“You remind me of my daughter,” he said, twisting his fingers through my hair. I didn’t know what to do, or say. I had just exited Chapel and was going to lunch in the cafeteria when he stopped me. I had long brown hair, I was petite, and I was quiet. He terrified me. My throat closed up and I couldn’t speak. I froze as he continued to run his fingers through my hair, caressing it, examining its color, sifting it through his fingers. I couldn’t meet his eyes. I might have even closed mine and hoped the encounter would end as quickly as it had begun. If he behaved this way publicly, what would he do in private? That encounter lasted maybe a minute, but it felt like a lifetime. I felt threatened, scared, and confused. And because he was in a position of leadership, I didn’t feel like I could tell my story. Who would believe it? After all, he was the president of CIU.
I attended Columbia International University from 2005-2009. I, like many other fresh-faced first year students, was eager to start a new chapter in my life, to expand my worldview, meet new people, and figure out what I was supposed to do with my life.
Unfortunately, like many others, I found the veneer of the place cracking as I entered my second semester. I felt trapped, by money, by expectations, by rules, by religion, by authority figures. I watched as those of us who appeared more “broken” than the others were cast aside, left by the wayside to wither and die. I barely made it out with my sanity intact.
That’s why I wasn’t surprised when news broke that CIU’s new president Mark Smith had left his former place of employment in the midst of a scandal. He allegedly intimidated and threatened, then fired Jeremy Davitz, who was investigating Smith’s son, Doug, for sexual harassment and racist remarks. I’m encouraged that people from Smith’s former employer, Ohio Christian University, have begun to speak up, and that CIU alumni have become involved in the dialogue about Smith, but I’m also wondering if this will be the last time we have to speak up about the twisted, abusive practices that have been in place at CIU for decades.
According to The State, WISTV, The Circleville Herald, and Inside Higher Ed, Mark and Doug Smith both worked at Ohio Christian University. Doug was known for making anti-black, anti-Mexican, anti-Semitic, and anti-gay comments, as well as for taking pictures of women’s’ backsides, or sticking his fingers in their mouths to determine if they were “sluts”.
Mark, who became enraged upon finding out that his son was being investigated for these instances, did nothing to protect the women or minority students on campus. He instead attempted to intimidate Jeremy Davitz, the lawyer who was tasked with looking into the allegations regarding Doug’s behavior. Davitz was fired, and Mark and Doug made their escape — they are both now working at CIU.
Coincidentally, CIU’s fairly hazy relationship with the truth has become even more suspect as the institution has tried to step around their responsibility. There are plenty of excuses being made. They ran background checks. They vetted Mark. They prayed about it. Therefore, none of this is their fault, and they didn’t know about this situation anyway. Now that they know, however, they are refusing to take any steps toward safety for their students. Their only concern is sticking to their power player and pretending this will all go away.
I wish I could say this is a rarity at CIU. I wish I could say that, with all my heart. But it isn’t the case. I’ve heard story after story from people who have experienced hate speech and harassment at the hands of faculty, staff, and other students while leadership did absolutely nothing, or, in several cases, blamed the victim. I myself experienced sexual harassment by three individuals on campus, was nearly put in a mental institution without my consent or knowledge, and was repeatedly told that my experiences weren’t valid. I attended a meeting in which a former President of CIU spoke about the need to “concentrate on the students who will be leaders, not the broken ones.” I am one of the broken ones.
I believe that CIU is a microcosm of what is happening in Evangelical culture right now. We are finally seeing the underbelly of toxicity, hate, corruption and greed that has so often been disguised by being labeled “God’s will”.
The crux of the matter, for both Evangelicalism and CIU is this: It sold its soul for money and power. Mark Smith’s connections and his ability to amass large amounts of money had CIU chomping at the bit. Photos of Mark and Doug Smith with Donald Trump and Mike Pence show them leaning in to grasp and grab at whatever power they can get.
Despite growing university wealth and numbers, Mark and Doug Smith have made campuses and educational opportunities dangerous to everyone but people like them. What do wealth and power mean if we cannot use them for good? What happens when the obsession with money and importance become so overwhelming that someone would do anything to keep them?
The thing about power is this — it is never static. It does not stay in the same place, with the same person or business, forever. Nature has checks and balances put in place to even things out. No matter how hard you try, you cannot control the flow of wealth and power eternally.
Our generation is taking power back into our own hands. We’re speaking up. We’re voicing our concerns. We’re telling our stories. We’re banding together to make change for the better. Right now, OCU and CIU students and alumni are conversing. We’re posting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media outlets. We have a petition that you can sign that asks CIU to hire an outside organization to conduct an investigation on the matter. And I will be continuing to write, to make a space for those of us who have been silenced for so long.
The silence is over.