HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Wayne” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.
I am a graduate of Patrick Henry College. Moreover, I am a recent graduate – I didn’t go through the schism. Many of the stories critical of PHC come from those who lived through that time, and many of those defending the school come from those currently attending.
I hope to offer a perspective that “splits the difference.”
There will be many in the PHC community who will immediately write this off as the complaint of yet another of the “bitter alumni.” That’s an in-house pejorative frequently applied to PHC grads who openly criticize the school. To preempt this narrative, I would like to observe up front that I am not a disaffected former student taking out my recession-inspired frustration on the institution. At PHC, I worked hard, received good grades, and graduated with honors. I participated on multiple forensics teams, including the celebrated moot court squad, and was accepted to my top-choice graduate program. By most metrics, I had a very successful outcome.
In many ways, I regret attending PHC. In others, I do not.
(Some background: I did not have the extremely conservative homeschooling background many on this website experienced. My parents are successful professionals and committed Christians who truly live out the call of their faith to love others. They are two of the most exceptional people I’ve ever met. Accordingly, my homeschool experience was both spiritually positive and academically enriching. I’m also a straight white male, so my perspective is certainly limited compared to the experiences of others who have written here.)
As a student interested in pursuing a public-policy career, I thought PHC was a perfect fit. I was, unfortunately, incorrect. In my view, PHC must confront and overcome three major issues if it hopes to succeed in the future and avoid the serious problems of its past: 1) lack of meaningful academic engagement, 2) administrative authoritarianism, and 3) corrosive student culture.
Before discussing these, however, I wish to highlight some of the positive aspects of my time at PHC.
During my time at PHC, I met a number of very exceptional people with similar backgrounds and, in many cases, similar convictions. (I still consider myself a committed Christian, though I have renounced the “evangelical” subculture). Furthermore, the school’s Dean of Academic Affairs, Dr. Frank Guliuzza, served as both a mentor and a personal friend to me. Over and over, Dr. Guliuzza exemplified the very best ideals of Christianity, offering both compassion to the broken-down and guidance to the highly motivated.
I do not know if I would have met the same concentration of incredible people elsewhere. In some ways, PHC’s lack of “diversity” ensured that many of us shared common ground and common experiences. Accordingly, when we faced challenges, we developed uniquely close bonds. I can say with complete honesty that I would die for many of the friends I made at PHC.
And despite the presumed inferiority of any supposed “liberal arts” education delivered within such a rigidly doctrinaire framework, PHC is not an easy school (something which many of its detractors fail to appreciate). The coursework is objectively rigorous (at least in many upper- level government major classes), and the success of the school’s forensics programs speaks for itself.
Having outlined many of the positive elements of my experience, I move now to consider the challenges the school faces.
Lack of Academic Engagement
I first developed concerns on this front during freshman year. Even as a new student, I understood that censoring Michelangelo’s “David” and Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” – with black boxes around the genital areas – was contrary to the purposes of a classical liberal arts education. PHC’s overprotective and intrusive Internet filtering system extended to “tasteless” material (as defined by whom?) and blocked any discussions of drug legalization as a matter of policy. The perspectives of contemporary Catholics and Orthodox Christians were largely absent from the curriculum, as were the contributions of minorities and non-Western cultures to philosophy, history, science, religion, and the arts. Moreover, students were expressly forbidden from making a case for same-sex marriage, even as purely a matter of public policy (Student Handbook 184.108.40.206).
This is not how any “liberal arts education” should be conducted, but it is the inevitable consequence of maintaining a rigid Statement of Faith interpreted solely by the College’s senior leadership.
The school’s priority, above all else, appeared to be maintaining its pristine image as the “Christian Ivy League.” This objective naturally conflicted both with valuing students as individual persons and producing scholarly research which may challenge the established consensus.
I frequently felt that my political views and opinions, which emphasize personal liberty in one’s private life and affairs, were unwelcome on campus. Moreover, I was constantly afraid that any expression of views deemed “problematic” would be relayed to the ever-present Office of Student Life. It is impossible to convey the particularly sickening, stomach-churning dread that somewhere, someone is judging your attitude and spiritual condition. No student in higher education should face that kind of fear on a daily basis.
I hold the Office of Student Life directly responsible for creating a climate of paranoia among students whose views differ from the established consensus. There was no counterpoint to this authoritarianism; the college “newspaper” was censored beyond belief, clearly forbidden to print anything critical of the College or the administration (this last point was not the fault of the staff or supervising professor, but of the College’s higher authorities).
If I had been female, it would have been far worse. I witnessed the shaming of girls by their Resident Assistants – who obsessively sought, as a “Mean Girls”-style means of social retribution, to dress-code them for made-up modesty violations. I listened to chapel messages stating that the responsibility of women was to “control their beauty.” Further discussion of the gender issue is properly the domain of others, however.
As a final example, the administration recently decided to institute an electronic “card scan system” to monitor chapel attendance. The rationale? Attendance numbers reflected that 81% of the student body was attending chapel, rather than the (apparently more acceptable) 85%. I find such an approach – as well as the policy of mandatory daily chapel – a disgrace to worship.
Frankly, I find much of the “big issues” on campus laughable in retrospect – but at PHC, they’re spoken of with dead seriousness and an absurd level of self-righteous pomposity.
Corrosive Student Culture
This is necessarily a highly subjective question, but one which I feel warrants some discussion. A few highlights based on instances I personally witnessed:
- My personal focus on obtaining good grades and planning for my future career was condemned by other students as unspiritual and utilitarian.
- Some students outright refused to argue certain topics, even hypothetically, in parliamentary debate rounds (i.e. resolutions in which they may be required to construct a theoretical case for abortion rights). They were subsequently celebrated for their moral courage, rather than encouraged to think through both sides of crucial issues or advised to leave the league. (PHC tuition dollars funded the cross-country travel of these students.)
- Student “Resident Assistants” betrayed personal confidences to the Office of Student Life, which in turn betrayed those confidences to other Resident Assistants.
- A large subset of PHC culture expected that fathers give permission for their adult daughters to go out on dates.
- Many students attributed mental health issues to “spiritual warfare” and “demonic activity,” creating a climate of distrust for modern medicine.
- Students were taught, and routinely promulgated to others, the toxic idea that the school administration may claim spiritual authority over its students. The school rules expressly forbid public criticism of professors, based on the rationale that such activity “violates the Biblical principle of submission to the authorities whom God has put over us.” (Student Life Handbook, 2.1.2).
My objective in writing this is not to exact some sort of retribution. After all, I and my friends are graduates. I seek to identify some serious problems that persist at PHC and suggest that the school recognize these, taking steps to reform itself accordingly. Such changes are absolutely not incompatible with the Christian faith that the school professes, but may require some painful evolutions: as long as the school’s current administrative figureheads remain in power and remain committed to inflexibility, genuine reform will likely be stonewalled.
I deeply care about many of the people involved in my PHC experience – both those currently attending and those who have graduated. If you are a current student at PHC and this story resonates with you, I hope you realize that you are not alone. Others have wondered the same things, asked the same questions, and faced the same unknowns. Do not accept the narrative that all alumni are angry, pathologically bitter individuals whose post-PHC lives have stalled; I think I speak for many PHC graduates when I say that we sincerely care about you. Please reach out to us. Hear our stories before you make snap judgments about our character or motivations.
When all is said and done, there are two directions a Christian college such as PHC may pursue: embrace the simplistic model of Bob Jones University/Pensacola Christian College, and choke off dissent in the name of ideological purity; or take the path of Wheaton and many others, encouraging cultural engagement while recognizing that all students will not fit into cookie-cutter molds. PHC is clearly caught between these two competing impulses.
One can only hope the school chooses to take the harder, but necessary, road toward reform.
“Bitter” is a word I am hoping to almost completely remove from my own vocabulary and never accept at face value from others. In my experience, it is far too frequently used as a silencing tool. Thanks for this clear, thoughtful assessment, Wayne.
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Fantastic piece. Thank you for your clear writing and patient tone. Proposing solutions and offering support to current students is a needed aspect which has been lacking in many pieces (including my own). You succeeded in providing a balanced perspective on a sensitive issue.
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You make some good points. I was not aware the administration had started doing a card scan for chapel attendance–that had actually first been proposed when I was there (I graduated in 2007). My response was that it would be better to put barcodes on our foreheads and hands. 🙂 I believe several other people expressed similar opinions; in any case, the plan was abandoned for some reason.
From your description, it sounds like the Office of Student Life has not changed as much as I would have hoped since I graduated. I was one of the “good kids” who didn’t get in trouble with them, but looking back I can see many things they did wrong. I suspect the student culture could change more easily if the administration culture changed, since the most problematic parts of student culture are perpetuated by those with high views of authority.
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“Students were taught, and routinely promulgated to others, the toxic idea that the school administration may claim spiritual authority over its students. The school rules exressly forbid public critcism of professors…”
And this, friends, is supposed to be “Patrick Henry College”. Named in honor of Patrick “Give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death” Henry.
Well, it’s probably a good thing for the administration that he’s no longer around. Because if there’s one thing false authorities CAN’T STAND, it’s intellectual firebrands like him.