Few institutions of higher learning can match Grove City College’s (GCC) legacy of conservatism and independence. During the Reagan Revolution, the college famously sued the Department of Education over government overreach and walked away from federal funding to safeguard its self-determination. Today, Grove City’s official bulletin declares that the college “unapologetically advocates preservation of America’s religious, political, and economic heritage of individual freedom and responsibility.”
Yet ferocious cultural headwinds now threaten to destroy even the most stalwart conservative institutions. Those lacking leaders who understand the severity of the storm will be tossed about by the waves and knocked off course. Some will sink. This time last year, Grove City seemed destined for that fate.
Woke programming has made its way into the chapel, the classroom, and the dorms at Grove City. For months, concerned parents tried to sound the alarm that GCC was drifting from its historic mission. When those concerns fell on deaf ears, they banded together, launched an online petition, and spread the word on social media. After the administration stonewalled, current and former faculty issued a letter to the school’s board of trustees asking them to intervene.
In response, the board took the unprecedented step of establishing a committee to investigate CRT and mission drift. Its subsequent report is a sterling example of conviction and clarity. The board reaffirmed the college’s conservative legacy and denounced CRT as incompatible with the college’s mission. It further detailed exactly how CRT had made inroads into the institution and gave clear instructions to President Paul McNulty on how to remediate matters.
Conservatives cheered. It appeared that a passionate constituency and a vigilant board had rewritten the age-old tale of leftward mission drift within Christian higher education. All that remained was the follow-through of the college administration.
Four months after the board issued its report, the results are in, and they aren’t pretty.
In contrast to the board’s unambiguous posture and clear directives, the college’s administration appears less assured in GCC’s identity and more concerned with not rocking the boat. The board’s report declared GCC to be a “conservative, independent, and Christ-centered college standing athwart the increasingly progressive higher-education environment.”
But Grove City’s president Paul McNulty expressed a conflicted view of the situation in recent reflections on the CRT controversy. He said, “I worry that our polarization is extended to the point where I don’t know how we come out of it. It seems to be much different than in the past. Students come in seeing themselves as culture warriors. They see everything through that lens.”
Where McNulty lacks resolve, his Provost, Peter Frank, lacks confidence. In a recent video, Frank stipulated that it is hard to explain what makes Grove City special, but it has something to do with how GCC balances the conflict between free enterprise and the common good, a remarkable admission from the chief academic officer of Freedom’s College.
In short, Grove City’s constituency and its board want a bold, counter-cultural institution, but key administrators appear hesitant. The school’s befuddling and now-reversed decision to remove the word “conservative” from its vision statement — reportedly motivated by a desire to distance itself from baggage associated with the word — makes sense in light of academic leadership’s tepid defense of the conservative intellectual tradition.
Perhaps reservations among top administrators account for the dearth of personnel change at GCC over the summer. Every single member of the cast of characters who brought CRT into the school will be returning: Don Optiz (chaplain who oversaw a series of woke chapel talks), Justin Jose (Director of the Office of Multicultural Education & Initiatives), Christopher Merrick (Residential Director who gave a CRT-lite chapel talk and disparaged Grove City on a student-run podcast), and faculty in the Education Department who approved and taught CRT-infused courses. It is difficult to square this reality with the board’s directive that McNulty address situations where staff are not aligned with the college’s mission. Two such cases are particularly noteworthy.
The first was renewing the contract of Psychology Professor Warren Throckmorton. Last week, Throckmorton announced he would be retiring from Grove City at the end of the 2022-23 academic year in a tweet that garnered sympathy from prominent ex-evangelical lefties. His misalignment with the school was evident as early as 2017 but came into focus again via his copious blogging and tweeting in support of CRT and his numerous media appearances in which he belittled the parents’ anti-CRT campaign. In the grossest instance, he tried to shame GCC Board Chair Edward Breen in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.
It’s unclear whether Throckmorton chose to retire or is being retired by GCC’s administration. Either way, a competent administration should have realized the risk inherent in Throckmorton’s return this fall. With nothing to lose, he could become toxic and act as a ringleader for other pro-CRT malcontents. Early reports suggest this is exactly how he intends to behave.
According to a current GCC student who commented on the condition of anonymity, Throckmorton announced on the first day of class that he would spend his final year voicing his disagreements about CRT along with other like-minded professors on campus.
The second instance is the astonishing case of Cedric Lewis, previously a guest lecturer in the school’s entrepreneurship program and something of an entrepreneur himself, with apparent business interests in a hemorrhoid treatment company, according to his Twitter bio. Lewis helped design and teach a one-sided pop-CRT course for Grove City’s Education Department. After the board released its report, Lewis took to Twitter to tell his story, stating the board exhibited disturbing bias and their interviews — which were conducted by a committee including two sitting federal judges — “wouldn’t pass the smell test in a legal setting.”
Lewis also gave interviews to Religion News Service, Inside Higher Ed, The Young Turks, and a Grove City alum turned progressive activist and tarot reader. While Lewis was busy demeaning the board and its investigation to anyone who would listen, it came to light that he’d been disbarred in Florida for failing to cooperate with an investigation into whether he’d mishandled client funds. To the surprise of many, GCC’s Business Law instructor had personally experienced the business end of the law.
For the reform-minded administrator, allowing Lewis’ part-time contract to lapse should have been low-hanging fruit. However, according to the Grove City website, not only has Lewis been brought back to campus this fall, he was promoted to Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship. What’s the message? If you accuse GCC’s administration of being nasty closed-minded conservatives vociferously enough, they will forgive all your trespasses and give you what you want.
All this leads to one conclusion: despite the board’s moral clarity and strong leadership, Grove City’s administration has not lived up to its responsibility. In retrospect, it was foolhardy to imagine that the campus leaders who oversaw and covered up GCC’s initial mission drift could have been capable of steering the college straight. If the board wishes to conserve Grove City’s extraordinary legacy and extend it into the future, it should find new administrators who understand what needs to be done and have the courage to do it.