Unless they’ve been living under a rock, it’s unlikely that anyone in current or former fundamentalist circles has not heard of the expulsion of Christopher Peterman from Bob Jones University mere weeks before he was to graduate. Although his list of alleged crimes ranges from the inane to the obscure to the downright confusing, there is a deeper story here that is worth considering.
To fully appreciate the significance of this action it’s necessary to retrace the steps of a horrifying story that is all too familiar to many of us. It begins when a man named Ernie Willis raped a young girl named Tina Anderson. The pastor of Tina’s church at the time was Chuck Phelps, a man who by his own testimony not only failed to vigorously pursue justice for Tina but also required her to give a confession of her alleged sin before the church and then aided in removing her from the state and apparently out of the reach of local authorities.
Yet with the fact of his actions revealed both on national television and in a court of law, Chuck Phelps remained a person in good standing with several fundamentalist organizations such as The Wilds and Bob Jones University. Bob Jones not only continued to call him a friend of the college but after the conviction of Ernie Willis then went on to proactively show their support for him by placing him back on one of their own boards. This past December, a few alumni, students, and other concerned individuals attempted an on-campus protest in an institutional environment where protesting is almost unheard of. As may be expected in such an authoritarian environment, very few students joined in to the calls for BJU to “Do Right.” One student agitator, however, stuck to his guns and decided to take the risk. That man is now ex-student Christopher Peterman.
At that time, with the news cameras rolling and the social media spotlight shining on them, Bob Jones University took no disciplinary action against the protesting students. But they did take note of them. They always take note of those who do not come to heel and fit the “spirit” of the University and they wait their chance to exact revenge for this perceived disloyalty. Because Bob Jones University is not interested in justice, or freedom, or right, they are interested only in defending their own no matter what the cost in human misery.
So the when they had managed to gather together enough petty charges against this student, they summarily expelled him, mere weeks before he would have graduated. For those of us who have attended similar institutions this is hardly a new tale and hardly unexpected. The campus purges of “undesirables” who are considered unworthy to graduate are a commonly accepted fact. At my own alma mater we referred to this rash of sudden dismissals that would occur right after the spring deadline to withdraw as “spring cleaning.” First they take your money. Then they show you the door and tell you that you are no longer welcome here.
No doubt the headlines (such as they are) will be more concerned in the fact that a college student was punished for watching the television show Glee or not having a proper haircut. I find the focus on those details unfortunate, because beyond these imaginary infractions the real story here goes much deeper to a kind of institutional corruption that is so blatant and yet ignored by those who call themselves friends of the University. One wonders how many more rapes, how many more cover-ups, how many more countless wrongs must be inflicted by Bob Jones University before even the darkened souls of their fundamentalist supporters are too sickened to continue to be complicit in their commission.
I do not expect that this one student being expelled will bring about a sea change in the institutional policies of BJU. They have shown themselves to be all but immune to criticism and dismissive of correction. If there is any lesson to be learned here it is that current students should take care in squaring off against the behemoth that is the university. It is easy enough for those of us who no longer have skin in the game to encourage protest and outcry. It is quite another to put the time and money invested in your education on the line. While a student remains in their house the university has all the leverage and none can say unto them “what doest thou?”
I can, however, hope that perhaps a few potential students or pastors who have up until now been their allies will choose to spend their hard-earned money elsewhere. Perhaps even a few current students may decide that they cannot continue to consent to the present abuses of power by their silence and will choose a transfer to another school rather than live with the constant threat of being summarily expelled themselves for imaginary crimes. Perhaps if enough people vote with their feet, Bob Jones University will then at last be forced to grudgingly do right.