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The Involvement of College Students In Totalist Groups

The Involvement of College Students In Totalist Groups:

Causes, Concerns, Legal Issues, and Policy Considerations

Gregory S. Blimling, Ph.D.

Appalachian State University


The often-controversial behavior of totalist groups on campuses has been a concern among college administrators for many years. Although in recent years some of these groups have received little public attention, they continue to grow and to present difficulties for students. This article examines the psychosocial and cognitive-developmental reasons why college students are particularly susceptible to involvement in totalist groups, the methods used by these groups to recruit students, and the legal issues college administrators need to consider when working with totalist groups recruiting on campus. The article concludes with an examination of policies and procedures which may assist universities working with students and totalist groups.

Religious activities on college campuses grew throughout the decade of the 1980s. By 1984, students were clamoring for more religious classes at public universities, and were joining and attending religious services in record numbers (Newsweek, 1984). Boyer (1987), President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, confirmed this continuing interest in religion, observing that “Religious groups are among the fastest-growing organizations on many campuses” (p. 187). He notes further that the charismatic and revival groups have seen a particular increase, while mainstream Protestant groups have a “rather small following among undergraduates” (p. 188). National surveys of incoming college freshmen indicate that 5.6% of new college freshmen in 1985 stated that their religious preferences fell outside of traditional religious organizations (Austin, 1986). The increase in religious activity, and the often controversial behavior of nontraditional fundamentalist, and cult religious groups on college campuses, have been of concern among college administrators (Biemiller, 1983). This article addresses these issues as they apply to college campuses.

The article is organized into four sections. The first section explores why college students are particularly susceptible to cult involvement. The second section examines cult recruiting on campus. The problems associated with cult involvement are reviewed in the third section. The article concludes with an examination of legal issues and policy considerations that educational administrators need to consider in working with cult groups and with students cults are attempting to recruit.

The term “cult” is used throughout this chapter to refer to a totalist religious group which dominates members' attention and rigidly prescribes their conduct in most of their daily activities. These groups are customarily associated with a living, highly charismatic leader (Whittier, 1979), tend to have a preoccupation with the attainment of money (Lynn, 1979), and frequently employ coercive and deceptive techniques to recruit and convert new members (Shapiro, 1977). A principle feature of many cult groups is that they isolate their members from their families of origin, and often from the rest of society, except where such association serves the interest of the cult, e.g., fund-raising. Although the concept of a “religion” is implicit in the definition of a cult as it is used here, this formal designation is not a prerequisite. Some highly dogmatic, pseudo-psychotherapy groups may, without formal association, serve the same spiritual functions as a religion.

Susceptibility of College Students to Cult Involvement

It is probably true that anyone, given the right set of circumstances, can be converted to membership in a religious cult. What is not as apparent is why some people are drawn to these groups while others are able to remain independent. One of the methods for discovering why people join is to ask the question who joins? Research has shown (Galanter, 1979; Clark, 1976) that over half of all new members are in the adult transitional years -- between 18 and 24 years old. It is not by coincidence that many cult groups focus on this age period. They recognize that young adults in search of identity are vulnerable, easily deceived, and filled with a certain naive idealism which can be used by cults to win new converts.

The common theme of the adult transitional years is the search for and integration of identity. Eason (1968) was among the first to recognize the importance of this period 18 - 24, as a time which one devotes to establishing identity. The critical stages he observed in this period are the interplay between the need for intimacy with others versus isolation and the recognition of a self-identity versus role confusion. Resolution of these issues involves: (1) experimenting with various roles and fife-styles; (2) having the freedom to choose activities and experience the consequence of those choices; (3) feeling involved in what can be seen as meaningful achievement; and (4) having time for introspection and reflection.

Other researchers (Sanford, 1967; Coons, 1974; Havighurst, 1953) have elaborated upon Erikson's observations of the developments stages leading to adulthood. These theories of psychological development offer insight into why young adults in the transitional years between childhood and adulthood are so susceptible to the intrusive proselytizing and coercive persuasion of cult groups. An examination of each of these theories exceeds the scope of this paper and is unnecessary to illustrate why, in this period of transition, young adults are so vulnerable. Instead, one theory, that of Chickering (1972), will be used to illustrate why college students, and others in this developmental period, are so psychologically susceptible to cult involvement.

Psychosocial Development: Chickering's Theory

Briefly, Chickering hypothesizes seven vectors of development which begin in childhood and continue throughout a person's life. The first three of these vectors form a framework for the establishment of a self-concept. They consist of. (1) establishing intellectual physical, and social competence, (2) learning to recognize and manage emotions, and (3) developing autonomy. These three developmental vectors are issues principal to the normal psychological maturation of students in the freshman and sophomore years. It is the integration of these three vectors which forms the initial stages of an adult ego identity, which Chickering considers to be the fourth vector of development. This fourth vector, identity, serves as the framework for the resolution of the last three vectors: (5) freeing of interpersonal relationships, (6) establishing purpose, and (7) developing integrity. These latter three vectors are developmental concerns of the junior year of college and beyond. All seven vectors continue throughout life, and form other developmental issues in later life transitions (Levinson, 1978; Kegan, 1982).

Any of these seven vectors can serve as the basis for unresolved crises in which a student may seek to escape the crises by joining a cult. As one example, consider the vector of autonomy. It is comprised of two competing , issues:   emotional     independence    and     instrumental independence. Emotional independence is characterized by college students in their struggle to break the parent-cud relationship and exchange it for an adult-to-adult relationship. This is inhibited in college students by the financial ties they have with their parents who usually assume all or at least part of the cost for their college expenses. Lacking the instrumental autonomy of financial independence inhibits the freeing of the parental bonds of control and accountability. Cult groups offer one form of resolving this struggle for autonomy. Instrumentafly, they offer students financial independence from parents in exchange for financial dependence on the cult group. Emotionally, they offer the student a physical break with the control and accountability to parents, which they exchange for the illusion of personal autonomy in the cult.

Even after students have established a formative identity, they remain vulnerable. As students struggle to free their interpersonal relationships, they take greater risks in self-disclosure and intimacy. General friendships are replaced by more intimate ones, usually focusing on a significant other person. Again, when students are confronted with difficulty in establishing these more meaningful levels of emotional intimacy with others, cults are there to offer a replacement with their psychological techniques of “love-bombing” and communal surrogate family structures. These help the student resolve the immediate crises, but offer only a temporary and superficial resolution in exchange for the person's obedience to the cult.

Cognitive Development: Perry's Theory 

Although cults recruit principally by attacking people psychologically and not intellectually, the cognitive stage of students' development may predispose them to a cult's message. Perry (1970) in his study of college students has suggested that students enter college as dualistic reasoners and move to an acceptance of pluralistic reasons and finally into a state of relativistic reasoning. Freshmen commonly believe that there are absolute rights and wrongs and that these truths are known to those in positions of authority, such as college professors. The process of education moves students from this dualistic reasoning to an acceptance of pluralistic truths, and finally into various forms of relativistic reasoning in which one sees truth in the context of experience, evidence, credibility, and values. When students are confronted by ideas which cannot be explained using the cognitive reasoning to which they are accustomed, they begin a process of adapting to a new form of reasoning, or they escape the process of development by rigidly adhering to their current form of reasoning, or they regress to a less complex stage of reasoning. Confronted by an uncertain world in which truths are relative, some students seek the sanctuary of a cult group, which absolves them of decision-making and supplies them with a complete set of absolute truths derived from the dogma of the cult. Acceptance, by faith, alleviates the dissonance created by the uncertainties of the world of relativism and offers a reassuring, albeit naive, reality.

Moral Development: Kohlberg's Theory

Another psychological area in which college students are particularly vulnerable to cult involvement concerns the progress of their moral development. Kohlberg (1981) explains moral development as a six-stage progression from beliefs based on egocentric reasoning to those based on so6ocentristic reasoning, to those based on alleocentristic reasoning. Students enter college at either stage three or stage four in Kohlberg's moral stage development scheme. Both of these stages employ sociocentristic reasoning. In stage three moral reasoning, students are concerned with self as a member of the peer group. What is right is determined by peer approval. In stage four reasoning, students are concerned with the self as a member of society. What is right is determined by obeying the rules of the social order. Anywhere in this process of moral growth the cults can intervene. At stage three reasoning, the appeal is the communal nature of the group and the peer support it offers. At stage four reasoning, the appeal of the cult is for the alleged worthiness of their organization -- the greater good of the world -- and the absolute laws which guide the cult's dogma.

The transition to college can be a very threatening experience for many students. Often it is the first time that students have been absent from the family of origin for a prolonged time. The identity which has sustained them throughout high school is shed as they enter college, where what one did in high school is seen as a link with the past and is of little interest to the other college students. Most students make this transition with only the normal adjustment anxiety and uncertainty that accompany any such life change. Other students find this experience to be much more threatening and frequently seek easy solutions to complex social adjustment problems.

Because the college years are a period of transition and uncertainty, students are particularly vulnerable to the psychological persuasion of cults. Psychosocially, students are struggling with adapting to new adult roles. Cognitively, students are learning more complex ways to reason while relinquishing the safety and security of the adolescent and preadolescent years. And morally, students' beliefs are being challenged to grow from the dependability and direct feedback received from peers and family members to a reliance on the larger social structure of society. These changes, although not restricted to this age period 18 - 24, are perhaps most dynamic during this period because these life changes represent a move from the nuclear family to independence.

Social Factors

Another way to ask the question about why students are joining cults is to ask why now are they joining? Is there something about contemporary society which makes cults a more compelling option for students in the world today than in the past? Toffler (1971) suggested that there are so many choices students must make in college that they may be confronted by what he called “over choice.” One resolution to this “over choice” in today's society is to stop making the choices for oneself and let others do it for you. Coons (1974) suggests that this is one of the appeals of cults. These groups offer an escape from self-determination by absolving individuals from having to reason for themselves. This is replaced with the decisions cults make for individuals as revealed through the groups' dogmas.

Cox (1977) suggests that society today has failed to fulfill the basic human need to belong and have the support of the community. As institutions have become more egalitarian, larger, and the faculty more specialized and compartmentalized, the sense of community on many college campuses has been lost. Boyer (1987) in a report by the Carnegie Foundation on the status of American undergraduate education notes that “almost two out of five of today's undergraduates still say they do not feel a sense of community at their institution” (p. 191).

In an earlier report by the Carnegie Foundation, Levine (1980) suggested that one reason for this lack of community is that students have lost faith in higher education and in other social institutions such as the church, the family, and the government because these institutions have failed to meet their ideals. He observed that students were either abandoning traditional religions or were seeking new religions. Levine explains this seeming paradox in this way: “When faith or interest in traditional religions decline, new religions are a common development, particularly when trust in normally competing social institutions is low. To a subgroup of young people looking for something to believe in, non-traditional religions with an emphasis on community or a well defined dogma for guidance have been particularly appealing” (pp. 98-99).

The combination of students in the midst of confronting the normal developmental issues leading to adulthood, college environments which are larger and less supportive to students, and the stress of being presented lifestyle options not afforded previous generations, helps to make college students particularly vulnerable to the recruiting practice's of cults. Given this combination of circumstances, cults find a fertile ter6tory when they come to college campuses seeking students to recruit and convert.

Cult Recruitment of College Students

College campuses contain high percentages of upper-middle-class white students who are confronting the normal transitional issues leading to adulthood. Students generally have unscheduled leisure time and the opportunity to experiment with different life-style options as a method for determining what suits them. They also possess the youthful enthusiasm and ideological commitments which become more difficult to sustain as one grows older and makes other life commitments.

The proliferation of cult groups on college campuses has been extensive. At the University of California-Berkeley, for example, it is estimated that at least 200 different religious sects on and off-campus are recruiting from the 30,000 student campus (Anderson, 1981).

Types of Recruiting

There are two kinds of recruiters which haunt college campuses. The first is the trained cult leader sent to a campus for the purpose of establishing a group. The second type is the zealous new member eager to share his or her experience in much the same way as a recently sobered alcoholic has the need to share his or her change in life-style. Recruiters are taught to look for students who are confronting a transitional life experience, who are depressed, who are under stress or in crisis. Because conversion to a cult is an attack on one's emotions and not one's intellect, recruiters have the greatest advantage when students are most vulnerable. Freshmen and seniors are sometimes specifically targeted, because both are in the midst of major life transitional experiences.

Any campus location can provide an opportunity for the cult recruiter to make an initial contact. Recruiters have been known to station themselves at university counseling centers to find students who are emotionally vulnerable (Enroth, 1979), wander the corridors of the residence halls to find students who are feeling lonely (Stoehr, 1978), and to loiter about college libraries looking for students whose reading topics might offer an opportunity to initiate a discussion that could lead to a continuing relationship (Bromley & Shupe, 1979). Students who have recently ended a relationship with a boyfriend or a girlfriend make particularly good prospects. An attractive male or female student can befriend the recently jilted student for the purpose of gaining a new recruit.

One must remember that cult recruiters, both those specifically trained for the purpose and those who are simply zealous new members, are motivated by a commitment to the worthiness of the cult. When they deceive, manipulate, or coerce another person into the steps leading to conversion, they do so with the unshakable belief that they are helping that person to become closer to 'God' or to whatever other principle, deity, or experience they are professing. For the cult recruiter, the ends do justify the means.

Students are not the only ones deceived by cult members. College administrators, the police, or patrons to an event from whom they are seeking donations are all equally 'uninformed and naive' and are therefore assumed by cult members to be unable to make decisions based on the full knowledge of the circumstances. Therefore, they reason, deception is justified.

Recruitment Methods

The three methods most commonly used to recruit on campus are: (1) casual contact, (2) street corner evangelism, and (3) becoming a student organization. The first of these, casual contacts, was discussed briefly above. It involves canvassing the campus and locating “likely” prospects for the purpose of inviting the student to an initial meeting or weekend retreat. The second form of recruiting is what I have termed “street corner evangelism,” which consists of “soapbox” lectures given by a cult leader. These talks may address some major world crisis or the teaching of the  cult. In the first instance, the leader is generally interested in identifying students who are willing to commit themselves to some alleged worthy cause. The recruiter's intent is to get some of the audience to commit to come to some form of organizational meeting or retreat -- which in actuality is an intense recruiting program. In the second instance, the recruiter explains the cult's mission and its “benefits” to students. The Bible or “self-help” principles akin to pop-psychology are frequently used as the forum for this discussion. Drawing from what students know about these topics, the recruiter extends or reinterprets passages from the Bible or generally accepted psychological principles as a method for helping students discover something of interest to them so they will attend more serious discussions of the topic.

The third form of recruiting is for a cult group to seek the recognition of the university as a student organization. In becoming a student organization, the cult gains access to university facilities and may gain access to some student funds, forums to recruit students, and university mailing lists of new students. Perhaps most importantly, the cult gains some legitimacy through the recognition procedure. Despite the distance a university might wish to put between itself and the activities of the cult, to students and to the public, university recognition implies some form of acceptance or approval by the university community. Because public universities have limited criteria by which they can deny recognition to groups seeking to affiliate, this recognition may not imply approval, but merely that the group has met the minimum criteria courts have established for recognition.

These three common recruiting methods on college campuses should not be viewed as mutually exclusive, or exhaustive. Other recruiting schemes are certainly available. One with which the author is personally familiar involved an attempt to infiltrate the resident assistant staff in several college residence halls. The plan was to have cult members hired as resident assistants and subsequently located in the same residence hall with other members living in the living units supervised by these resident assistants. Gradually, through peer pressure, guilt, and nightly classes held in the floor lounge, members of this organization attempted to recruit the other members of the floor. The plan was then to have these members move to other living units in the same building and continue the process floor by floor until they had converted an entire building. Fortunately, the plan was circumvented in its initial stages by an alert residence hall staff.

One of the major problems college administrators face in working with these groups is discovering who the groups really are. Many practice deception; they are not reluctant to cloak the actual name of the cult by using organizational names not known to the public.

The greatest threat faced by students is not from recruiters exposing their beliefs. College campuses should offer a forum for the exchange of ideas regardless of how unorthodox a set of beliefs might be. The threat to students is the unprincipl4 psychologically coercive behavior which accompanies many of these recruiting efforts. Many students join these groups because of deception. It is these recruiting behaviors which university administrators must restrict.

Problems Associated with Cults on Campus

Unlike many campus religious groups whose mission is to support the spiritual life of students and assist them in their college endeavors, cult groups seek students to assist only the cult organization. As students become drawn into the cult, they are gradually separated from the college until their life is so consumed with the daily requirements of the cult that important academic work goes unattended, or they are moved to another location away from the influence of the college and their friends. The issue here is not retention of students, but the well-being of students. Cult conversion and membership replaces critical thinking with cult jargon, dogmatic adherence to cult doctrine, and creates the inability to reason or think independently (Conway & Siegelman, 1978). This is perhaps cults' greatest threat. It is the antithesis of what colleges and universities have been organized to teach.

There are other documented changes in the personalities of young people who have joined cults. Students' speech and writing lose irony and metaphor, and their vocabulary is reduc4 taking on a rote memorized style (Clark, 1979). Intellectually, cult members appear to exhibit a decrease in intelligence. If they leave the cult, they are frequently forced to assume menial jobs until they can relearn thinking for themselves (Delgado, 1977; Singer, 1979). Other mental harms include reduction of cognitive flexibility and adaptability, narrowing and blunting of affection, regression of behavior to childlike levels, and possible pathological symptoms, including dissociation, delusions, and similar mental disorders (Delgado, 1977).

Even this listing of harms does not capture the devastating impact that such membership has on the emotional fife of students and their families. The hopes, aspirations, and dreams of students and their parents are usurped by these groups. Several years ago I met with a former student who left the university for a weekend retreat in New Orleans with a group of students associated with what was at that time a campus organization. He never returned to the university. He was living in Chicago where he had been sent by the organization shortly after he had become a member. For the first time in almost ten years he was being given “permission” by the leadership to come back and visit his mother.

He told me that after being in a training camp for a while, he had been sent to the Chicago area where he became part of a “mobile fund-raising team”, which sold flowers. Apparently he was very good at it -- raising between $200 and $300 a day and more than twice this much on certain holidays like Mother's Day. As a trusted member of the organization he was permitted to retain some of the money for the purpose of starting a business which would wholesale fresh fish to oriental restaurants in the Chicago area. He indicated that in the year preceding this visit the company he started grossed in excess of a million dollars, the profits from which all went to the cult. He was given a subsistence allowance. The money he needed to travel to see his mother was “given” to him by the cult and he was “permitted” to stay with her for a week, during which time he was "required” to check with local members of the cult who would in turn “check” on him.

Now, at the age of thirty, this person was seeking more in his life. In a mass marriage arranged by the cult leadership, he had been married to a woman from another country. He met her only once prior to the marriage and was denied “permission” to consummate the marriage until he and his wife brought seven new members into the cult. After the marriage, he returned to Chicago and his wife was sent to Houston to work for the cult. He regretted not having a family, not spending more time with his mother, not being able to buy some things that he would have liked to make his life more comfortable, and he resented being so totally dependent on the cult for his existence. He said he envied some of his high school friends who had careers and families. Despite all of this, he was not prepared to leave the cult. He simply did not know how to leave or what he could do if he left.

This very sensitive and capable person had been led to so devalue himself -- even though he had established a very successful business on very little capital -- that he believed he owed his very existence to the cult. He lacked the motivation, skills, and self-confidence to leave and to realize the dreams he had for himself.

This is only one of many stories of young people who leave college to join a cult. College administrators seldom hear from them again. These students are lost among the thousands of others who are moving through the universities, changing schools, dropping out, or stopping-out for periods of time. As universities have grown larger, they have come to lose sight of the lives of individual students. It is only when the situation becomes acute or a particular student's problem is brought to the attention of the appropriate college administrator that efforts are mounted to address the problem created by the cults. Most of the time they quietly draw students away from colleges without anyone but the parents feeling or knowing of the loss.

Most Of the Problems cults pose on college campuses are associated with psychological emotional, and financial harm to individual students and to their families. There are, however, some extremist cult groups which are even more harmful.

One of the recent cult attractions among high school students has been Satanism and the occult. During the past several years many newspaper articles (Zorn, 1986; Washington, 1986; Stone, 1986; Man Charged, 1985; Burks, 1986; Satan Worship, 1984; Baird, 1984) have reported on homicides, suicides, and animal sacrifices involving adolescents who were associated with some form of satanic cult. One of the links between Satanism and its new interest among some young people appears to be “heavy-metal” music. A folklore surrounding some of the popular “heavy-metal” musical groups suggests that some groups are "devil worshipers.”

Reports of satanic cults have surfaced in places such as Chicago, Albuquerque, El Paso, Oklahoma City, and Logan, Ohio. It is difficult to know how prevalent these groups are because they are very secretive. One estimate is that out of the 3,500 or so cult groups functioning in the United States, about 500 are associated with the occult (Baird, 1984). How many are violent is not known. Concern about satanic groups revolves around existence of ritual deaths, animal and human sacrifices, and other acts of violence. Clearly, participation in one of these extremist groups presents a threat to the individuals in the group and in many cases to the community in which the group operates.

Although college campuses have not been associated with any of the more public reports of satanic group activity, a number of high school students have (cf., Langone & Blood, 1990). It is reasonable to assume that some high -school students have continued these associations in college; indeed, the presence of satanic graffiti (e.g., inverted crosses, the number 666 indicating the sign of the devil, pentagrams) on buildings on or near the college campus, and students who have tattooed themselves with similar symbols suggest that, as with other segments of society, satanic groups are probably functioning on college campuses.

Legal Considerations in Working with Cults on Campus

University administrators have no legitimate interest in controlling the content of a religious belief. The freedom to hold a belief, however, is separate from the freedom to act upon that belief. It is here that university administrators have an interest in controlling cult behaviors that threaten the well-being of students. The courts have provided guidelines for university administrators working with the complex issues associated with religious cults and First Amendment rights.

The plethora of legal issues surrounding the free expression of religious beliefs, the establishment of religion, the rights of association, and freedom of speech make working with cult groups a complex issue at public universities. Private colleges which are not significantly involved in state action -- meaning that they are not so intertwined in the public sector as to make the college indistinguishable from public institutions -- have greater latitude in working with these groups. There is no requirement that private colleges consider these groups for recognition. They have the legal right to restrict cult leaders from being on their campuses, except where these leaders have become students.

College administrators must grapple with managing the intrusive proselytize of cult groups and determining what involvement, if any, they are to have on campus. Four issues must be considered: a) legal implications; b) the development of institutional policies to control the behavior of these groups; c) identification of pro-active educational measures that will inform and prepare students for the recruiting efforts of these groups; and d) how one works with existing on-campus groups and future groups which become part of the campus community. Subsequent sections will deal with each of these issues.

The days when college administrators could operate in loco parentis for students have long since passed. They have been replaced by court decisions which form the framework for much administrative decision-making in today's litigious society.

Although the courts have occasionally strayed into the issue of religion at private colleges, for the most part the issue of religious freedom has been one adjudicated principally at institutions of public higher education. These challenges have been set in the context of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Embodied in these religion clauses are three concepts: rel4ort, the establishment of religion, and religious expression. Mr. Chief Justice Burger, writing for the Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman 403 U.S. 602 (1971), observed of these clauses that the language was “at best opaque, particularly when compared with other portions of the Amendment” (p. 612). The language and fluctuating interpretations of religion have caused confusion at public universities, which have attempted to balance the religious liberty rights of students with the duty of the university as a state agency to maintain a separation between church and state. Most of the conflicts between students and public universities have focused on: (1) use of facilities by religious organizations, (2) religious proselytizing, (3) religious conduct, and (4) recognition of student organizations.

Use of Facilities by Student Religious Organizations

The question of whether or not permitting students to use university facilities for religious purposes violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment was raised in Keegan v. University of Delaware, 349 A. 2d 14 (Del., 1975) when a group of Roman Catholic students requested the use of one of the public areas of the University-owned residence hall for the purpose of holding regular religious services. The University of Delaware had a policy which prohibited the use of its facilities for any religious purpose under the belief that such support would violate the establishment clause. The Supreme Court of Delaware overturned a lower court ruling to find on behalf of the students -- striking down the University's policy. In doing so, the Court concluded that because no religious group would be given special accommodation by a change in the University's policy -- and if there was, such benefit would be incidental -- there was no infringement of the establishment clause.

In Chess v. Widman, 480 F.Supp 907 (W.D. MO., 1979), the University of Missouri-Kansa,s City denied the use of its facilities for regular religious service to a fundamentalist Christian student organization on the premise that the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963 in Tilton v. Richardson 403 U.S.672 (1970) prohibited the sectarian use of any college or university facility built under the provisions of this act. The court held that by letting the fundamentalist Christian organization, called Cornerstone, regularly use University facilities, the University would be advancing religion in violation of the establishment clause. In reaching its decision supporting the University, the Court specifically disagreed with the Delaware Supreme Court in Keegan v. University of Delaware.

However, on appeal (635 F.2d 1310, (App. Ct. 8th Cir., 1980), the decision of the Chess v. Widman court was reversed. In upholding the right of the student organization to use University facilities for regular religious meetings, the Appellate Court found that the University could not deny equal access to a public forum on the basis of the content of the message -- religious, political or otherwise. The University of Missouri-Kansas City appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court (Widmnar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981)) who affirmed the Appellate Court's ruling.

It is probably safe to conclude that public universities can permit students to use facilities for religious purposes without violating the establishment clause. Denying the use of university facilities to religious groups when the facilities are made available to other campus organizations has been considered by the courts to be an unfair restriction on students' free expression rights under the First Amendment.

Religious Proselytizing

The courts have recognized individuals' rights to express their religious beliefs, even when that expression may be an annoyance to others (Douglas v. City of Jeannette, 1943). The free expression of belief -- which may include the distribution of literature or the sale of religious material -- is considered in light of the sincerity of the held belief and a Compelling state interest in controlling that belief. The case of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) v. Barber 650 F-2d 430 (2nd Cir., 1981) serves to demonstrate the extent to which the courts will go to permit the free expression of religious belief. In ISKCON v. Barber, officials of the New York State Fair attempted to control the “begging” and proselytizing of ISKCON by restricting and ultimately barring the solicitation of money and proselytizing activities by any group on the fairgrounds. ISKCON sued, contending that the regulation placed an unfair restriction on their Sankirtan belief. Although the defendants were able to show numerous examples of fraud, street scams, quick money change deals, deception and other unlawful acts which ISKCON devotees had been trained to use to acquire money from patrons under the guise of religious proselytizing, the U.S. Court of Appeals, striking down a lower court ruling, declared that, “Not withstanding evidence that fraud is occasionally involved in the practice of Sankirtan, the state has failed to show that methods less restrictive than outright prohibition are ineffective in checking misconduct. Accordingly, we hold that the state unconstitutionally interfered with the free exercise rights of ISKCON members by enacting and enforcing its anti-solicitation rule' (ISKCON v. Barber, 1981).

University campuses, however, are 'not open to the public in the same way that streets and parks are' (Widman v. Vincent, 1981, p. 278). Universities do have the right to control time, place, and manner (Healy v. James, 1972) of religious proselytize meetings, distribution of printed material, and to exercise similar control over the environs of the campus -- provided that the restrictions are reasonable and applied consistently to religious and non-religious groups alike.

The Ohio State University attempted to control the distribution of a fundamentalist Christian newspaper called Today's Student by controlling the time, place, and manner of distribution. Although restrictions placed on distribution of this material were similar to those imposed on other University groups, they were different from the wider distribution of the University supported newspaper, The Lantern. The Solid Rock Foundation, the campus group wishing to distribute the newspaper, sought a restraining order to prohibit the University from interfering with its free exercise rights under the First Amendment (Solid Rock Foundation v. The Ohio State University, 478 F.Supp.96. (S.D. Ohio, E.D., 1979). The University argued that such wide distribution would violate the establishment clause by excessively entangling the University in the dissemination of religious material. The Court disagreed with the University’s contention and found that although the University had controlled only time, place, and manner, the restrictions were unreasonable in that they did not allow the student organization to reach afl segments of the student population and, therefore, abridged the students' free exercise rights.

Non-student groups may have limited rights on state university campuses. These rights include the dissemination of free printed material, the freedom to engage a passerby in religious or political discussions, and the freedom to speak at forums open to the public. Conversely, non-student groups do not have the right to sell publications, food, or other items, nor to engage in other forms Of fund-raising without the permission of the university. The Court in Glover v. Cole, 762 F.2d. 1197, U.S. Appellate Court (4th Ct.), 1985 acknowledged this when it held that West Virginia State College could regulate the manner in which third parties used university property differently from the manner afforded student groups.

The issue of religious proselytizing on campus was also addressed in Chapman v. Thomas, ...F.Supp..., No. 80-757-CIV-5, (U.S. Dist. Ct., E.E., NC, Raleigh Div., 1982). North Carolina State University had a policy which restricted door-to-door solicitation in University residence hall. The policy was challenged by Scott Chapman (a student) after he received a university disciplinary sanction for violating this policy in his attempt to promote his Christian beliefs by conducting door-to-door evangelism in a University residence hall. The Court upheld the University's policy. In ruling for the university, the Court found that the residence halls were not a public forum, but were similar to one's household. So long as the University uniformly enforced the non-solicitation policy, the Court supported the University restriction as a permissible infringement on the religious liberty rights of Mr. Chapman.

It can be concluded from this analysis that universities may reasonably control time, place, and manner of religious proselytizing on campus in areas considered public forums, consistent with their regulation of other groups. Universities may restrict door-to-door evangelism (at least in the Federal District of Raleigh N.C., but probably elsewhere) where they also restrict other forms of door-to-door solicitation.

Religious Conduct

Although the courts have protected religious proselytizing in most forums, it has not protected all forms of religious conduct. It has been established that the freedom to hold beliefs is legally separate from the freedom to act on those beliefs when the state has a compelling interest in doing so (Wood, 1979).

Students have on occasion attempted to assert their right to use drugs under the guise of religious expression. Although the U.S. Supreme Court did let stand a unique interpretation by the California Supreme Court in People v. Woody 61 Cal. 2d 716, 394 P.2d 813, (1964), which held that the use of peyote by Navaho Indians who were members of the Native American Church was a religious sacrament under the protection of the First Amendment free exercise clause, the use of drugs for alleged religious reasons has generally not been sustained by the courts.

It is probably fair to say that universities are not compelled to permit students unrestricted license for insidious, unlawful or hedonistic conduct under the assertion of religious liberty. Nevertheless, the university may not seek to control religious conduct solely because it believes the conduct to be abhorrent.

Recognition of Religious Student Organizations 

Where public universities recognize or register organizations, the free exercise of religion also extends to the right of students to organize for the purpose of advancing common purposes through a student organization. If a university recognizes or registers any student organization, it must use the same set of nondiscriminatory policies in considering the application of all student organizations, whether they be for a secular, political social, academic, or other lawful purpose.

The issue of student organizations and their right to affiliate at public universities has been an issue of court interest in its own right. In the landmark case of Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169 (1972), the Supreme Court held that Central Connecticut State College could not deny recognition to a local chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society solely on the belief that the organization might do harm. The court established a three-prong test for nonrecognition as follows: (1) a group advocating lawless action and having the means to carry it out; (2) a group's refusal to follow the reasonable rules and regulations of the university or the law, or (3) a group engaging in any acts that disrupted the university or acts that were unlawful.

In Aman v. Handler, 653 F.2d, 41 (1981), the Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles (CARP), one of the approximately 140 different front groups used by Rev. Moon's Unification Church to recruit college students into his organization (Hassan, 1981), sought a restraining order against the University of New Hampshire after the group's application for formal recognition was denied by the Vice President for Student Affairs.

Cathy Aman, the plaintiff, alleged that denial of official recognition of CARP by the University of New Hampshire impaired her freedom of religious expression, assembly, and association. A three-judge panel, sitting on appeal held that the University “failed to meet its burden of showing that it had reasonable grounds for refusing to give reco&tion to the organization' (Aman v. Handier, 1981, p.41) and remanded the case to the district court -- with instructions that the district court decide the case in accordance with the standards established in Healy v. James.

The courts have jealously protected the rights of citizens to freely exercise their religious beliefs. Only where there have been a compelling state interest and a lack of less restrictive means of control have the courts sought to regulate the free expression of religion. In conflict arising between an individual's free exercise rights and the interests of public universities to maintain a separation between Church and State, the courts generally have ruled in ways that provide the greatest religious liberty to the individual.

Universities have yet to demonstrate to the courts compelling reasons of sufficient merit to restrain cults and other totalist religious groups from involvement on campus, even where it can be established that they are psychologically destructive to individuals Although these groups may represent beliefs that are antithetical to the educational mission of an institution and the associated legal conduct is abhorrent to the educational community, the courts have not attempted to intervene to control the lawful exercise of religious belief.

Public university administrators may conclude the following:

1. Public educational facilities may be used by student religious groups.

2. Student religious groups have a right to proselytize on campus (except in the private areas of a university residence hall).

3. Religious conduct, which does not violate the law or lawful university policies, should be permitted.

4. Where the university recognizes student organizations, religious Organizations must also be recognized without regard for their espoused religious beliefs.

5. Policies formulated to regulate student behavior on campus may be applied to religious groups in the same manner as other organizations; however, no special policies which may be construed as definiing a suspect religious classification may be enacted to control religious groups.

6. Nonstudent groups have limited rights, which include distributing free literature, engaging people in conversations on any topic, and speaking at open public forums, but do not necessarily include the right to use university facilities or to conduct fund-raising activities on the campus of a state university.

Administrative Policies

Few college administrators are willing to confront the myriad of legal problems one assumes when attempting to restrict cult groups from any involvement on campus. Thus, administrators are left to develop impartial institutional policies designed to control the deceptive and coercive behavior used by many cult groups. This author has argued elsewhere (Blimling, 1981, 1987) that universities should: (1) require every group to state clearly the name of the organization and all of its affiliations on all the literature it distributes and in all of the proselytizing it does. (All written material distributed by student organizations must list all affiliations and associations a student organization has with any organization outside of the institution. Advertisements, regardless of the media used, must clearly state the student organization's affiliations as presented in its original application for recognitions or as researched by the university); (2) develop a policy which prohibits the use of harassment, mind-control techniques, threats, or coercive persuasion to recruit or retain members in any student organization; (3) restrict door-to-door solicitation in the residence halls and fraternity and sorority houses; and (4) prohibit student organizations from interfering with or disrupting the lawful educational process, purposes, and functions of the university.

These four policies should be applied to all c-ampus groups and not just to cult groups. However, these policies, if enforced, are likely to have the greatest influence on controlling the behavior of the cult groups which are known to use techniques and approaches in conflict with these policies.

Another approach to this issue has been to establish an “ethical code” for campus evangelism. Reverend Robert Watts Thornburg (ICEP, 1988) at Boston University and others have developed guidelines for ethical behavior by campus religious groups. Their code of ethics restricts behaviors that depersonalize, coerce, manipulate, or attempt to bypass a person's critical faculties. It establishes a commitment to fairness and principles for working with students.

There, are other policies which are useful in working with campus groups. Most universities require that a new student organization have a minimum number of full-time students petitioning for recognition before recognition will be considered (e.g., charter membership to be comprised of not less than ten full-time students). This membership requirement does two things. First, it ensures that there is sufficient interest in the formation of a new student organization to merit its recognition, and second, it makes it more difficult for cult groups to register one or two recruiters as students for the purpose of starting a new student organization.

Requiring student organizations to have a faculty sponsor as part of their application for recognition is another policy which has merit. Student organizations should advance the educational mission of the university and contribute to the overall educational experience of students. Faculty, serving in advisory roles with student organizations, can help ensure that these organizations meet these expectations. If interested and actively involved, faculty should be of benefit to students as role models, confidants, and mentors. It is likely that some of the more extreme cult groups will find it difficult to locate a faculty sponsor willing to support its efforts. This faculty sponsorship requirement has the effect of setting a minimum standard for acceptance -- namely, that at least one member of the faculty must deem the organization to have educational merit before it can be recognized as a student organization.

Universities can restrict membership in recognized student organizations to students. There is no requirement that universities make their facilities available to individuals who are not members of the university community. This restriction is consistent with the 'institution's purpose of providing an educational experience for its students, and it helps to control the influence of those over whom the university has no direct control.

Implicit in establishing reasonable rules for the recognition of student organizations and their subsequent conduct is the need to establish a fair procedure to address withdrawing recognition. Most institutions have some form of disciplinary penalties which can be assigned to student organizations that violate the reasonable regulations of the institutions, and these have be-en successfully applied to religious groups on college campuses (The Collegiate Advisor, 1983). It is appropriate for administrators to reexamine these policies to consider if due process requirements could be strengthened or clarified. If it becomes necessary to take disciplinary action against one of these campus-affiliated cult groups, it is possible that the matter will be brought to the attention of the courts. The courts will be principally interested in whether or not the student organization was given substantive and procedural due process in any decision reached in holding the organization accountable for the violation of policy.

Private colleges and universities have greater latitude in the recognition of student organizations and in who gets to use their institutional facilities. Colleges which have a recognized religious heritage generally are not compelled to permit the involvement of student organizations which espouse beliefs and values antithetical to the institution's mission. They can justifiably refuse to entertain the cadre of religiously aligned groups wishing to use the campus as a base for recruiting students.

Although these colleges may be insulated against direct campus recruiting through student organizations, they may find these groups establishing organizations on property adjacent to the campus. They may discover cult recruiters haunting places on and off campus where students spend their leisure time, and they may find newly converted students in the college acting as recruiters for off-campus organizations. Private college administrators need to be sensitive to what they can do with their students and to educational programs they may wish to develop to better inform their students.

Having addressed the issue of cults becoming student organizations through a recognition procedure, we must also ask if there is any way for institutions to avoid this level of involvement. Many times these groups are looking only for a public forum to share their beliefs. When institutions have rigidly structured their policies to limit access to the student population, they may be forcing some organizations to become more involved than is perhaps necessary or desirable. If the institution does not currently have an open forum area of the campus where any person can stand on a “soap box” and espouse any belief he or she wishes, the institution may wish to consider developing this option. When these groups have the latitude to stand and be heard, they offer little threat to anyone. Because cults recruit psychologically and not intellectually, colleges have everything to gain and nothing to lose when these recruiters attempt to explain their synergistic beliefs to a cynical group of often bemused college students. This public exposure unveils for students the true purposes of these groups and, through the questioning and challenges of the audience, the faulty premises on which the organizations are based. It is when they are forced to conduct their activities covertly that they pose the greatest threat to students.

Educational Programs

One of the most effective means of countering the intrusive proselytizing of cult groups is to inform the student population about the activities of these groups. Many institutions have developed brochures about cult recruiting on campuses. Videotapes, films, and speakers are available through various organizations (e.g., American Family Foundation, international Cult Education Program, Cult Awareness Network) that can be used to inform the general student population.

This educational approach can be used effectively. Several years ago when various cult groups became active at the University of Delaware, the student affairs division used a well-organized educational campaign to counter the recruiting efforts of these groups (Sharky, 1984). The public exposure brought to bear from the student newspaper, from educational programs and speakers in the residence balls, and from similar programs in the student union had the effect of alerting the campus population to the activities of these groups. As a result, the groups were unsuccessful in their recruiting efforts and left to seek more fertile grounds for recruiting. The University of Toronto took a similar approach and has held several “Cult Awareness Weeks” to educate its students about cult groups (Max, Han, & Springer, 1985).

Educational programming about cults should be a regular part of the campus program for students but, more importantly, it should be a regular part of the training of new staff -- particularly student staff. Student staff who work as resident assistants, orientation leaders, or peer counselors have the closest contact with other students. These students have generally been selected for these positions because of their good human relations skills and because they offer viable role models for other students. Student staff should be trained to look for some of the warning signs common to people being drawn into cults. The Citizens Freedom Foundation (1983) (now known as the Cult Awareness Network) lists these as: (1) a sudden change in behavior; (2) a breakdown in communication with old friends and increased secretiveness; (3) a sudden rush of new friends who are often off-campus and often “strange”; (4) increased talk about how society is evil; (5) change in personality following a retreat with a group and talk about a “conversion experience”; and (6) the inability to engage in intellectual discussion without parroting the scripture or dogma of some organization.

Armed with information about recruiting tactics, what to look for in susceptible students, knowledge of campus groups, and common sense, student staff can be one of the most effective sources of information about cult activities on campus. Educating these students is the cornerstone of any well-conceived educational program about cults.

Management of Cult Groups on Campus

Despite educational programs, trained staff, and reasonable standards for recognition of campus organizations, tenacious cult groups will continue to be involved with universities. The question then becomes one of managing their involvement to minimize the associated problems they create for students. One approach was noted above. This is to establish a free speech area in which cult leaders can be heard and their beliefs and practices openly challenged and debated by the educational community. Another useful approach is to insist that the leaders of the religious cult participate with leaders of the other religious groups on campus in an organization of associated campus ministers, which exists on many campuses. This regular involvement opens avenues of communication among the different denominations, and it can have both an informative and moderating effect on cult leaders.

Regular meetings with cult leaders on campus to express the institution's concern about individual students or the activities of the group are, of course, in order. The closer the contact institutions maintain with cult leaders, the greater the likelihood that the institutions may be influential in preventing and resolving student problems.


It is difficult to work with college students and not delight in their success and share their joy as they accomplish some of their major life goals in college. Similarly, it is disturbing to see these same young people become the unwitting victims of unprincipled, self-serving cults. It is hard to ignore these groups as they lay siege to the campus. Administrative apathy and ignorance are their friends. They count on the uninformed administrator to allow them the opportunity to prey upon students.

Colleges and universities have a duty to provide students with an environment which fosters freedom of thought and the development of an educated and principled person. Cults with their coercive and unprincipled tactics rob students of the very things colleges and universities have been organized to teach.

To those who claim that this level of care by university administrators is in loco parentis, the answer is “it is.” It is the same in loco parentis care we extend to students when we impose fire and other safety regulations which threaten their well-being on campus.

Operating within the guidelines of the courts, college administrators should educate students and staff about the practices of cult groups, develop appropriate policies for the recognition of all campus groups, and write policies that address the specific cult behaviors which put our students at risk.


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Gregory S. Blimling, Ph.D. is the Vice Chancellor for Student Development at Appalachian State University and Professor of Human Development and Psychological Counseling and of Leadership and Higher Education at Appalachian.