SUU's Mormon-themed ad campaign raises questions

Does recruiting based on religion undermine diversity and sound policy?

Salt Lake Tribune/June 5, 2010

Southern Utah University's recent ad campaign frames its Cedar City campus as a place that supports Mormon cultural values, raising questions about whether a public school should play on faith to recruit students.

In recent years, SUU has burnished its image as a traditional liberal arts and sciences college providing private school-caliber baccalaureate education for the price of public-school tuition. The small Cedar City school markets heavily in the urban Wasatch Front, often featuring women and people of color on billboards on the sides of buses.

Dean O'Driscoll, SUU's vice president for university relations, said the Mormon-themed campaign supports this broader message, portraying SUU as an intimate campus where students enjoy close attention from full-time faculty. SUU spent $12,000 on six ads in April and May portraying it as an ideal setting to prepare for a mission -- the two-year proselytizing tour of duty many college-age Mormons serve -- in the Deseret News ' "Mormon Times" section.

But as a legal matter, publicly-supported institutions ought to steer clear of favoring one religion, race or gender over others, except to address the continuing effects of past discrimination, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Noting that Latter-day Saints have enjoyed a favored status in Utah, he found the SUU ad "troublesome" and recommended the state's public schools avoid religious pitches without commensurate efforts to recruit Baptists, Catholics and members of other non-Mormon faiths.

Otherwise, "you very quickly cross the line from affirmative action to outright pandering to the dominant forces of society," Nassirian said.

"Is the point of education to bring together like-minded people?" he asked. "The whole point is to bring together people who have different perspectives, different backgrounds. You are best prepared if you have that kind of experience."

Last year, Utah Valley University placed several different ads in the "Times," but without the religious references, although one ad invited prospective students to attend a devotional at the affiliated LDS Institute.

"We used 'Mormon Times' exclusively as a means of reaching an out-of-state audience, and it served that purpose well for us. We don't target faiths with our advertising," UVU marketing director Brad Plothow wrote in an e-mail.

Student recruitment strategies targeting Mormons drew fire last winter after the president of a Wyoming community college sent letters to 1,000 high school students from local Mormon families, encouraging them to enroll at the publicly-funded Northwest College in Powell.

"As an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I am quite familiar with the advantages that Northwest College and Powell have to offer LDS students in particular," wrote college president Paul Prestwich in the Feb. 5 letter, which accompanied a letter from the local LDS stake president. The letters played up the college's transfer agreements with Brigham Young University and Powell's Institute of Religion, one of the seminaries the church operates near many public colleges but are not part of the schools.

The college quickly ended religion-based recruiting in response to a community outcry. SUU monitored the discussion and officials decided religion-based recruitment letters would be permissible at SUU, but only if they included students of other faiths and not just Mormons, O'Driscoll said.

So far, the school has not sent out any such letters.

SUU is led by president Michael Benson, who is from a prominent Mormon family. Benson, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history and former president of Snow College in Ephraim, is the grandson of the late Ezra Taft Benson, the LDS Church's 13th president.

The SUU ad features a well-groomed youth from Sandy named Ryan Copeland sporting a Thunderbird red T-shirt morphing into the dark blazer and tie, the standard attire associated with male missionaries. The words "LDS" and "Mormon" don't appear.

"Going to SUU was the best thing I could've done to prepare for my mission," the ad says, quoting the student. "I got away from home and grew up. I gained Church leadership experience at Institute. I made friends who encouraged me to go."

Because SUU is small, it affords leadership opportunities that Utah's larger urban universities cannot guarantee, O'Driscoll said. He noted one-fourth of SUU's 8,000-strong student body attends the Institute and about 230 freshman, or 18 percent of the class, leave school on LDS missions each year.

"Those numbers are just too large to ignore," O'Driscoll said. "It is a smart marketing decision to reach the potential students and their parents in a single publication for a reasonable price."

But others question whether public schools should spend public money to cast themselves as faith-promoting.

"We are talking about a public school that appears to have a specific interest in recruiting one religious community, a community that is well represented to begin with," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It seems odd to have public funds spent to recruit students from one religion, arguing that this will be good for their religious faith."

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