Santa Clarita Signal Calls for Changes at The Master’s University

Recently, John MacArthur’s The Master’s University was put on probationary status by The Western Association of Schools and Colleges – the regional group which accredits TMU.  Among other concerns, WASC cited a “climate of fear, intimidation, bullying, and uncertainty among significant numbers of faculty and staff” at the Santa Clarita, CA school.

Now the Santa Clarita newspaper –The Signal — is calling for changes at the school. In an editorial published last Sunday, the editorial board summarized the WASC report and called on the school to take the recommendations seriously. However, the editorial board opined that “there are hints surfacing that indicate those at the top are playing the role of victim” and added:

For example, TMU President John MacArthur, reportedly speaking before a group of Master’s Seminary students last weekend, portrayed the sanctions as an attack on the university and on him personally.

“These are the best of times for us, and we know that because the enemy is working so hard,” he told the group, according to a recording posted online. In the recording, the speaker characterizes it as “a rather orchestrated attack, if not by any human source, then certainly by Satan himself. There was an attack directly on me. And it came in all kinds of forms.”

The op-ed concludes with this admonition:

It’s going to take some major changes to restore faith in TMU and its leadership. Hopefully the right people are willing to look in the mirror and see that TMU’s problems are not the work of the devil, but of human beings.

The Two Faces of TMU

There is a contradiction between MacArthur’s story and what has been told to the press. In a Christian Post article on the subject, the TMU spokesman never refers to Satan. Yet, to his students, MacArthur downplayed the charges and blamed the Prince of Darkness. In light of these mixed messages, it is understandable that the outside observers would question TMU’s leadership.

 

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Image: The Master’s University, by Lukasinla [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons 

Nationwide and Arkansas Class Certified in Gospel for Asia RICO Case

In a major development in the RICO lawsuit filed against Gospel for Asia in the Western District of Arkansas, Judge Timothy Brooks certified a nationwide class of people eligible to pursue a RICO claim against Gospel for Asia. He also certified a subclass of Arkansas donors. The specifics are below:

The judge gave GFA until October 10, 2018 to come up with a suitable plan for alerting donors about this action. This will give donors a chance to opt out of the class if they wish. I will report that process when announced here as well. For now, GFA donors can anticipate being contacted.

This is a significant milestone in this case and opens this action up to all donors (with the exceptions as noted in the judge’s order) since 2009. An exception not noted here are former employees of GFA who signed an arbitration agreement with GFA while employees. In another case involving former employees, a federal appeals court ruled that former employees pressing a RICO claim must submit to arbitration if that was a part of their contract. However, for all other donors, the class certification is a major development.

Read Judge Brooks’ Order

In a related development, Judge Brooks appointed a Special Master to oversee the discovery process. This had been anticipated since Judge Brooks had sanctioned GFA over their lack of response to discovery requests from the plaintiffs.

The Special Master is attorney David R. Cohen of Cleveland, OH. He will have freedom to inspect GFA’s documents wherever he believes is necessary to determine compliance.

I expected that GFA would have made an effort to settle before a Special Master was appointed. I suspect this is causing significant stress in Wills Point, TX and somewhere in Kerala, India.

For all Gospel for Asia articles, click here.

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Image Fair use, GFA Facebook page

Anti-Social Justice Website Says Social Justice Threatens Human Rights, Invokes Hitler and Stalin

I have written recently about John MacArthur’s complaints about Christians who seek social justice. In short, he believes the pursuit of social justice is a hindrance to the purity of the gospel. You can read all about it here.

Last week, MacArthur and some like minded folks released the “Social Justice and the Gospel” statement. To support that statement, the signers posted an article on their website by Samuel Sey.  All at the same time, Sey manages to trivialize the Holocaust, compare ideological opponents to Nazis, and define social justice in a manner that social justice Christians won’t recognize. Here is a sample of the bizarre claims:

Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party were a threat to Jews because social justice is a threat to human rights.

Social justice was the basis for stripping rights away from Jews in the Khmelnytsky Uprising. Social justice was the basis for discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union. Social justice was the basis for the holocaust in Nazi Germany. Social justice is the basis for South Africa’s initiative to strip property rights from White farmers. Social justice is the basis for stripping a pre-born baby’s right to life.

Bad people have invoked Christianity for evil deeds, should we blame Christianity for their actions?

In fact, actual social justice was not the basis for any of these catastrophes. The impulse to basic fairness that social justice Christians are calling for isn’t the basis for any of these events. If innocent people are being killed, deprived of their rights, or discriminated against, social justice isn’t at work.

Rambling Man

Sey then rambles selectively through social justice history. He mentions the Frankfurt School as leading social justice but fails to mention that the Nazis closed the school down.  Although he does correctly note that a priest is credited with coining the term “social justice,” Sey doesn’t tell readers that social justice has become a vital part of Catholic practice and witness.  One would not be smarter about the subject after reading this piece.

Social Justice Is Awful Until It Isn’t

Most of this article is incoherent. He starts with Hitler, then rambles around awhile on his way to telling us what he favors. However, what he favors in one breath, he disfavors in the next.

When the Bible commands us to “hate evil, love good, and establish justice” (Amos 5:15), it isn’t instructing us to eliminate disparities in society. Instead, it instructs us to identify evil and oppressive laws in society, so that being led by compassion and conviction, we would work to protect human rights for all. In other words, we should be like or support people like William Wilberforce and Francis Grimké, who identified slavery and segregation, respectively, as violations of human rights and worked tirelessly to establish liberty for all.

If we can identify objectively evil and oppressive laws against members in our society today, then we must name these laws. We should not, however, be distracted by perceptions of privilege and disparities. Otherwise, we will sow division into society and division into the church, and thereby threatening work to establish human rights and threatening work to advance the gospel.

First, Sey wants us to be like Wilberforce and Grimke but then he says we should not be distracted by “perceptions of privilege and disparities.” Wilberforce worked to end the slave trade and Grimke helped found the NAACP. Sorry, Mr. Sey, Wilberforce and Grimke weren’t distracted, they were focused; focused on eradicating privilege and disparities in the extreme.

In sum, the bizarre attempt to use Hitler and Stalin as negative examples of social justice fails miserably. One must have passionate hatred for social justice initiatives to bring Hitler and Stalin into the discussion.

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Image: Wikimedia (public domain)

Arkansas State Senator Sentenced to 220 Months in Prison in Bribery Case Involving Ecclesia College; UPDATE: Former President Sentenced to Three Years in Prison

UPDATE (9/14/18) – Oren Paris III, former president of Ecclesia College, was sentenced on September 12 to three years in prison for his part in the bribery and kickback scheme described below. He will also have to pay $621,000 in restitution.  Paris originally claimed innocence but then bargained with prosecutors for a reduced sentence. In essence, Paris helped to redirect taxpayer funds to state legislators in exchange for some of those funds being diverted to Ecclesia.

………..

Last year, I wrote some posts about a bribery case in Arkansas involving a State Senator, a State Representative and the president of Ecclesia College, Oren Paris III. Despite being a small college, Ecclesia has some big names on one of their boards, including David Barton and Eric Metaxas.

Initially, Paris and his board proclaimed innocence. However, he eventually pleaded guilty and will be sentenced on September 12. This press release from the Department of Justice’s U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Arkansas announces a very strong sentence against the State Senator involved Johnathan Woods. Those involved concocted a scheme to secure taxpayer funds through kickbacks and bribes.

The press release below provides a good summary of the situation. To get more background see also these posts.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Former Arkansas State Senator Sentenced To 220 Months In Federal Prison For Wire Fraud, Mail Fraud And Money [Laundering]

Fayetteville, Arkansas – Former Arkansas State Senator Johnathan Woods was sentenced today to 220 months in prison for organizing and leading a bribery scheme in which state funds were directed to non-profit entities in exchange for kickbacks, many of which were funneled through a consultant’s business, announced U.S. Attorney Duane “DAK” Kees for the Western District of Arkansas, Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, FBI Special Agent in Charge Diane Upchurch and IRS Special Agent in Charge Tamera Cantu.

On May 3 2018, a jury found Jonathan E. Woods, 41, of Springdale, Arkansas, guilty of 15 counts, including conspiracy, honest services wire and mail fraud, and money laundering.  In addition to his prison sentence, U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks of the Western District of Arkansas sentenced Woods to serve three years of supervised release and ordered Woods to pay $1,621,500.00 in restitution.

“Today’s sentence is the result of very hard work by the assigned Assistant United States Attorneys and the special agents from the IRS and the FBI”, said United States Attorney DAK Kees.  “We both respect and appreciate the judgment of the Court and the sentence that Judge Brooks ordered today.  This sentence should send a message to the people who would abuse the trust of Arkansas voters and citizens.  It should serve as a serious warning to those who would intentionally steal money from taxpayers and use their elected office to both commit and conceal their crimes.  As I stated after the jury trial concluded, my office, along with the Criminal Division from the Department of Justice, will continue to investigate, pursue and prosecute public corruption cases in Arkansas in order to ensure the fairness and justice that the people of Arkansas deserve.”

“Jonathan Woods abused his position as an Arkansas State Senator and betrayed the public trust by taking bribes and kickbacks,” said Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski.  “This conviction demonstrates the commitment of the Department of Justice and our federal partners to investigate and prosecute public officials who misuse their authority to benefit themselves at the expense of the citizens they pledged to serve.”

“Jonathan Woods violated the public’s trust and misused his authority for the purpose of lining his own pockets,” said Special Agent in Charge Diane Upchurch with the Little Rock FBI Field Office, “We are proud of the commitment of our partners at the United States Attorney’s Office of the Western Division, the IRS, and the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section.”

According to the evidence presented at trial, Woods served as an Arkansas State Senator from 2013 to 2017.  Between approximately 2013 and approximately 2015, Woods used his official position as a senator to appropriate and direct government money, known as General Improvement Funds (GIF), to two non-profit entities by, among other things, directly authorizing GIF disbursements and advising other Arkansas legislators – including former State Representative Micah Neal, 43, of Springdale, Arkansas – to contribute GIF to the non-profits.  Specifically, Woods and Neal authorized and directed the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, which was responsible for disbursing the GIF, to award a total of approximately $600,000 in GIF money to the two non-profit entities.  The evidence further showed that Woods and Neal received bribes from officials at both non-profits, including Oren Paris III, 50, of Springdale, Arkansas, who was the president of a college.  Woods initially facilitated $200,000 of GIF money to the college and later, together with Neal, directed another $200,000 to the college, all in exchange for kickbacks.  To pay and conceal the kickbacks to Woods and Neal, Paris paid a portion of the GIF to a consulting company controlled by Randell G. Shelton Jr., 39, of Alma, Arkansas.  Shelton then kept a portion of the money and paid the other portion to Woods and Neal.  Paris also bribed Woods by hiring Woods’s friend to an administrative position at the college.

Shelton also was found guilty by a jury on May 3.  He was convicted of 12 counts, including conspiracy and honest services wire and mail fraud, and is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 6.  Paris pleaded guilty on April 5, before Judge Brooks to one count of honest services wire fraud, and he is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 12.  Neal pleaded guilty on Jan. 4, 2017, before Judge Brooks to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, and he is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 13.

The FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation investigated the case.  Trial Attorney Sean F. Mulryne of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Elser and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kyra Jenner and Aaron Jennen of the Western District of Arkansas prosecuted the case.

Incidentally, Judge Brooks is also the presiding judge in the Gospel for Asia case.

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Image: Fair use from Ecclesia College website

Eric Metaxas Plans to Interview Steve Bannon – Yawn?

What’s going on? The New Yorker planned to interview former Donald Trump strategist, alt-right leader, and nativist Steve Bannon at one of their events and social media erupted with protest and cancellations of subscriptions. Within hours, the magazine canceled Bannon’s talk and said sorry.

In reaction on a recent segment of his radio show, Trump cheerleader and evangelical author Eric Metaxas extended an interview invitation to Bannon and not much happened. On that same show, Metaxas hosted alt-right queen Ann Coulter. Mr. Metaxas has had Ms. Coulter on his show for friendly interviews before.

Metaxas considers Brit alt-right poster girl Katie Hopkins his “hero.” Milo Yiannopolis has been his friendly guest as well.

These are not interviews which challenge the guests on their alt-rightness.

Obviously, it is his show, he can do what he wants. I am just surprised that there is no backlash or consequence for going full alt-right. Mainstream Christians will continue going on the show as if nothing else is going on in the culture.

Nothing to see here.

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The Tim Clinton Saga: Twitter Plagiarism is Still Plagiarism

I’ll just get right into this. Here is a tweet from American Association of Christian Counselors president and Trump evangelical advisor Tim Clinton (I have screen caps of all of these):

Who do you think came up with this pithy quote? Doesn’t it look like Tim Clinton who is now affiliated with James Dobson’s Family Talk Radio is taking credit for it?

Actually, it comes from a chapter by Everett Worthington on forgiveness. The chapter was in a book Clinton helped edit but he didn’t write the chapter. Ev Worthington did. The quote is verbatim from Ev’s chapter.

Lest you think Clinton didn’t know about this tweet, he retweeted it (or at least someone managing his account did).

Here’s another one.

This quote posted on Clinton’s AACC Twitter account actually comes from the same chapter by Ev Worthington on the next page.

One might protest and say surely Clinton doesn’t keep up with his social media pages. His interns and underlings are probably doing this. Allow me to point out that in many of these tweets his Twitter account is included in the tweet: @DrTimClinton. Unless he doesn’t do anything for himself, he has to wonder when he said or wrote the things attributed to him. Here is another example of a quote attributed to him and brought to his attention via his Twitter account.

Note the quotation marks and the attribution to @DrTimClinton. However, this was really written by Ed Stetzer in Chapter One of a book edited by Clinton. Again, Clinton is listed as an editor but Stetzer wrote the words which are quoted here verbatim and attributed to Clinton.

The sleuth who sent these to me has uncovered 14 more of these, some of which involve taking sole credit for quotes from books where Clinton had one or more co-authors. It would be proper to give all authors credit for a quote unless it was clear in the book that the quote came from a specific author.

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(In the image, Tim Clinton is above Donald Trump’s head, to the right of V.P. Pence, Image: Johnnie Moore’s Twitter feed)

Book Review: Mark Driscoll’s Spirit-Filled Jesus

In this guest post, freelance writer Becky Garrison reviews Mark Driscoll’s new book Spirit-Filled Jesus with a focus on what is missing from the book.

The Revisionist Rebranding of Mark Driscoll from Calvinist to Charismatic

By Becky Garrison

Mark Driscoll’s latest book Spirit-Filled Jesus: Live by His Power slated to release on October 2, 2018 represents his first major public offering since he resigned from Mars Hill Church (MHC) in October 2014 amid allegations of plagiarism, financial mismanagement, and abuse. Backed by the PR muscle of A. Larry Ross Communications, who represents such Christian powerhouses like the Billy Graham Legacy, Saddleback & Rick Warren, and The Family aka Fellowship), Driscoll appears poised to rebrand himself from “young, restless and reformed” to older, wiser and spirit-filled.

One could see signs of Driscoll’s move from Calvinist to Charismatic when he appeared with Robert Morris of Gateway Church on DayStar TV the same month he left MHC. However, by publishing with Charisma House, Driscoll’s transformation into a spirit-filled pastor appears to be complete.

Throughout this breezy book, Driscoll offers simplistic step-by-step instructions for how one can live a spirit-filled life by following Jesus’ teachings. Those well versed with charismatic teachings might find this book of interest as Driscoll mentions Jesus with far greater frequency than most charismatic authors, who tend to focus on the Holy Spirit. However, those well versed in the Mars Hill saga will find his whitewashing of his past telling.

For example, his bios on both his website and the Spirit Filled Jesus website make no mention of his role in founding and pastoring MHC. Nor does Driscoll reference his connections with Antioch Church or the Young Leaders Network, two entities that played a seminal role in Driscoll’s formation as a pastor. (On a side note, Brad Sargent aka Futurist Guy offers this timeline of the US emergent church. A review of this timeline along with Wenatchee the Hatchet’s detailed history of MHC point to the similarities in both entities in terms of their histories of abuse.)

Throughout the book, he makes vague allusions to his pastoral endeavors prior to establishing Trinity Church in Scottsdale, AZ without mentioning Mars Hill Church by name.

When describing his departure from Seattle, he states, “We moved to Arizona for a hard reset of life and ministry after years of feeling like a crash test dummy in a car with no airbags. After about two decades in ministry, I took some time off to heal up before entering the next season of God’s will for our life. For some months, we had church in our home on Sunday mornings before we relocated for safety reasons.” (pp. 31-32)

Later in this book, Driscoll describes how he healed from this unnamed ordeal. “After roughly two decades of teaching, I took a break for healing and learning during the most difficult season of my life for my family and me.” (p. 162) He alludes to this difficult season again with tears as the family gathered for Sunday church in their living room. (p. 185) One familiar with MHC’s history could presume Driscoll is describing the period after he resigned and before he moved to Arizona. But once again, he remains fuzzy on the details.

Then as he proclaims how his church plant in Arizona would be a “family ministry,” he makes this observation. “The first church my wife Grace and I planted, we were just twenty-five years of age with no children.” (p. 32)

While discussing his 2009 preaching services on Luke (available online at the Mars Hill Church website), he does not mention the specifics of where his preaching took place. “It took me roughly two years to preach that book to an audience comprised largely of college-educated singles who attended late night services because they had a hard time getting up by the crack of dinner.” (p. xi)

He later references pastoring a church prior to Trinity Chruch without delving into specifics. (p. 154) In fact, a reader unfamiliar with Driscol’s past would only know he has visited Seattle when Driscoll noted, “We were traveling from Seattle to Orlando” (p. 60). No mention anywhere in this book of his years living and pastoring in this city and the surrounding environs even though as Wenatchee the Hatchet documented most of the Mars Hill Church campuses have survived albeit under new names.

Continuing his revisionist retelling of his over two decades of ministry, Driscoll fails to acknowledge any of the carnage left behind after he departed MHC. Case in point, his chapters “Forgiven People Should Forgive People” and “Seven Reasons to Forgive” make no mention of the Facebook page established by MHC parishioners to air their grievances after Driscoll claimed he could not reconcile with those wronged by MHC because he could not address what he termed anonymous complaints. So one wonders about the validity of his forgiveness challenge designed as part of the book promotional campaign given that Driscoll appears unwilling to practice what he preaches.

Furthermore, given past revelations Driscoll plagiarized sections of Real Marriage and other works, one would think he would be more judicious in citing his sources in this book. His Jesus-filled index is quite sparse with one chapter ironically titled “Facing Foolish and Evil People With the Spirit’s Wisdom” having no citations at all. So just who came up with the “Six Kinds of Relationships” involving wise, evil, and foolish people described in detail in this chapter? Was Driscoll inspired by the Holy Spirit to pen these concepts? After all, he’s now playing in the Charismatic stream where personal revelation trumps traditional scholarship.

Given Les Parrott endorsed his book, I presume he does not object to having his work used by Driscoll without proper citations. However, since Parrott also lives in Seattle, I wonder why he would endorse a book that omits any reference to Driscoll’s controversial Seattle past. While Les Parrott and his wife Leslie are not connected directly to MHC, they co-author a range of relationship books that are represented by Sealy Yates, who was also Driscoll’s agent prior to the Real Marriage fallout. And like Driscoll, the Parrotts utilized Result Source to guarantee their book would chart on the New York Times bestseller list.

Most of Driscoll’s other 24 endorsements appear to be minor players in the Charismatic church scene. However, I am struck by the inclusion of Eric Metaxas, a Fox News pundit and one of the earliest and most stalwart Trump supporters, as Driscoll has never veered into faith based political debates.

I ran down this list of endorsers with Wenatchee the Hatchet to ascertain those individuals who had connections to Driscoll during his Mars Hill days. Here’s his assessment.

  • Larry Osborne was credited by Driscoll with advising him in a way that catalyzed the notorious 2006-2007 reorganization of MHC.
  • James MacDonald is a BoAA member and Executive Elder who helped Driscoll crash John MacArthur’s anti-charismatic Strange Fire conference.*
  • Craig Groeschel was another guy Driscoll name-dropped as someone he consulted with for the 2006-2007 reorganization of MHC.
  • Greg Laurie was a speaker at Resurgence 2013, and a client of A. Larry Ross.
  • Gerry Breshears was Driscoll’s advisor at Western Seminary and co-author of a few of his books, most notably Doctrine and Death By Love.

In a blog posting addressing the rise and fall of MHC, Breshears writes about those in MHC leadership repenting of their past actions as they replant many of the former MHC churches. So why would he then endorse a book by Driscoll who obliterates Mars Hill’s history with no sign of Driscoll repenting of his actions to date? Furthermore, why did four other individuals who had connections to Driscoll during his MHC days decided to endorse this book, thus participating in Driscoll’s rebranding efforts?

While the teachings of Jesus feature prominently throughout this book, upon further examine, suffice to say this book appears to be full of something other than Jesus.

(Note: The quotes from Spirit-Filled Jesus are from an uncorrected proof, not final copy.)

Becky Garrison is a freelance storyteller/satirist currently based in Portland, OR. Follow her travels via twitter and Instagram @Becky_Garrison

 

*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this review said James MacDonald might have had a “gambling habit” and racked up real estate debt for his church. Although there wasn’t an intention to link the two ideas, at least one reader did so and others may have.  To avoid confusion, I decided to remove this sentence. There was no intent to suggest that any poker playing led to church debt. 

On the point of MacDonald’s gambling, there is a credible report that MacDonald gambled with Jerry Jenkins in the past, but there is no intent in this article or evidence presented that he does now.  Wenatchie the Hatchet added a postscript to a recent article which also addresses this issue.

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About The Master’s University #1 Right Choice Ranking

Yesterday, Dee Parsons from Wartburg Watch tweeted a question about the The Master’s University’s claim that the school was ranked as a #1 “right choice” school by the Wall Street Journal. Here’s what The Master’s University said about their rating by the WSJ in 2016.

In the September 29 edition of The Wall Street Journal, The Master’s University was ranked #1 for being the “right choice” of institutions rated among the nation’s 4,000 colleges and universities.

Congratulations to President John MacArthur and the faculty and staff of The Master’s University for your exemplary work. And to the students and their families, congratulations on choosing TMU and making the “right choice.”

In 2017, TMU proclaimed:

the Wall Street Journal recently recognized TMU as #1 Right Choice University amongst all U.S. colleges/universities for the 2nd year in a row

In Medium, TMU wrote this:

The Wall Street Journal has ranked TMU number 1 in the country for two years in a row as the top “right choice” university.

Indeed the WSJ did mention TMU in 2016 and 2017 but the ranking was more of a rating by the students. WSJ asked 100,000 students a series of questions about their college including “if you could start over, would you still choose this college?” On that question, TMU students gave their school ratings higher than students at any other school. Lancaster (PA) Bible College ranked second on that question. LBC’s write up about the survey more clearly explains the significance of the rating.

The Wall Street Journal surveyed students and asked them a series of questions to determine each institutions ranking. For the Right Choice category, students were asked, “If you could start over, would you still choose this college?” LBC earned a score of 9.46 out of 10.

The WSJ articles are behind a paywall but the 2017 article on the college rankings described the category as students’ response to being asked “if they would choose their school again.” According to the WSJ,

The Master‘s University, a small Christian liberal-arts school in Santa Clarita, Calif., topped all comers in that category, despite not cracking the top 500 schools in the overall ranking.

In a related article, the WSJ said,

The survey also asked students three questions that weren’t taken into consideration in the rankings, including whether students would choose their school again. Highest marks again went to schools with a religious affiliation, including The Master’s University in Santa Clara, Calif., Lancaster Bible College and Brigham Young, Hawaii.

Obviously, TMU’s students believe they made the right choice, so I don’t mean to take anything away from TMU. However, there is a difference between WSJ ranking a school and students rating a school via a survey. When TMU portrays an average score on a student rating as a merit-based ranking by the WSJ, there is potential for their audience to be misled.

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Image: The Master’s University, by Lukasinla [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons 

Researching Hidden Populations: The Littman Study and Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria

In academia, a very hot topic now is Brown University’s response to criticism of Lisa Littman’s PLOS One paper on rapid onset gender dysphoria (see here and here). Brown initially promoted Littman’s paper which reported on her survey of 256 parents of children with late onset gender dysphoria. However, when transgender activists raised criticisms, the school pulled their press release about the study from distribution.

One of the key criticisms is that Littman posted her call for respondents on three websites which are frequented by parents who describe rapid onset gender dysphoria in their children. Critic Julia Serano called this “begging the question.” Diane Ehrensaft was quoted in the Economist as saying Littman’s recruitment “would be like recruiting from Klan or alt-right sites to demonstrate that blacks really are an inferior race.”

If Littman was trying to generally study gender dysphoria in adolescent or make a claim that the onset of all gender dysphoria in adolescence was rapid, then these criticisms might be more on point. However, Littman’s interest was more specific. She wanted to understand the relatively recent experience of rapid onset gender dysphoria in social groups where the prevalence is much greater than expected. Thus, she went where the subjects were.

The analogy offered by Ehrensaft is off because Littman wasn’t studying gender dysphoric teens in a general sense. She was trying to get a look at a subset of teens who reported gender dysphoria in the context of social groups where many such teens were reporting it. The analogy also fails because the websites Littman used for recruitment do not have negative attitudes toward transgender people in general. They do seem defensive in the face unrelenting attacks by transgender activists, but I can’t blame them for that.

Hidden Populations Are Hard to Reach

The history of research in sexuality is filled with studies of activist groups and websites. Early GLBT studies were populated by appeals to secret groups and it is still common to reach out to activist groups. In thinking about this study, I thought of the one by Ariel Shidlo and Michael Shroeder on harm done by conversion therapy. When they first recruited for subjects, they went to GLB activist groups with the following message:

Homophobic Therapies: Documenting the Damage

The National Lesbian & Gay Health Association is sponsoring an investigation of the outcomes of so-called treatments of the so-called disorder of homosexuality.

In the press release was this call for subjects:

You can be of help in the long process of getting the message out that these “conversion” therapies don’t work and do the opposite of healing *by informing your lesbian/gay/bi communities of our search for participants to be interviewed.* Please announce our project in any upcoming lesbian and gay community meetings and spread the word.

This study was a pilot study but helped to shine some light on the reactions of clients to sexual orientation change efforts. The study was widely criticized but it never claimed to be a representative sampling of all people who had tried change therapy. Therefore, the most careful interpretation of the work was focused on people who felt harmed. By analogy, that is what can be said about Littman’s study. One cannot generalize to all trans teens, nor does Littman do that. Anything that can be said can only be said about the parent reports and that is a valuable contribution at this stage of research.

Opponents Should Talk Less and Research More

Parents who see their children changing suddenly often feel struck by lightning and need empathy and support. They get some of that from talking to other parents via these websites. Critics do not help their cause by disregarding the experience of parents who know their children well and feel adrift.

For the record, I understand that the trans regret rate is less than one percent and I am not anti-trans. At the same time, I am pro-academic freedom and challenge critics to research more and criticize less. The answer to research you don’t like or disagree with is more research and academic inquiry.

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Image: Public domain

Former Dean of Harvard Medical School Criticizes Brown University’s Actions Regarding Gender Dysphoria Study

At Quillette, former Dean of Harvard’s Medical School Jeffrey Flier provides a scathing review of Brown University’s lack of support for Assistant Professor Lisa Littman and her study of rapid onset gender dysphoria (see my summary of this issue). Setting the stage for his review, Flier makes it clear that this issue is relevant to academic freedom for all:

This week’s controversy surrounding an academic paper on gender dysphoria published by Brown University assistant professor Lisa Littman—brought on by the post-publication questioning of Dr Littman’s scholarship by both the journal that published it, PLOS One, and Brown’s own School of Public Health—raises serious concerns about the ability of all academics to conduct research on controversial topics.

Flier spends the bulk of his article taking apart Brown University’s rationale for removing their press release about Littman’s PLOS One paper.  He then concludes with this stinging call for a defense of academic freedom:

At a time such as this, when a university’s academic mandate is under threat from diverse ideological actors, there is simply no substitute for a strong leader who supports academic freedom and discourse. The dean’s letter raises serious questions about whether the dean of Brown’s School of Public Health is willing to be such a leader.

For centuries, universities struggled to protect the ability of their faculties to conduct research seen as offensive—whether by the church, the state, or other powerful influences. Their success in this regard represents one of the great intellectual triumphs of modern times, one that sits at the foundation of liberal societies. This is why the stakes are high at Brown University. Its leaders must not allow any single politically charged issue—including gender dysphoria—from becoming the thin edge of a wedge that gradually undermines our precious, hard-won academic freedoms.

I certainly agree. There is a process for bringing research to the community of scholars and Littman followed it. Brown’s administrators should stand for the principle of academic freedom by leaving up the press release. The study can easily be criticized but at the same time it is similar to many pilot studies of hidden populations. Unless some kind of academic misconduct is found, Brown University should defend the work of this professor.

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