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Sara Johnson, a senior at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, was in chapel when she learned about a funny social media account run by a Moody student. A dean showed chapel attendees a meme—a pop culture joke featuring an image and witty caption—and Johnson looked up the Instagram account he had pulled it from, @moody.bible.memes.
After submitting a few memes to the account, Johnson accepted an offer to run it. She posts memes about Moody Bible Institute for about 1,200 followers at a school with about 3,000 students. One recent meme: a picture of Saruman from the Lord of the Rings saying, “So you have chosen … death,” with a caption about enrolling in a Saturday class. Another includes a popular cartoon of a dog relaxing in a burning room paired with Johnson’s caption about the chaos and change Moody seniors have seen during their time at the school.
Most colleges and universities have unofficial online communities where prospective students ask about admissions and current students share inside jokes and complaints. Though not run by school officials, these groups represent their schools, and the students and alumni who run them know administrators are watching.
At Moody, Johnson keeps her account lighthearted, poking fun at Bible college stereotypes and cafeteria food. She tries to support the college: When it offered students free coronavirus tests, Johnson posted a picture of Uncle Sam pointing a finger and saying, “WE WANT YOU FOR COVID-19 TESTING.”
But at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pa., an anonymously run Facebook page that posts anonymous comments—Messiah Confessions Uncensored—has a more fraught relationship with its school. Posts range from appreciation for dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets to accusations of fraud and speculation about COVID-19 on campus.
A school representative said Messiah considers the page unconstructive and divisive. Administrators watch it for trends and rumors. On a post accusing Messiah of falsifying COVID-19 numbers, a resident director commented, “False. Weird take.” Another resident director encouraged the post’s author to ask school employees for information before making claims. Some students thanked the resident directors. Others asked them to leave.
Three-quarters of college-age Americans use Facebook and Instagram, according to Pew Research. A fifth use Reddit, a social media site where users can create or join groups, called “subreddits,” dedicated to a single topic—anything from studying for the LSAT to exploring caves. Reddit users are typically anonymous, which emboldens bullies and inflammatory posting. Some subreddits are focused on pictures of cute animals, and others are known for racism or pornography. The creators or volunteer moderators set the subreddit’s rules and can block users who don’t comply. On school subreddits, common for large universities, moderators decide whether to enforce school rules or give users free rein.
On school subreddits, moderators decide whether to enforce school rules or give users free rein.
The Penn State University subreddit uses PSU’s name and logo. Michael Cao, a moderator and PSU junior, said the moderators want to support the school and foster campus community. One subreddit rule, referencing PSU’s school song, forbids “acts that may bring shame,” including cheating, lying, and inflammatory posts. The moderators allow some discussion of school scandals but delete posts they deem intentionally divisive. A bot automatically flags posts about COVID-19 so moderators can check for misinformation.
Before the pandemic, moderators organized a group meal on campus each semester. Subreddit members still meet in person in smaller groups for food or board games. Several university employees are members of the subreddit—a math professor offers calculus help—which Cao takes as implicit approval from the school.
By contrast, Liberty University’s subreddit prefers to avoid the school’s attention. Liberty (where I am a current student) is one of the few Christian schools with an active subreddit, run by alumni Joe Moyer and David Keller. At 2,400 members to the 21,000 in PSU’s subreddit, Liberty’s subreddit is small enough that the school hasn’t interfered so far.
Most subreddit members take COVID-19 seriously, so much so that Keller, who still lives near Liberty’s Lynchburg, Va., campus, has asked them to avoid fearmongering. He often asks posters to give evidence for any unverified COVID-19 claims. If they don’t, he deletes the post.
The subreddit attracts a liberal subset of Liberty’s generally conservative student body. These users often disagree with school leadership and politics. When Jerry Falwell Jr. left the school amid scandal in August, subreddit members rejoiced and posted a flood of news articles and sex jokes. The subreddit’s traffic spiked from 500 visitors a day to 23,000 when Reddit featured the group on its homepage.
After a few days of chaos, the moderators stepped in, deleting posts they deemed repetitive or vindictive. Keller said he wants the group to reflect well on the school and on Christianity. Eventually the subreddit settled back into a routine of football scores and questions about ordering pizza in a dorm.
Across Reddit, Keller has seen the bullying that gives the platform a bad reputation. But he has also traded guitar pedals on the site, found fellow Mets fans, and prayed with strangers. To him, Liberty’s subreddit allows students to wrestle with the good and bad at the school.
“You can just drop a comment and walk away from it,” Keller said. But he fights that temptation: “As a Christian, we need to do this differently.”
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Moody Bible Institute in Chicago has promised a third-party investigation and other steps in response to a petition claiming the school mishandled complaints of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse for decades.
The petition, launched Oct. 16 on Change.org, has more than 3,100 signatures and several comments from MBI students and alumni. They claim that after they reported abuse or harassment, school leaders did not inform them of their rights, discouraged them from filing Title IX claims, or disciplined them. Title IX, a civil rights law, requires schools to investigate and respond to sexual misconduct.
Most of the petition complaints concern Timothy Arens, dean of students and Title IX decision-maker, and Rachel Puente, assistant dean of student life and part-time Title IX coordinator. School administrators said in a press release they have removed both employees from their disciplinary and Title IX roles. However, they continue to work at MBI. A school representative declined to discuss the student petition or comment further.
Arens has worked at MBI since 1984 and plans to retire next year. School President Mark Jobe and Provost Dwight Perry stressed during a chapel service on Oct. 20 that the school has not determined whether Arens or Puente did anything wrong.
“I would encourage you to abstain from judgment or conclusions,” Jobe said. “I’ve always known [Arens] to be a man of character.”
Anna Heyward, 2017 MBI alumna, wrote in an account accompanying the petition that in 2016 her then-boyfriend, an MBI graduate student and employee, coerced her into getting drunk and forced her to perform oral sex. He later raped her and hit her in the face, she said.
Heyward said that when she told Arens, he asked her what she had done to deserve being hit and told her if she repeated her story publicly she might not be allowed to graduate. She said Arens placed her on academic probation for violating student conduct rules against drinking and sex.
MBI’s Title IX policy says the school will not discipline students for conduct violations if they are not egregious and are disclosed as part of a good-faith report of sex-based misconduct.
Heyward said she lost a scholarship because of the academic probation. She claimed Arens forbade her from dating until she graduated and required her to email him regular updates about her behavior. Heyward said she also told Puente about being hit, and that Puente expressed sympathy but did not inform her of her rights to a Title IX investigation and university protection.
“To this day I don’t even know how a Title IX case is filed because I was never told the process,” Heyward told me.
Heyward began organizing the petition this summer after she mentioned her experience in a social media post and received comments and messages from students and alumni with similar stories. The petition includes 11 accounts in an accompanying online document. The dates of the incidents described in the accounts range from 1995 to 2019.
“I don’t think that Rachel Puente or Dean Arens are evil people,” Heyward said. “I think Dean Arens probably has done a lot of good things. Has he done good things in this part of his employment? I don’t think so.”
According to former students, Arens in yearly speeches invited female MBI students to view him as a father figure at school. Bethany Timm, an MBI student from 2014 to 2016, wrote that after a male student began stalking her on campus, she reported the matter to Arens. She said he did not inform her of her right to file a Title IX report and dismissed her safety concerns. Megan Wohlers, a 2019 graduate, wrote that Arens and the Title IX office directed her to sign a nondisclosure agreement and drop charges of sexual assault, stalking, and sexual harassment in exchange for the accused student agreeing to leave campus.
Attorney Adele Kimmel, director of Public Justice’s Students’ Civil Rights Project, said that if the stories are accurate, the school is “doing everything wrong.”
“If those things are true, then Dean Arens has no business handling student complaints,” Kimmel said. “It’s clear that if these allegations are true, that he approaches these in a biased way, based on sex stereotypes, and it’s hard to imagine any training that would rehabilitate him sufficiently to handle this.”
Kimmel said Title IX process violations like the ones reported in the petition are more common at small schools with insufficient Title IX training and only part-time coordinators. MBI’s policy requires Title IX personnel to receive 8-10 hours of training each year in addition to the trauma-informed response training the school provides yearly to all employees.
The petition asks MBI to include student and alumni voices in replacing Arens, to replace Puente and let students and alumni help choose a successor, to remove Title IX decision-makers with disciplinary powers, and to publish annually the number of Title IX complaints made and MBI’s response to them.
Heyward said she and eight others met on Oct. 22 with MBI leaders, including Jobe and Perry, who told them the petition demands were realistic. The school had previously announced it would allow students to give input in replacing Arens after his retirement, and Heyward said the leaders agreed during their meeting to include alumni as well.
The school said in a press release it was searching for an appropriate third-party firm to investigate the complaints in the petition, evaluate the school’s handling of the complaints, and review its Title IX practices. It also promised to integrate counseling into its Title IX processes and provide regular updates. Heyward said MBI has taken helpful first steps.
“My goal isn’t to burn [MBI] down,” Heyward said. “My goal is to make it a safer environment for future students.”
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When students at Dordt University, a Christian liberal arts school in Iowa, read the school’s COVID-19 behavior agreement this year, they found standard precautions: mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing. But the four-page document, which students must sign before returning to campus, included an unusual paragraph. By signing below, it said, students agreed Dordt could require them to get an influenza vaccine—and a COVID-19 vaccine when one became available.
The paragraph launched Dordt into a brewing debate about schools and COVID-19 vaccinations. Often, universities rely on national and state regulations to set their vaccine policies, but the potential benefit of an effective COVID-19 vaccine may tempt some to require it on their own. With such a vaccine likely months away, though, many schools remain focused on ensuring students get the flu shot.
A May poll from the Associated Press and the University of Chicago found about half of Americans said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine when one became available. Another 20 percent said they would not, mostly citing concerns about side effects. That month the American College Health Association advised college health centers to budget for providing COVID-19 vaccinations for students.
After fielding questions about its vaccine requirement, Dordt emailed students a clarification kicking the issue down the road. “At present,” the email said, “the best information we have is that an effective vaccine will most likely not be available until after the spring 2021 semester.” Dordt removed the mention of COVID-19 vaccines from its behavior agreement but left open the possibility of a mandatory flu shot.
Unlike Dordt, Cedarville University in Ohio specified it would not mandate any COVID-19 vaccine unless required by state or federal regulations. University representative Janice Supplee said the college’s reopening plan mentioned vaccines in case students already had questions, but it did not state a comprehensive policy decision: “We don’t have a vaccine yet, so it’s not really on our radar.”