Concerned About Campus Cults, Colleges Arm Students With Facts

The Washington Post/December 9, 1997
By Justin Gillis and Caryle Murphy

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 cults.

"I was surprised to see it in the list of material they gave us to read," she said. "My second thought was, `Oh, that can't happen to me. I'm a well-adjusted child.' "

At the university's College Park campus, a push is underway to alert students that they are not immune to cult recruitment. It's the latest example of a recognition by several universities across the country that their campuses offer prime hunting ground for destructive cults.

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 may have received more attention two decades ago, experts say such groups still operate -- and 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 American Family Foundation, the nation's 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 University's dean of the chapel, Bernard Richardson, said Howard's Religious Life Committee investigates student complaints about "undue pressures" to join campus groups. "It's 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 freedom."

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 state's 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. "They've 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 doesn't seem to recognize that."

Those most vulnerable to deceptive recruiting often are intelligent people who are "between major life affiliations," said Carol Giambalvo, 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 can't 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 student's life and finances, using sophisticated psychological techniques. Even psychologically healthy people are vulnerable, if they have not been trained to recognize the techniques, she said.

"There's a lot of research that shows that when people are aware of the factors that lead to mind control, they're less likely to succumb," said Jim Maas, a professor of psychology at Cornell University.

From the People's Temple suicides in Guyana in 1978 to the Heaven's Gate suicides this year, destructive groups keep popping up "like clockwork," Maas said. "It keeps happening, and I think that's 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 University's Marsh Chapel and a longtime critic of cults, said universities can avoid the problem by focusing on a group's 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 can't proselytize another student" or harass others, he added. "We've 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 Maryland's 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. "I've 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 called the International Churches of Christ.

At American University, the ICC has started a club called Students Act, said the university's 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. We're 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 that's a segment we're 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 her feeling, she said, "like the worst person in the world."

Over the next year, Saniie said, she neglected her schoolwork as the group demanded more of her time and money. Saniie's parents, Les and Nora Baker, of Bethesda, grew alarmed and began researching the ICC. They found that thousands of ex-members regard the group as a cult and that it had been the subject of repeated television and newspaper exposes.

Gambling on a risky strategy that could have driven their daughter away, the Bakers decided to hire anti-cult counselors. Counselors Rick and Sarah Bauer, former ICC leaders, spent hours supplying Saniie with information about the group, and they ultimately convinced her she had been deceived about its true purposes.

The experience provoked the Bakers to begin pressing the university in 1996. How could a person in an official university position, such as the resident assistant, use her position to recruit students into a group the Bakers were certain was harmful? Why hadn't the university been alert to her activities?

The Bakers said university administrators refused to take their concerns seriously. They learned that Denny Gulick, a mathematics professor and chairman-elect of the University Senate, had been lobbying university officials for years to heighten student awareness of cults.

The university had responded to Gulick's pleas some years earlier by producing a warning pamphlet titled "Friends Are Everywhere." However, the pamphlet did not use the word "cult," and the Bakers and other parents feared students would miss the point. They felt open discussions about aggressive recruiting techniques would be more valuable.

The Bakers and their allies won backing from a committee representing parents of College Park students, and during the last 18 months, they pressed for a comprehensive university response. Starting last summer, Kelley, the student affairs officer, and Gulick introduced discussion of cult techniques into student orientation. This fall, the issue was raised in some basic life skills classes. The warning pamphlet, which still does not use the word "cult," is more widely distributed on campus.

In the spring, special training on cultism likely will be provided to students set to become resident assistants. And Kelley said the university would weigh expanding the programs next summer and fall.

"I think we have provided a measured response to an issue that's existed on our campus," Kelley said. "I think we'll continue to keep our eye on the issue and make changes as we go through time."

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