Cults on campus
Jewish World Review, September 1 1999
By Merry M. Eisenstadt
Though based at the University of Maryland, this story, and the issues it raises, have national implications.
Les and Nora Baker aren’t Jewish, but say the story of how their daughter got sucked into a controversial cult operating on the University of Maryland College Park campus should resonate deeply with Jewish parents.
Jewish students purportedly swell the ranks of cults disproportionate to their representation in the overall population.
As students head back to school this fall, Les Baker believes “parents, be they Jewish parents or whatever, should address the subject of dangerous groups with their children with the same seriousness and importance that they would talk about sex, drugs, or alcohol.”
A recent university department of resident life survey of 366 students found that 35 percent of students had been asked to join a group they thought to be a cult. Twenty-one percent of students knew a peer who had joined an organization they believed to be a cult.
The new edition of KAPLAN/Newsweek’s How to Get into College guide includes a section on how “colleges have become prime recruiting grounds for the nation’s more than 3,000 cults, which seem to promise security and support to vulnerable students, many away from home and family for the first time.”
Les Baker says he and his wife “knew nothing about destructive groups” or that their daughter, “Ellen” (the couple has requested that their daughter’s real name not be used), was involved in a controversial sect until “we woke up one Sunday morning, and we looked at The Washington Post, and there was an expose on the group with a picture. … And so, we said, `Oh my God.’ ”
Explaining that the Bethesda couple had been uneasy about their daughter, “because we had seen some dramatic changes in her,” Baker says, “We knew about this group that she was very interested in. And when she would come to visit, every 10 minutes that she would be at home, the phone would ring and there would be another group member talking with her. So we thought that was unusual, but we couldn’t put our finger on it.”
When the Bakers learned that their daughter was preparing to go to Iran as a missionary and risk martyrdom in the fundamentalist Islamic country, they arranged a non-coercive exit-counseling during a ski trip. Former group members came to their cabin to share their findings about the group’s finances and the high lifestyle and earnings of the group’s leader. “She was free to leave at any time,” Baker says. “The intervention was certainly the most gut-wrenching event in our family life. She made the decision to leave the group.” The counseling was successful and Ellen is today working and living in the local area.
Then the details of their daughter’s recruitment unfolded. At follow-up counseling in support groups, the Bakers heard similar stories from other parents with children at Maryland state universities and learned that other complaints to university officials had gone ignored, Baker says. The couple became angry.
Ellen had been recruited by her college dormitory resident assistant, or adviser, when she sought advice on a personal problem during the fall of her sophomore year in 1994. Instead of referring their daughter to a university health system counselor or another bona fide campus employee, the RA brought in an outside group member and recruited Ellen into the Upside Down Club, a registered student group.
But Ellen had no idea at the time that Upside Down was a part of the International Churches of Christ, a manipulative, “destructive group,” according to Mark Powers, executive director of Jews for Judaism, the Baltimore-based, anti-missionary and anti-cult organization.
The ICOC has been banned from recruiting on a number of private university campuses, according to the Christian Science Monitor. (The ICOC is not related to the mainstream Christian, United Church of Christ.)
Ellen’s RA was still serving in her paraprofessional position despite complaints the previous year to both the assistant director of university resident life and the vice president of student affairs about the RA’s proselytizing. Two articles had appeared in the Diamondback student newspaper, outlining cult recruitment tactics and complaints against the RA.
The RA, in fact, had been recruited by her own resident assistant.
While in the group for little more than a year, Ellen handed her entire $2,322 savings to the group and her grades plummeted, says Baker. She was submitting a daily and weekly schedule of virtually all of her activities to her RA -her “discipler”- for approval. She was encouraged to sleep less. And she began feeding group recruiters on her campus meal card. The RA had acted as a scribe during a protracted “sin confession” and passed the document on to group leaders. The RA also organized Ellen’s door-to-door dorm recruiting, which is “unlawful,” according to university policy.
The RA, in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, said it was natural for her to discuss her personal interests with fellow dorm residents and that she never unduly pressured students to join in events. A high-ranking church official also said the group deplores deception.
The Bakers have taken their complaints up the long chain of command at the University System of Maryland. Officials have repeatedly refused to investigate his complaints, says Baker, leafing through documents meticulously organized in an alphabetized, thick binder.
University officials note that students and staff have First-Amendment rights to affiliate and participate in any group and may not be denied positions because of any membership.
“The university has a very strongly worded policy relating to the separation of the resident adviser’s personal and professional lives,” says Warren E. Kelley, executive assistant to University of Maryland, College Park, vice president of student affairs.
Explaining why the university does not ban proselytizing outright, Kelley says, “Trying to tell a student that we are going to prohibit their ability to talk about a topic of personal interest to them just is not enforceable, or practical or desirable. The individual RA also has protections of free speech.”
The university’s orientation program also warns students about certain sect behaviors without naming specific groups. A brochure, Friends Are Everywhere, gives students information on “making judgments about groups” and is handed out at orientation and available at other locations on campus. Another brochure, Could this happen to you? A Guide to Making Safe Judgments About Groups, is distributed on campus through the campus ministries. RAs also receive training on dangerous groups.
“What the university has done with resident assistants now is excellent,” agrees Les Baker. But, he says, when he and his wife complained, they were told that not only was the group membership “a good experience for our daughter, but that they were constitutionally constrained from doing … anything regarding it.”
One longtime College Park faculty member, mathematics professor Denny Gulick, is sympathetic with the Bakers’ plight and has carried on his own campaign to sensitize university officials about cult recruitment. Long before Ellen was approached, Gulick and another student had notified leading campus administrators about cults’ targeting of resident assistant jobs for recruiting access to students and about the specific RA in question.
Gulick became involved in cult-awareness efforts in the mid-1980s when a controversial sect, which he declines to name publicly, moved into his neighborhood within walking distance of the campus. Friends and acquaintances warned him that his three young children could be vulnerable.
He began researching cults. “One thing led to another and the more I knew, the angrier I got. I met people who had lost family members to destructive groups. I could see the pathos. I could see the disorientation of ex-members. I could see the lies, the coercion, the deception by cult people,” he says.
“So I went to the university and I said, `Oh my God, there are cults proselytizing on campus’ -sort of like the cockroaches in your kitchen. And I thought they were going to say, `Get them out!’ When in fact, they pretended that there was no such thing,” he recalls. “I had proof that they were there and that they had been there. So, it didn’t make any sense. So I said, somebody is covering up; there’s a crisis here.”
Over time, Gulick’s approach has shifted. “Initially, I thought, `Get them out! Just get the lawyers and get them out.’ And then I realized it’s not so simple and that isn’t the right kind of approach.
“The right kind of approach,” continues Gulick, “is to educate people. If they want to join, so they should be able to join. If you tell them, here’s a bridge, be careful, then you’ve done your job.”
Gulick objects to “apologists” who use the euphemism “new religious movements” or “minority religions” to talk about destructive groups. Such groups oppose the term cult, saying it has a pejorative connotation. “The whole flock of those representing destructive groups say that a cult is a `new religious movement.’ And that’s as phony as the day is long,” says Gulick.
“One assistant dean told me, `One man’s cult is another person’s Rotary Club.’ Well, I’m not a Rotarian, but I took great umbrage at that. A destructive group to my way of thinking is a group that has a hidden agenda of controlling the minds and lives of its members,” Gulick says.
Gulick believes that during any given semester on the College Park campus, there are between 50 to 100 students involved in destructive groups.
He now gives the College Park campus “a lot of credit for some new procedures,” but says, “There still is some room for increased legitimate [cult-awareness] activity on our campus. Still, very few staff know anything about destructive groups. The mental health professionals, the counselors, the campus police force, the financial people who give student loans” need to be better informed.
Although the Bakers never sued College Park campus officials or the university system, they hired attorney David J. Bardin of the Arent Fox law firm in Washington, D.C. to prepare a “demand letter” that accused the university of misconduct and “gross negligence” for allowing the RA to stay in her paraprofessional, supervisory position despite the record of harassment complaints. The Bakers asked for about $7,000 compensation for Ellen’s squandered savings and tuition during the time she was a group member. The couple also wanted their daughter to be given special consideration for admittance to a selective graduate school program.
Bardin also argued that labor laws and court precedent prohibiting supervisors and employees from soliciting in the workplace and creating a hostile work environment should apply in this case.
The university rejected the Bakers’ requests. The university’s attorney, Diane Krejsa, wrote that “presumably, in devoting her energies and time to the church rather than her studies, [Ellen] received certain benefits in the form of spiritual nourishment, a meaningful life philosophy and/or individual and communal companionship.”
Krejsa also argued that the institution has no legal obligation to stand in loco parentis [in the place of a parent] or oversee a student’s “choice of activities, including religion.”
Baker is particularly disturbed by the “front” names groups use on campus: “The group’s point is that they are young students and they don’t want to be called [a formal organizational name]. They want to be called something a little more hip. But how can you keep up with names that change frequently? You can’t.”
Baker says students and parents must be made aware of “smooth” recruitment tactics. Groups use the ploy of world harmony-music concerts, peace-run marathons or volley ball games on the quad to lure in unsuspecting students. Fake dates are set up where good-looking students ask out less-attractive peers and heap on the flattery.
Students need to learn how to scrutinize whether praise and compliments seem inappropriately excessive, says Baker.
“It’s only a matter of time before we have another Heaven’s Gate or Jonestown. We have to recognize that this is an issue that we have to treat seriously. It’s not a religious issue,” Baker says. “It’s an issue of how we as parents help educate our children to make good decisions and be sensitive about the groups they choose or choose not to join.”