year (pre-censorship policy). Since my friends had enjoyed the class so much, they frequently asked me what we were covering in the class and how the professor (whom I had taken courses with previously) was doing. While the professor did well in both courses, we noticed that he had become more restricted in what he could teach. He had changed the material we covered, and seemed to discuss certain topics less openly. While I still appreciated the class, I felt that – with these omissions – I had lost an opportunity that my friends had really benefitted from.

Additionally, I’ll mention that I became a licensed EMT my sophomore year of college. Since then, I’ve been cussed out, obliged to report child abuse, dealt with life-threatening situations, and so much more. My experiences are no different from most of my peers entering the “real world.” The idea that at 20 I was prepared to deal with the harsh realities of life, but students are no longer allowed to debate literary quality or watch a quality film because of the “f-word” really puzzles me deeply.  I believe a university should help shape a student’s critical thinking, not just shove ideology down their throats. Some of my fondest memories at Cedarville include the fact that I could discuss “censored” topics with my peers and professors openly. I don’t want to see the university damaged – far from it. I want to see Cedarville as a place where others can experience the life-shaping moments that I experienced as well.

Marcella Moorman, Class of 2019:

In one of my Bible minor classes, we seemed to be taught not to criticize Dr. White. The professor talked about how he disagreed with a pastor over a minor theological issue. Although the professor thought the pastor was wrong, he never told the other church members because he wanted to submit to authority. The Bible professor then talked to us about how much Dr. White cares about us and how difficult his job is.  He said he was glad Dr. White was in charge because he couldn’t imagine having all of Dr. White’s responsibilities. The professor didn’t address when it is appropriate to raise questions about a leader’s perspective. I personally don’t understand why it’s considered disrespectful to voice even minor disagreements. I specifically remember this class because I strongly disagreed with the idea that I should stay silent when a leader is wrong.