This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1998, Volume 15, Number 1, pages 68-76. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.
Residence Halls and Cults: Fact or Fiction?
Russell K. Elleven, Ed.D.
University of North Texas
Carolyn W. Kern, Ph.D.
University of North Texas
Katherine Claunch Moore
University of North Texas
This article examines the perceptions of 414 chief housing officers of residence hall (dormitory) systems across the United States with regard to cult activity on college and university campuses. These individ-uals are in a unique position to see first-year students struggle with the need to belong. Sometimes this need leads to the college student joining a cult. The results of the survey indicate that only about one-half of the responding chief housing officers understand the cult issue on college campuses. The need is apparent for further cult education for these college and university administrators.
With the exception of the concerted efforts of AFF (American Family Foundation), particularly its preventive education program, the International Cult Education Program (Rudin, 1996), little has been written recently in the student affairs literature concerning cults on the college and university campus. At the same time there seems to be little indication that cults are becoming less of an issue for institutions of higher education. Cults can be destructive to both the individual and the institution. In fact, most cults are antithetical to the mission of higher education. Generally, loss in the ability for abstract thinking occurs when memorization of cult doctrine is put upon new recruits (Blimling, 1981).
Cults can be defined as groups having a “close allegiance to a charismatic leader, an inordinate preoccupation on the part of the group with the attainment of money, and the use of behavior modification practices and brainwashing techniques to convert and retain members” (Blimling, 1995, p. 394). The leaders have an extraordinary amount of power over their followers (Lewis, 1989). The process of conversion is typically described in terms of unfreezing the recruit’s beliefs, shaping, and then refreezing the cult’s beliefs into the new member’s psyche. Cults are potentially dangerous to all students regardless of upbringing – (Wright & Piper, 1986). Langone (1992) reports that 11% of 308 subjects in one of his studies were recruited on a college campus. Altogether, 43% of the subjects were students when they joined their groups: 10% high school; 27% undergraduates; and 6% graduate students.
According to Janosik (1993), students who become involved in cults will sometimes manifest characteristics such as loss of free will, return to dependency, loss of spontaneity, inability to form relationships, decreased intellectual ability, physical and psychological deterioration, defacto slavery, and neurotic, psychotic, or suicidal tendencies. A great deal of time and energy must be given to educating the former cult member (Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982), not to mention the policy implications for administrators in higher education (Blimling, 1981, 1990; Johnson & Nelson, 1984). Deviant groups that become recognized student organizations create additional concerns for college and university administrators (Kaplin & Lee, 1995).
Many religious ideals and attitudes change for individuals during the college years (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). Cult ideologies are often at least partially based on the beliefs of mainstream religions (Rudin, 1990). Students may then feel they are becoming more religious when, in fact, they are joining a cult. Developmentally, students in the late teens and early twenties are resolving developmental issues as they move toward adulthood and may be more susceptible to cult influence as a means of resolving these issues (Blimling, 1981). For these reasons college students are particularly vulnerable to the cult recruiter. Residence life staff, and particularly resident assistants (Polselli, 1991), can be particularly effective in combating cult issues on campus through the use of educational programs (Thornburg, 1991).
It is also known that first-year students are targets for cults (Enroth, 1979). First-year students face the challenges of adapting to their new surroundings, taking on new academic responsibilities, and developing new relationships. In addition, residence halls are a prime cult recruiting ground (Blimling, 1995). Cult members have been known to walk the hallways of residence halls on the weekends to find lonely students. Recruiters for cults are also very cognizant of students’ vulnerabilities (Maher, 1982). These issues are not local in nature, but indeed reach across our nation (Geraghty, 1996).
This study sought to assess chief housing officers’ perceptions of the prevalence of cult activity in residence halls, both with students and staff. A secondary issue was to discover if any training concerning cults is being conducted for staff in residence halls. Finally, data were collected on chief housing officers’ level of concern about cults in the residence halls. Bliming’s (1995) definition of cults was utilized because of housing directors’ familiarity with his work (Bowman & Bowman, 1995).
Chief housing officers (CHOs) were chosen for this study for two reasons. First, cults are especially interested in first-year college students, and these students are often required to live in university-sponsored living units. Second, research has shown that cults are attracted to the residence hall environment (Blimling, 1981). The entire population of CHOs affiliated with the Association of College and University Housing Officers - International (ACUHO-I) was asked to participate in the study by questionnaire.
The instrument was developed to engage the CHO in reference to the knowledge he or she has with regards to cults in the residence halls. Questions concerned both student/staff issues and demographic data. There were nine forced-answer questions; five questions based on a semantic scale range of “impossible - unlikely - unknown - likely - probable”; and eight demographic items. The Research and Information Committee of ACUHO-I reviewed and approved the instrument for distribution to member CHOs.
A questionnaire was sent out to 907 CHOs, accompanied by a cover letter, asking that the instrument be returned in 2 weeks. A second questionnaire was sent 2 weeks later to CHOs who had not yet returned the survey, asking that it be returned in 1 week. A follow-up postcard was sent asking the respondent to reply to the questionnaire as soon as possible.
Surveys were returned by 414 CHOs, which is a 46% return rate. Of the surveys returned, 348 (84.7%) agreed with the definition of cults: “groups having a close allegiance to a charismatic leader, an inordinate preoccupation on the part of the group with the attainment of money, and the use of behavior modification practices and brainwashing techniques to convert and retain members” (Blimling, 1995, p. 394). An overwhelming majority (94.2%) voiced concern about cults on college and university campuses in general, with 21.5% being concerned about their own campus.
Information about the chief housing officer’s institutions, educational level, and employment information is described (See Table 1). The study also obtained information about the types of cults active on campuses, student and staff involvement, and the training of staff to deal with cult issues. CHOs were 52.3% male and 47.7% female.
Chief Housing Officers Demographics (N=414)
Current Employment as a CHO
10 or more
Years Employed at Current Institution
10 or more
Years Employed in Residence Life
10 or more
Of the 414 respondents, 212 (51.2%) represented private institutions. Those at public institutions numbered 201 (48.6%). One respondent did not report the type of institution. The housing population varied from small (less than 500) to more than 5,000. Most institutions had between 1,001 and 3,000 residents living in on-campus housing (see
Table 2). The colleges and universities sampled were situated in varied regions of the United States. The western region contributed 18.8% of the population; the central region had the largest percentage at 29.5%; the southern region contributed 25.7%; and the eastern region comprised 25.2% of the total sample. Literature access about cults on campus had wide discrepancy, from 35.7% reporting “unlikely” to 25.6% “likely,” and 23.2% “unknown.”
Housing Population (N=414)
Number of Students
More than 5,000
Types of cults that CHOs reported on campus included the following: religiously affiliated (74%), satanic (12%), witches and magic (7%), political (3%), gangs (3%), and military (1%). CHOs specifically identified the following as cults on their campuses: The Boston Movement (International Churches of Christ) (41%), the Unification Church (27%), The Way International (6%), Scientology (5%), Jehovah’s Witnesses (4%), Hare Krishna (4%), Maranatha (4%), Mormonism (3%), Church of God (2%), Universal Church (2%), and Branch Davidian (2%).
Perceived Current Involvement
Current awareness of student and staff cult involvement was reported at 18.2%, with only 11.7% reporting a staff member involved in a cult (see Table 3). Approximately 90% of these staff members were part-time employees, such as resident assistants. Resident involvement was reported higher, with 27.6% reporting awareness of a student involved in cult activity. Staff currently dealing with students involved in cult activity was reported at 23.3%.
Student or Staff Involvement in Cult Activity (N=414)
Question # Percentage
Are you aware of student or staff on your campus involved in a cult?
Has there ever been a staff member in your department involved in a cult?
Do you have knowledge of residents in your system being involved in cults?
Has any of the staff in your department had to deal with cult members in the resident hall?
Only 50.3% of the respondents stated that their institution spends enough time on staff training related to cults. This indicates a possible need to include cult awareness training across the country to better prepare housing staff when they are confronted with students or cult members on campus.
Perceived Probability of Future Cult Issues
Questions were asked related to future involvement in cult activity of students and staff. A majority (62.7%) of CHOs believed that within the next 5 years a student in their residence hall system would be involved in a cult (see Table 5). When asked about staff involvement, 20.6% responded that they believed a member of their staff would be involved in a cult. Current student involvement was reported as “likely” to “probable” for 46.7%; and current staff involvement was reported as “likely” to “probable” for 11.6%.
Probability of Future Cult Issues (N=414)
Question # Likelihood of:
Percentage for Each Rating *
1 2 3 4 5
A student in your residence hall system being involved in a cult in the next five years.
A member of your staff being involved in a cult in the next 5 years.
A student in your residence hall system is involved in a cult at this time.
A staff member is involved in a cult at this time.
* 1 = Impossible; 2 = Unlikely; 3 = Unknown;
4 = Likely; 5 = Probable
The findings from this research show mixed concern. CHOs believe that cult activity on campus will involve more students in the next 5 years. To be proactive and preventative in educating and training staff, it is important to look at the perceived concerns of CHOs. Residence halls leaders need to be prepared to deal with situations involving cults on campus even though the current literature shows a lack of attention to the issues. In the 1970s and 1980s cult issues were addressed more frequently in the higher education literature. If the aim of student affairs professionals is to support essential values and provide values-centered leadership, the results of this study need to be strongly considered (Dalton, 1993).
Future research might focus on the differences in private higher education versus public higher education with regard to cult issues. It might also be interesting to survey other levels of residence life staff regarding cults on campus. Hall directors and resident assistants might have very different perceptions of cult activities on campus than do chief housing officers.
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Russell K. Elleven, Ed.D. is an adjunct professor in the College of Education at the University of North Texas. He holds the Master’s of Theological Studies with a concentration in History of Religions in addition to the Doctor of Education in Higher Education Administration.
Carolyn W. Kern, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Counseling, Development and Higher Education at the University of North Texas. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor.
Katherine Claunch Moore is a Hall Director at the University of North Texas. She is pursuing a Master’s degree in public administration.