Amid Questions, Town Welcomes a New College

The New York Times/October 4, 2013

By Joseph Berger

Wingdale, New York -- For 20 years, the 80 brick buildings of what was once the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center have lain fallow, their weathered faces hidden by untamed vines, their windows buckling, their emerald lawns turning to weeds.

Local residents have long been dismayed at the waste of such a handsome rustic property set in a green valley between two ridges.

Then in the summer, the lawns were mowed, the ivy and brush stripped away, and bulldozers cleared land for a soccer field. A sign appeared: Olivet Center. Townspeople learned that the mysterious new owner of most of the 900-acre property was Olivet University, a small evangelical Christian college of about 250 undergraduates based in San Francisco.

Olivet wanted to open a campus 65 miles north of New York City, not exactly the evangelical heartland, but perhaps a new frontier for attracting believers.

Most residents in this Dutchess County hamlet of 4,275 have been excited about the newcomers — a university will bring scores of jobs and a spurt in retail sales to an area that lost hundreds of workers and a good deal of commerce after the hospital closed in 1994.

“Those buildings were sitting empty for 20 years, and it was getting to be quite an eyesore,” said Tim O’Neill, 55, a plumber. “They’ve already put landscapers to work and there will be jobs in maintenance and construction and of course they’ll need teachers.”

But even supporters were surprised by what they discovered about the college after it bought the property.

A publication reported that the university’s founder, a Korean pastor named David Jang, was linked to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Unification Church, whom critics labeled the mastermind of a cult; that some of the Dr. Jang’s closest followers seemed to believe that Dr. Jang was a messiah-like figure; and that he did not directly contradict that belief.

The claims were contained in a lengthy article last year in Christianity Today, a leading evangelical publication.

In 1989, the article said, Dr. Jang had been an assistant professor of theology at a seminary of the Unification Church founded by Mr. Moon, who died last year.

The article also claimed that Dr. Jang had given his followers the impression that he was “the Second Coming Christ,” not Christ himself but a messianic figure who would complete Jesus’ mission.

“I thought I’d heard they’re connected with the Moonies,” Mr. O’Neill said. But, he added: “As long as they clean up the site, I’m all right with it. I get along with people.”

Olivet officials deny any connection with the Unification Church.

Olivet leaders said that the article had misrepresented Dr. Jang and the college, and that Christianity Today was envious of the success of a rival Web site, the Christian Post, which was started by alumni of Olivet. Olivet’s president, Tracy Davis, denied that Mr. Jang had ever told anyone he was a messianic figure.

“People somehow insinuated that though no one explicitly told them,” she said.

Ms. Davis and Olivet’s communications director, Anna Oh, said Dr. Jang never taught at the Unification Church, though; they said that Sun Hwa Theological Seminary was a Korean Methodist school where he taught Christian systematic theology, not Unification theology, and it was bought by the Unification Church.

“Christianity Today is a respected holder of tradition, and we were surprised that we were targeted by them,” Ms Davis said. “It was not based on theological merit.”

Dr. Jang did not respond to a request for comment. Christianity Today says it stands by its story.

Although the school says it is part of the Presbyterian tradition, it is not affiliated with the mainstream denomination, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., which has 1.8 million members and represents over 10,000 congregations.

Instead, Olivet is affiliated with the Evangelical Assembly of Presbyterian Churches of America, a smaller, more conservative group that broke off from the mainstream Presbyterians in the mid-1980s because of differences over issues like women’s ordination. Olivet leaders said the denomination had 70 congregations, though some have only a small number of members.

Olivet University also has no connection to Olivet College in Michigan.

Last year, the school tried to buy a conference center in New Mexico that was owned by LifeWay Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

LifeWay asked the National Association of Evangelicals, the largest American umbrella group and one to which Olivet belongs, to examine Olivet’s pedigree, and after receiving the review issued a statement withdrawing from the deal. LifeWay never explained its reasons nor revealed what was in the report.

Olivet also has various relationships with a company called IBT Media, which publishes the International Business Times Web site and in August bought Newsweek magazine. Ms. Davis is married to one of IBT’s co-founders, Johnathan Davis, who according to Ms. Davis held an advisory role in Olivet’s journalism program.

The other co-founder, Etienne Uzac, is on Olivet’s board of trustees. IBT has also provided internship and job opportunities for Olivet students and graduates, she said.

What is clear is that Olivet, named after the biblical Mount of Olives, has been looking to expand and has surveyed properties around the country, including one in Islip on Long Island and another in Northfield, Mass.

It ultimately decided that the old mental hospital site here, which dates to 1924, was ideal, with buildings compatible as classrooms and dormitories.

“I felt like this was an opportunity from God,” Ms. Davis said.

The site was owned by the Benjamin Development Corporation, a real estate company, which had bought it from the state a decade ago.

Years before, the state had been looking to sell or transform 33 hospitals because it had changed its approach to treating people with mental illness and wanted more patients to live on their own in community residences. (At its peak, the Wingdale hospital housed more than 5,000 patients.)

Benjamin planned to develop the site as a housing and retail complex and spent more than $20 million on lawyers, engineers and environmental reviews, but gave up when the housing market collapsed.

Olivet purchased 503 acres for $20 million with an option to buy the remaining 434 acres. Olivet administrators said they acquired the money through the generosity of alumni and their friends.

The site has many virtues: the Wingdale train station on the Metro-North Railroad’s Harlem line is in the middle of the campus, an hour and 45 minutes from Manhattan. There are several buildings that can be used for retail shops or high tech offices and earn revenue. The site has a chapel with 10 arched stained-glass windows. There is even a golf course. Also important, administrators said, was the presence in the Hudson Valley of scores of evangelical churches.

Administrators are putting together an application to the State Education Department, which must authorize its program of study. In San Francisco, Olivet offers undergraduate programs in theology, music, journalism, information technology, business administration and graphic design. A doctoral program in theology has 89 students. Olivet also claims 654 online students. The school’s mission is to produce graduates who will, as a brochure says, become “ministry-bound scholars and leaders.” In 2008, it opened a small satellite near the World Trade Center in Manhattan to offer a master’s in business degree.

Ultimately, the information about Olivet’s origins did not inspire a local revolt. Ryan Courtien, supervisor of the town of Dover, which includes Wingdale, has been a staunch supporter of the project.

“If you believe everything you read on the Internet, I’ll sell you a Web site,,” he said

Tony Robustelli, the owner of Cousin’s Cafe on Route 22, has already noticed more people stopping in for his cinnamon rolls. Steven O’Connor, 50, who lives eight miles away, thought Olivet’s arrival was beneficial, even if it was sponsored by an uncommon religious group.

“There’s no law restricting what religion you practice,” Mr. O’Connor said. “They are taking a failed institution and spending millions of dollars on it.”

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