Cults on Campus: Perceptions of Chief Counseling Officers
Russell K. Elleven
Jennifer Van Veldhuizen
Texas Christian University
This article examines the perceptions of 81 chief counseling officers at colleges and universities across the United States with regard to cult activity. Chief Counseling Officers are in a unique position on college campuses to assist students and confront cult issues. The results of the survey indicate faculty, staff, and students require more education regarding cult issues on college campuses.
The question of college student involvement in cults on campus continues to be a subject that merits examination. Colleges and university students appear to be more vulnerable to the pressures of high demand or cultic groups. Being away from home for the first time, the need to belong to a group, and other factors contribute to this vulnerability (Blimling, 1995). College students can also be confused when cultic groups, at least initially, resemble mainline churches (LeBar, 1989; Enroth, 1992) and find the organized manipulation (Hassan, 1990) difficult to recognize.
In 1998 the Maryland General Assembly created a task force to examine the issues of cults on their state run campuses. The "Task Force to Study the Effects of Cult Activities on Public Senior Higher Education Institutions" created a great deal of interest and controversy regarding the issue of cults on college and university campuses. The task force found that, even given the definitional ambiguity of the term “cult” and the relatively small number of groups affecting campuses, cults nonetheless appear to have the potential to cause a great deal of harm to college students (Maryland Task Force, 1998).
This finding is no surprise to those who have been involved in research on cultic groups in general (Langone, 1993; Singer, 1995) and specifically concerning college campuses (Rudin, 1996). It also appears that caseloads for those directly involved in offering services to college students involved with cultic groups has not diminished (Mansfield, 2001).
However, the Maryland Task Force (1998) assertion that defining cults is an extremely difficult charge is deserving of reflection. This task is difficult for the researcher and layperson alike. There is a wide spectrum of cult definitions that run the gamut of extremely conservative (Larson, 1989) to fairly liberal (Tabor and Gallagher, 1995; Jenkins, 2000). There does not, however, appear to be a great deal of middle ground in the act of defining cultic groups, and two “camps” have formed, each at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Langone (2000) has recently called for a greater dialogue between the two camps. In fact, Langone calls for the two camps to acknowledge possible similarities in the two camps and the difficulties in empirical realities with regard to cultic studies research. The two camps are commonly labeled “pro-cultists,” which may be seen as having a more liberal definition of cults, and “anti-cultists,” who may be seen as having a more conservative definition of cults.
This study attempts to do two things. First, the study attempts to discern to which “camp” Chief Counseling Officers (CCOs) on college campuses belong when defining cults. Counselors often have a tremendous opportunity to work with people involved in cultic groups and can offer those in recovery from cults a great deal of assistance (Langone, 1993). CCOs on college and university campuses have a distinct advantage of examining this issue from a vantage point relevant to the purposes of this study.
Second, this study attempts to build on other research conducted to examine the issue of cults on college and university campuses. Education and information dissemination for other campus administrative populations has already been shown to be important (Elleven, Kern, & Moore, 1998).
Chief Counseling Officers (CCOs), who serve college and university students in need of therapy, were chosen for this study. CCOs are in a unique position to assist people who are, or have been, involved in cultic groups (Langone, 1993). The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors was contacted and mailing labels purchased in order to mail out the cult questionnaire.
The instrument was only slightly modified from a study published by Cultic Studies Journal in 1998 (Elleven, Kern, & Moore). The instrument was designed to engage the CCO in reference to knowledge he or she has with regard to cults on campus. Questions examined both student and staff issues in addition to demographic data. There were nine demographic items; seven forced answer questions; nine questions based on a semantic scale range of “impossible – unlikely – unknown – likely – probable”; one item requesting the respondent to list cults on their campus; and one item asking for the respondent’s address if he or she desired a copy of the results of the survey.
The questionnaire was mailed out to all 572 CCOs in the United States. The questionnaire was accompanied with a cover letter and asked that participants return the completed instrument in two weeks. Completed questionnaires were inputted and analyzed using the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS). Frequency counts and percentage distributions were used to analyze the data.
Surveys were returned by 81 CCOs which is a 14% return rate. The authors identified two possibilities for the low return rate. First, there was no outside funding for this research. The authors incurred all expenses, such as printing and postage. Because of this, follow-up procedures normally incorporated in survey research were not utilized. Second, and possibly more important, because the research had no institutional backing the authors could not ethically use letterhead or envelopes with university affiliation. Surveys were sent after the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and Washington, D.C. but before citizens were warned not to open envelopes with no return address because of possible anthrax contamination.
Of the 81 surveys returned, 94% agreed with the “anti-cult” definition. A vast majority of respondents (78%) believed that college and university administrators across the nation should be concerned about cults on campus. Only 25%, however, believed administrators on their own campus were concerned about cults.
Information about the CCOs institutions, educational level, and employment information is described in Table I. The study also attempted to gather information specific to active groups on campuses, student and staff involvement, and to ascertain if there
Chief Counseling Officer Demographics (N=81)
Current Employment as a CCO
10 or more
Years Employed at Current Institution
10 or more
Years Employed in Counseling Profession
10 or more
Cult Definition Agreement
were specific counselors on staff prepared to assist students who may be involved in high demand groups. The gender of CCO respondents was 54% female and 46% male.
Of the 81 respondents, 49% represented public institutions. Private institution representation was only slightly higher at 51%. The enrollment varied from small (less than 1000 students) to more than 5,000. Most institutions (48%) had large enrollments. Medium sized institutions (1001-5000) responded with 43% of the surveys while small institutions comprised only 9% of respondents.
The authors divided respondent states in three geographic areas. Eastern states, central states, and western states were identified to provide additional institutional information. Most respondents were from eastern states (46%). Middle states made up 41% of respondents and western states made up only 13%. Respondents classified the area in which their institution is located as: metropolitan
Institution Demographics (N=81)
More than 5000
Eastern United States
Central United States
Western United States
Type of Area
(37%), rural (33%), urban (14%) suburban (10%), or other (6%).
Perceived Current Involvement
Forty-two percent of respondents believed that it was either likely or probable that students on their campus were currently involved in a cult. A full 64% of respondents believed that students on their campus had been involved in a cult at sometime in the past.
The numbers were much different for faculty and staff cult involvement. CCOs were unsure 63% of the time if there was current cult involvement by their institution’s faculty or staff. However, 43% of respondents believed it was either unlikely or impossible that a faculty or staff member at their institution had ever had a cult involvement. It appears that respondents believed younger college-aged students are more susceptible to cults than their colleagues.
Student or Staff Involvement in Cult Activity (N=81)
Percentage for Each Rating
Q. 11. There are currently students on my campus involved in cults?
Q. 12. There have never been students on my campus involved in cults?
Q. 13. There is currently a staff or faculty member on my campus who is involved in a cult?
Q. 14. There has never been a staff or faculty member on my campus who has been involved in a cult?
*1 = Impossible; 2 = Unlikely; 3 = Unknown; 4 = Likely; 5 = Probable
Perceived Probability of Future Cult Issues
Chief Counseling Officers were asked about their perceptions of future student and faculty/staff involvement in cults. A large majority of respondents (62%) believed students on their campus would be involved in a cult within the next five years. When asked about the possibility of faculty or staff involvement in the next five years, 40% of CCO respondents believed this was probable or likely to occur.
Staff Training and Literature
A full 65% of respondents replied that nobody on their staff was knowledgeable about cults. Further, slightly less than half (49%) had someone in the community outside of their campus to whom they could refer students on cult-related issues.
Probability of Future Cult Issues (N=81)
Percentage for Each Rating
Q. 5. What is the likelihood of a student from your campus being involved in a cult in the next five years?
Q. 6. What is the likelihood of a staff or faculty member from your campus being involved in a cult in the next five years?
*1 = Impossible; 2 = Unlikely; 3 = Unknown; 4 = Likely; 5 = Probable
Training on cult issues for staff members on campus was virtually nonexistent. CCOs who responded (89%) said no such training occurred on their campus. In addition, 86% of responders said there were no education programs for students on their campus.
CCOs were aware of available professional counseling literature regarding cults 56% of the time while 44% did not know of any such literature available to them on their campus. Students apparently have little access to literature about cults on campuses. A very large percentage (71%) said that no literature about cults existed on their campus for student use.
Interestingly, almost half (47%) of the respondents were unsure if their institution spent enough time educating students about cults on campus. A smaller percentage (37%) believed their institution should spend more time educating students about cults on campus. Sixteen percent believed their institution currently spent enough time educating students about cults.
Chief Counseling Officers were asked to specifically identify cults that have been on their campus. A full 74% did not respond to this question. Only 26% of responders answered this question. Of those, 96% responded with a religiously affiliated cult.
Several assumptions can be ascertained from this study. First, almost all CCOs who responded to the questionnaire defined cult using the “anti-cult” definition. Second, the majority of CCOs viewed the issue of cults on college campuses to be one of importance, although they have devoted little in the way of educating students and staff about the topic, perhaps because most respondents did not have anybody knowledgeable about cults on staff. Most of the respondents also believed there would be students on their campus involved in a cult within the next five years. Finally, there was either a reticence to directly name cults involved on campuses or a lack of knowledge concerning specific cults for CCOs who responded to the questionnaire.
A great deal more research on cult phenomena should be conducted on college and university campuses. A variety of populations on college campuses have yet to be polled regarding their opinion of cults on campus. This and prior studies have only begun to scratch the surface of research possibilities in an area that appears to warrant more attention.
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Russell K. Elleven, Ed.D. is the Associate Director for Residence Life at Texas Christian University.
Jennifer Van Veldhuizen is a Residence Hall Director at Texas Christian University.
Elizabeth Taylor, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Counseling at Texas Christian University.