WATCHING ADAMS COMMENTARY – 2/1/16
A cult is commonly defined as “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object” with “a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.”
Several months ago, one ASU employee jokingly remarked that Watching Adams publisher and former faculty member Danny Ledonne has been labeled a “suppressive person,” or SP, which is a common term within the Church of Scientology to castigate anyone outside the church who questions its teachings. Though humorous, there is perhaps much truth to the underlying sentiment that critics of ASU must be marginalized and even have their character attacked – a common tactic of cult organizations. Only leader-centric views are permissible within ASU, it seems, and all others must be actively rejected.
While there certainly are differences between a cult and a public educational institution like Adams State University (ASU), some of the similarities that have emerged in recent months are striking and certainly should give one pause about the current campus culture. Particularly as a center for higher education that should pride itself on fostering intellectual discourse and academic freedom (see Academic Freedom at ASU: A Report Card), ASU’s resemblance to a cult is especially troubling and should be cause for intentional, systemic reform.
As outlined by the New Jersey-based nonprofit organization The Cult Education Institute, here are some common warning signs of cult behavior and how they can be observed at ASU:
- “Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.” In the case of ASU, it is clear that President Beverlee McClure and upper administrators have displayed an ongoing pattern of unfounded assertions (such as being Misinformed on CUPA Evaluations and the The Myth of the Colorado State Police Watchlist). When questioned on these or similar claims, the administration has insisted upon doubling down, relying on “emergency” faculty senate meetings as well as campus-wide emails up to and including the Board of Trustees when necessary. The appeal to authority is a constant and intensive process at ASU; there is never room for admissions of administrative wrong-doing or an acknowledgment that dissenting views have value.
- “No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry” and “Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned it is characterized as persecution.” While President McClure and others have repeatedly assured faculty, staff and students that their concerns are welcome, many such questions are met with vilifying the inquiry (such as The Charge of “Sexism”: A Means of Suppressing Free Speech) or simply ignoring those who would raise questions to begin with (see President McClure emails Students, Student Responds and Colorado AAUP Opposes ASU’s Treatment of Ledonne, PNG policy). This is because, like a cult, ASU administration is often presented as being beyond shared governance pressures to reassess their decisions or to solicit employee feedback such as Guaranteed Tuition a Guaranteed Distraction.
- “No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.” One of the very first efforts that Watching Adams undertook was a Colorado Open Records Act request for compensation data – almost all of which had not been previously disclosed, some of which was delayed for months, and resulting in revelations of gross pay inequities and prompting the ASU Faculty Senate to identify challenges to shared governance including no meaningful faculty participation in compensation committees. As a public institution, this financial data should have been available without the existence of a watchdog website run by an infamous publisher accused of “terrorism” simply for attempting to hold ASU accountable. Further CORA requests to more fully explore these issues resulted in ASU HR charging thousands of dollars for public financial data and ongoing obfuscation in the press regarding ASU’s declining credit outlook.
- “Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.” As documented in ASU Throws Its Own People Down the Memory Hole and numerous episodes of the Watching Adams Podcast series such as Spencer Harris: The Thousand Dollar Problem, Elaine Regan: Growing Pains in the Nursing Department, and Stephen Roberds: A Tenuous Tenure, many former ASU employees have experienced a sense of being undervalued, overworked, discarded, and given very little respect by administrators in the workplace. Many former and current employees have reported feeling marginalized for voicing criticism or concern over ASU’s administrative decisions and some believe their termination or other forms of retaliation were directly related to their efforts to speak up. The ongoing popularity of Watching Adams among former employees demonstrates that common threads of poor workplace treatment are woven through the very fabric of Adams State.
- “There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil” and “Former followers are at best-considered negative or worse evil and under bad influences. They can not be trusted and personal contact is avoided.” Though especially true in recent months, many former ASU employees have for years experienced a sense of character assassination upon departure, up to and including former professor Dr. Stephen Roberds and banned former professor Danny Ledonne. In their podcast interview, Roberds agreed with Ledonne’s observation that ASU takes on cult-like behaviors with regard to former employees being vilified and ostracized as no longer having acceptable views for members with the cult to consider. And of course President McClure’s labeling of critics as “negative” and even accusing them of “personal attacks and terrorism” further illustrates these similarities to a cult.
A review of The Cult Education Institute’s warning signs of cult behavior suggests that ASU’s campus culture is burdened by well-founded fear of administrator reprisal, a hostility to outside critical dissent, and “in group” thinking that compels uncritical acceptance of leadership.