Concerned About Campus
Cults, Colleges Arm Students With Facts
By Justin Gillis and Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 9, 1997; Page B01
Getting ready for her first year at the
University of Maryland, Lisa Gaddy was thinking mostly about which classes to take and how
to find her way around campus. But at summer orientation and in a handful of classes and
meetings this fall, she and other students found themselves reading and talking about
"I was surprised to see it in the list of material
they gave us to read," she said. "My second thought was, Oh, that
cant happen to me. Im a well-adjusted child. " At the
universitys College Park campus, a push is underway to alert students that they are
not immune to cult recruitment. Its the latest example of a recognition by several
universities across the country that their campuses offer prime hunting ground for
Fitfully, torn between a commitment to respect pluralism and a desire to protect students,
the schools are trying to make students aware of the questionable tactics some groups use
to lure and hold young members. Although the issue of
cults on campus
received more attention two decades ago, experts say such groups still operateand
nowadays, colleges are figuring out how to mount a more effective response.
"There are a significantly greater number of colleges
and universities today that are aware of cult activity on their campuses," said
Ronald Loomis, education director for the
Family Foundation, the nations leading cult-watch group. "And they
are initiating programs to educate their students and faculty and staff about them."
Several Washington area universities have produced cult
awareness campaigns in recent years. New students at Georgetown University receive a
pamphlet titled "High Pressure Religious Groups" that describes the groups as
using "persistent, manipulative and often dishonest persuasion" to recruit.
Incoming students at George Washington University get a similar pamphlet, mailed to their
homes. At both, as well as at American University, special training in spotting
manipulative tactics is given to resident assistants, who are usually older students
acting as informal counselors to younger students in dormitories.
Howard Universitys dean of the chapel, Bernard
Richardson, said Howards Religious Life Committee investigates student complaints
about "undue pressures" to join campus groups. "Its important that we
be able to protect the rights of all students, including those who might be harassed by a
particular group," he said. Harassment, he added, "is not protected by religious
Locally, the cult issue is hottest at the University of
Maryland, which had lagged behind other campuses until it started a program last summer.
At a session last month, 50 students crowded into a lounge to hear two professors discuss
cultism. Afterward, several students said they had been subjected to high-pressure tactics
in their dormitories or while walking on campus.
The push to raise awareness in College Park came after
months of complaints from parents who said their children were recruited into cults while
attending the states flagship educational institution.
A half-dozen parents said in interviews that the university
long refused to acknowledge a cult problem on campus. The parents believe dozens of
students fall prey every school year to destructive cults that take control of their
lives. The parents have obtained copies of letters written by families and students,
dating to the mid-1980s, that sought to warn the university. A professor and a chaplain on
the College Park campus said in interviews that they had met frustration over the years in
trying to get the university to respond seriously.
The climate began to change last summer, when Warren
Kelley, executive assistant to the vice president for student affairs, opened a discussion
about cults on campus. Kelley co-wrote a letter to some instructors warning that
"there are a few groups that operate on our campus that have hidden agendas of
controlling the minds and lives of their members." He instituted discussions of the
subject during freshman orientation in the summer and persuaded some instructors to add it
to a fall course that teaches freshmen how to cope with college life.
Some parents said they were relieved to see those recent
actions but added that they remain unhappy with the pace and intensity of the efforts.
"Theyve taken some baby steps," said Les Baker, of Bethesda, whose
stepdaughter was recruited on campus into a group he described as destructive. "But
much more needs to be done, and the university still doesnt seem to recognize
that." Those most vulnerable to deceptive recruiting often are intelligent people who
are "between major life affiliations," said
a cult expert in Florida who has helped many students leave groups. Colleges have throngs
of young, energetic people who fit that description. "People who typically join cults
are in a transition stage in life, and I cant think of a bigger one than being in
college," Giambalvo said.
Parents should understand, she said, that cults do not bill
themselves as such. Instead, she contended, students fall victim to what amounts to an
elaborate scam. "They are joining something that looks wonderful," she said.
Only slowly, she said, does the group take control of the students life and
finances, using sophisticated psychological techniques. Even psychologically healthy
people are vulnerable, if they have not been trained to recognize the techniques, she
"Theres a lot of research that shows that when
people are aware of the factors that lead to mind control, theyre less likely to
succumb," said Jim Maas, a professor of psychology at Cornell University. >From
the Peoples Temple suicides in Guyana in 1978 to the Heavens Gate suicides
this year, destructive groups keep popping up "like clockwork," Maas said.
"It keeps happening, and I think thats because people keep forgetting." To
blunt recruiting drives, administrators at several campuses nationwide have stripped some
student groups of official recognition after they were found to be using deceptive
approaches. In most cases, that means the groups are forbidden to use campus facilities
for meetings. In other instances, schools have banned adult members of certain groups from
entering residence halls. However manipulative particular groups might seem, many
universities, especially public institutions, have concluded there are constitutional
limits to how far they can go in moving against them without trampling religious liberty.
Robert Watts Thornburg, dean of Boston Universitys
Marsh Chapel and a longtime critic of cults, said universities can avoid the problem by
focusing on a groups behavior rather than its beliefs. At Boston University,
"nowhere do we say that a student cannot practice his religion on campus,"
Thornburg said. "We do say that a student cant proselytize another
student" or harass others, he added. "Weve defined religious
harassment." At the University of California at Berkeley, information about cults is
available to anyone on campus, and presentations occur regularly in residence halls and
other gathering spots. "Berkeley has been a target of most of these groups for
years," said Hal Reynolds, a student-affairs officer on that campus.
No one asserts that large numbers of students fall prey.
Among the 32,711 students on the University of Marylands College Park campus, for
instance, the highest estimates suggest that 100 to 200 students are active in cult-like
groups at a given time. Other universities offered equally modest estimates. But in a
four- or five-year college career, experts said, a student is likely to be approached at
least once by cult recruiters. "Ive been approached constantly on campus,
especially during my freshman year," said Jennifer McCloskey, a senior at Maryland.
She said those approaches were "very deceptive," in part because the groups
failed to disclose their real names or ties to off-campus organizations.
Much of the recent discussion about cultism on the College
Park campus grows out of the experiences of Susan Saniie, a 22-year-old senior. Saniie
said that during her freshman year, in 1993, she was approached repeatedly in her
dormitory by a resident assistant. The assistant, Saniie said, drew her into a group
called the "Upside Down Club," a registered student organization. She did not
know at the time that Upside Down was a name used on campuses by a controversial group
Churches of Christ. At American University, the ICC has started a club called
Students Act, said the universitys Methodist chaplain, the Rev. Joseph Eldridge. The
club has applied for official recognition from the student confederation, which, if
granted, would allow it to post notices and use campus facilities for meetings.
Cult educator Loomis and several other experts said the ICC
is one of the most active cults on campuses today. Loomis said the group uses "front
names" and deceptive recruiting techniques.
David Crandall, director of student activities at the
University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said administrators there once noticed
that the "Chinese Engineering Society" was sponsoring volleyball games but that
"none of these folks had Chinese surnames and none were engineering students."
The group, Crandall said, had been "commandeered" by the ICC. When confronted by
the university, the "engineers" formed another club, called the "Good Clean
Fun Club," that sponsored movie nights, beach parties and volleyball games as
"opportunities to recruit people into the church," Crandall added. That club
disappeared when the university pressed to see more information about its sponsorship.
Members of the ICC denied that their group uses deception
or manipulation and said it is just what it appears to be: an evangelical Christian
church. "On all of our literature, if it is handed out, it says part of the
International Churches of Christ, " said Al Baird, a spokesman for the Los
Angeles-based ICC. "We have no intention of being deceptive. Were very proud of
who we are.
"We certainly do not believe that we are a cult any
more than Jesus Christ led a cult," Baird added.
Baird said that about 20 percent of ICC members "are
college students, and obviously thats a segment were interested in."
Saniie, the University of Maryland senior, said that after
she joined the Upside Down Club, she went through a "sin study," during which
she was asked to reveal her most intimate secrets. The process left..