Grove City College graduate Rebekah Kohlhepp gives a thorough timeline and analysis of the recent backlash against the college's anti-CRT board report.

Reading Time: 14 minutes

Grove City College is your typical conservative Christian college, but I’m not your typical alumna. Unlike my fellow students, I’m an atheist, and I formed this identity inside Grove City’s faith-based Pennsylvania bubble. Since graduating in May of 2018, I’ve done my best to distance myself from the school, breaking my silence only when the truly atrocious happens—for example, when they invited the anti-trans, xenophobic, misogynistic Matt Walsh to give a lecture.

This is another one of those times.

Rebekah holding her GCC diploma on her graduation day with her husband John
The author’s graduation from GCC in 2018

I have never been proud to tell people that I went to Grove City. I’ve regretted my decision to go there since my first days on campus (and I began writing about those feelings as they were forming). It is interesting for me, in a way, to watch the rest of the world become aware of the school’s existence as well as its toxic theology.

(For those who are curious: No, I don’t have a perfect reason as to why I chose a Christian college. I grew up in a Christian household, so Christianity was the world that I knew and the air that I breathed. It wasn’t until I reached Grove City that I was convinced that I was absolutely in no way a Christian and that I did not fit in there. But by the time this fully dawned on me, I was a junior, and I powered through the last year and a half.)

The college made headlines in 2017 when Mike Pence delivered a commencement address to graduating students. It was early in the Trump administration, and there were plenty of students on campus vocally protesting the invitation.

But more recently, on April 20th, a “Special Committee” of the Board of Trustees wrote and released a report addressing allegations of Critical Race Theory-related “mission drift.” They wanted everyone to know they were firmly opposed to CRT, however they wanted to define it, and made it clear “wokeness” would never infest the hallowed grounds of Grove City.

If you’re rolling your eyes at the idea of college leaders thinking they need to push back against social justice, you’re not the only one.

What could possibly lead the most powerful people at the college to go mask-off to this extent?

Here’s the timeline.

Jemar Tisby’s chapel sermon at Grove City College

In 2019, the Grove City chapel staff invited race and religion historian Jemar Tisby to give a chapel sermon about civil rights and racial justice. Around that same time, resident assistants were being trained in racial awareness, and classes like “EDUC 290: Cultural Diversity and Advocacy” were being taught. All of these things were later lumped into the bucket of “Critical Race Theory” and “wokeness” by conservative critics.

(For my lucky readers unfamiliar with Grove City’s chapel requirement, students are mandated to earn 16 “chapel credits” per semester or they will not be able to graduate. While students can attend special events, such as evening contemporary worship services, for twice the credit, the primary way to gain those credits is by attending chapel services between 9:30 and 9:50 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday mornings or Sunday evening Vespers services. Staff members lock the doors so students can’t leave until it’s over, and they watch everyone like hawks to make sure they aren’t on their phones during chapel.)

the empty chapel at Grove City
GCC chapel, courtesy of the author

Due to “scheduling difficulties and COVID-induced challenges,” Tisby wasn’t able to speak at the campus until October 2020 (less than two weeks after Matt Walsh gave his lecture, might I add). For context, this was about two weeks before the 2020 election and about five months after the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd. Discussions about race and racism were occurring even in places you wouldn’t normally expect.

Appropriately, using the book of Esther paired with quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., Tisby used his sermon to call students to action regarding the “Civil Rights movement of our time,” referencing one of his recent tweets.

Tisby’s sermon was incredibly moving and inspiring—as well as biblical.

My burden today is to help you realize the fierce urgency of this moment and to respond accordingly… What we cannot do is as a church is remain passive or silent in the face of oppression, in the face of the largest mass movement we’ve seen in the last 50 years.

. . .

My foundational conviction in this message is that we are living in the modern day Civil Rights movement. Freedom, justice, democracy, especially for Black people and other people of color, are in imminent danger, just as the Jews [in Esther] faced danger.

. . .

Don’t ever forget that the tip of the spear for the moment right now is anti-Black police brutality. We have to name that. It’s not just a general protest against racism. It is that, but what sparked it was anti-Black police brutality, but there’s a long history there. I just want us to name it.

Jemar Tisby

Tisby’s sermon was not the only instance that many parents, faculty members, and Board members would label “CRT,” but it was the most public example. (Tisby has been very vocal lately about his experience at the college, including a brand new podcast episode detailing the ordeal.)

The Grove City College Special Committee’s response

What was the problem with this sermon? Well, we never heard any specifics (of course). But the verdict from this Special Committee is that it included “divisive racial themes” and that “the Jemar Tisby that we thought we invited in 2019 is not the Jemar Tisby that we heard in 2020 or that we now read about.”

On the school’s Faith and Freedom website, GCC religion professor Carl Trueman went so far as to write, “Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and in retrospect inviting Tisby to give a chapel address may have been a mistake.” This quote was endorsed in the new report.

I wasn’t familiar with Tisby before this, but he insists it is not him that changed, it’s the political environment. I believe him. He made this point and many others in a recent Instagram Live (which I highly recommend you go watch).

It’s the fact that between 2019 and 2020, a real racial justice movement started, and people took political positions on it. Tisby might not have discussed the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in 2019, but he couldn’t ignore them by late 2020. If you are a racial justice advocate who has the chance to awaken something in a student body like the one at Grove City, you take the risk. I applaud Jemar Tisby for doing that.

Courtesy of the author

Grove City wasn’t explicitly anti-CRT when I was a student there, because the people there probably didn’t know what CRT was. I definitely had never heard of it. But in a world where the phrase, as misused as it may be, is gaining recognition and the anti-racist movement is rising, Grove City felt obligated to take a side in the “debate.” (Tisby wrote in a recent tweet that he was curious what Grove City’s response was to the 1960s civil rights movement. If it’s anything like their response to the BLM movement now, it can’t possibly be good.)

The initial anti-CRT exchange

On November 10th, 2021, a group of “concerned parents and former students”—which, anecdotally, appears to be 99% parents—signed a petition that went to the school’s President, Paul McNulty, called “Save GCC from CRT.” The petition went into detail about why “Critical Race Theory rejects the correspondence view of truth and thus undermines a biblical view of learning.” The petition was lengthy, but don’t mistake that for well-written.

The petitioners argued that “Critical Race Theory and woke theology are divisive enemies of Christian unity. They pit Christians against one another based on skin color.” None of that is accurate either by definition or in practice. To suggest otherwise means you don’t understand the issues in play. Additionally, they called Tisby an “apologist for CRT,” which he has publicly said he is not.

On November 18th, McNulty responded with a rather corporate-sounding letter on the school’s website.

Regarding critical theory generally, we do not accept it as a proper framework for examining and understanding the real challenges faced in our fallen world today. We affirm that every human is made in the imago Dei, the image of God, and should not be defined by ideological categories.

Paul McNulty

It was a mild dismissal of CRT and a reminder that all people are united under Christ. The statement was superficial but pretty much in line with how conservative Christians think. This, however, was not sufficient for the petitioners. They responded on December 6th.

However, we oppose discussing CRT as consistent with (or, helpful to) a Christian worldview. Furthermore, CRT is not merely a set of academic ideas; it is (as its academic proponents happily admit) an activist movement. In recent years, CRT has ruined many great institutions with hateful messaging. It divides people based on skin color and offers no hope of redemption, and as such it should be rejected wholesale. The pushback from our critics is that white students at GCC should learn how others see the world so they can engage in fruitful conversations about diversity after graduation (The Collegian, 9-27-19). We are not persuaded by this argument.

Save GCC from CRT — Our reply to Dr. McNulty

This time, McNulty did not respond. So on February 8th, an “open letter” to the Board of Trustees was formed, this time by anonymous faculty and staff members. It was much of the same as the petitions, with the longest list of grievances yet detailing all the ways the school had failed to push back against attempts to promote anti-racism. What I found most interesting was the following:

First taught in Spring 2021, EDUC 290 was advertised with posters featuring activist imagery associated with Black Lives Matter (BLM), an organization with Marxist roots. The course’s four required books all promoted CRT and included highly contested works by Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. While requiring students to read such works is not in itself concerning, a story in the February 19, 2021, issue of the Grove City Collegian made clear that the purpose of the course was not critical engagement of ideas but political indoctrination.

An open letter to the Grove City College Board of Trustees
The poster in question

Interestingly, the letter also accused McNulty of an act of cowardice: removing the word “conservative” from the school’s mission statement. He allegedly did this following “a BLM petition drafted in Summer 2020 by a small group of disgruntled Grove City College alumni who no longer share the values of the institution.” (Hi, that’s me!)

Nearly 200 alumni signed that petition.

And yes, the report was recommending that the board re-add the word “conservative” to the mission statement.

Denouncing uncooperative GCC alumni

While I don’t share the values of the institution, and never did before, I am just as much an alum as anyone who does. I have Grove City on my resume, I am paying off student debt from my time there, and I still suffer the trauma-induced anxiety dreams where my brain tries to convince me that I’m still there.

While I choose not to affiliate myself with Grove City in any way, I would not be writing posts like this if I didn’t care about the future of the institution. Grove City, by and large, has a good and curious student body. Many of them simply have not been exposed to critical ideas about their core beliefs, either at their previous schools or in their Christian upbringing.

For context, this was McNulty’s obligatory social media post at the beginning of the 2020 BLM movement:

You can see that he never once uttered the words “Black lives matter.” It was a glaring omission and one of many things that my fellow alumni and I took issue with.

They never responded.

The student newspaper fights back

Speaking of the student body, they certainly did not unanimously agree with this letter by the “faculty and staff.” (As that letter was anonymous, we have no way of knowing who wrote it.)

In the February 18th, 2022 issue of the student-run newspaper The Collegian, Mallory Jones wrote an amazing response to it (albeit right above an anti-abortion article). Explaining that she was one of the only 15 students to have ever taken EDUC 290, Jones shared an actual quote from the February 2021 Collegian article that the letter denounced, then went on:

“It’s not a situation where students sit and listen to us tell them they’re wrong or lacking in some way. We try to focus the discussions on the readings and stated topics that will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of one another,” Dr. Cedric Lewis said.

Ah yes, the very definition of indoctrination – avoiding lectures and instead fostering a community of honest discussion and the exploration of differing ideas.

. . .

Of all the things to induce rage in professionals employed by this college, you would think that a class on how to love our neighbor well would not make the top of the list. Yet, here we are.

. . .

Ultimately, most of these complaints come back to “conservative values being threatened on campus.” However, the college is advertised as a conservative, Christian school. This means that the college holds both worldviews, and worldviews sometimes collide.

I believe the issue of race is one of the biggest of these divergences. At some point, we need to choose if we are more attached to our identity as conservatives or our identity as Christians.

I am not saying you cannot be a conservative and still care about issues of race. I am simply asking you to consider a situation in which your Christian identity and your conservative identity clash, and you must choose which one to prioritize.

Having faculty members publicly choose their conservatism over their faith is infinitely more threatening to the integrity of this campus than a theory could ever be.

At the end of the day, what I would ask of you as an independent thinker is this: do not let your opinion of a class you have not taken or the integrity of godly men or anything else that has to do with race on campus be shaped by the angry deceit of those who are intimidated by change.

This letter is an embarrassment to our institution, and I sincerely hope for a recantation of its lies.

Mallory Jones, The Collegian, Christianity and conservatism collide

Following all of this was the Special Committee report dated April 13th, but which was made public about a week later. The idea that a college could be so incredibly narrow-minded and short-sighted on an issue of such importance led to coverage by Religion News Service, Christianity Today, and Patheos. (And now, OnlySky!)

Grove City College professors speak out

After he and his class were blasted in the report (undeservedly), Professor Cedric Lewis, currently the only Black professor at Grove City and one of the teachers of EDUC 290, spoke out on social media, in a Twitter thread and identical Facebook post.

With the knowledge that we are all made in His image, to ignore the plight, pain and injustice to our fellow man, is to do those things to [the] Lord. As such, in all of my courses, I teach and talk with my students about scripture, about my lived experience with these issues and how they as young Christians, as we all are, are called to upon to love our neighbor as ourselves. We can’t love our neighbor if we don’t actually know our neighbor. That’s why these discussions are so important. For a surprisingly large number of my students, I am the first black person that have had an actual, engaging conversation with. Ever.

. . .

This report has been release and heralded across the internet as though it is the opinion of and all of the Trustees and that they are in total agreement with it. I know for a fact that’s not the case and I do not want my comments to reflect on the whole for the actions of a few. We await the full Board’s actions and comments.

It has been said by many, and I agree, that the level of research, logic and conclusions drawn from and expressed in this report would not be accepted by most of the faculty from their undergraduate students. I concur. Furthermore, many of the findings of “fact” in the report would [not] be admissible in the very courtrooms that several of the committee members preside over.

Cedric E. Lewis

Lewis went on to explain how he was “interrogated” by the Special Committee members, who had not spoken to any of the students who took EDUC 290 and who, with their questions, made it very clear that they had not read any of the course material that they condemned to be CRT.

(By the way, if you want to know what CRT actually is, check out this awesome video by Khadija Mbowe explaining it in detail. Or, if you’d prefer, you can peruse their extensive sources.)

YouTube video

Following this, fellow minority professor Jennifer Trujillo Hollenberger made a statement on Twitter as well.

Part of my religious convictions lie in the need to fight for justice on this side of heaven. I always aim to live a life pleasing to God and to be an imitator of Christ. For me, this means aligning myself with the marginalized, every time.

And I obviously do not get this right, every time. But, I will not be silent any longer—especially when it comes to the need to understand the sin of racism that plagues us as individuals, as members of church communities, and as a society as a whole.

Throughout this entire controversy, no one has considered the voice of our international and minority students, or our faculty and staff members of color.

The campus culture, especially this academic year, has been toxic, hostile, and not a place where flourishing was possible for some of us.

This division, to me, has nothing to do with academic theory but everything to do with a deficit of spiritual health and unity.

I wholeheartedly dissent the BOT committee report. . . .

I stand in support of Don Opitz, Justin Jose, the Office of Multicultural Education and initiatives, Cedric Lewis, and EDUC 290.

I respectfully ask the BOT to reconsider the ad hoc committee findings.

Jennifer Trujillo Hollenberger

The GCC student body’s reactions

Finally, to get a better feel for the mood on campus following the controversy (and the unfamiliar spotlight on the campus), I reached out to a current student who wished to stay anonymous. She told me,

So I see a decent mix. I choose to surround myself with like minded people, and that has let me see that not everyone on campus agrees with the trustee review. However, it seems like official words from the school and its representatives are saying the quiet part out loud: that they value GCC’s political conservatism over any specific theology.

The same people who cry for “academic freedom” will fight to get an optional elective class removed. The conservatives are loudly opposing what they call CRT, but it’s become a buzz word attached to anything they don’t like. It’s hugely unfair that they’d target Cedric Lewis, the ONLY Black professor on campus, with such intense questioning that he was compelled to make his statement.

It’s amazing to see other students and alums siding with Prof. Lewis. I’m a senior, and the divisiveness and hostility on campus just exploded with the onset of COVID, the murder of George Floyd, and the 2020 election. It is not the friendly campus that I chose in high school. As long as GCC continues to make campus a hostile environment for minorities, whether they be racial, gender, or disability, they will see numbers and support decline, and will have to make a decision on whether they value their theology over their political views.

. . .

I would consider myself to be pro-CRT with the understanding that CRT is a legal theory of the inner workings of societal structures in place and how they affect people today. I also believe anyone working with the public, such as teachers, social workers, lawyers, law enforcement, and medical workers, should have to learn about this. In my case, it leads me to be a more effective educator by allowing me to meet my students where they are at and have extra empathy for what they may go through.

. . .

History is ugly, but I’d rather learn all the ugliness than a lie.

Anonymous GCC student, Class of 2022

Conclusion (for now)

This brings us to the present. In his Facebook post, Professor Lewis explained that the ordeal is likely not over yet:

I want to be clear that it is my understanding that this report is the committee’s report to the rest of the Trustees. They have not met yet to discuss it. That will take place next week before graduation. 

With that timeline in mind, there’s no better opportunity to make sure people outside Grove City are familiar with what the college’s trustees are doing. I have long been disgusted with the way they silence voices that are not conservative and Christian, but I am not alone in saying that they have gone too far this time.

Both Professor Lewis and Dr. Tisby have made clear what we ought to do now: raise our voices. The obvious reason for the report, which Tisby has shown goes against many of the Board members’ own public beliefs, was to appease donors.

Grove City College, in order to make some kind of political statement, does not accept federal aid or grants. They get their money from private donors and the increasingly conservative parents of prospective students. If they anger their donors, they risk losing it all. Many of us who have been speaking out on this believe that this report was written for those donors to see, without anticipating that it would receive the national backlash that it has.

But this is the backlash that it deserves.

Talk about this on social media. Share Lewis’s and Tisby’s tweets. Write blog posts. Make YouTube videos and podcasts. Sign petitions (links shared below). Tell your friends about it. Make an example out of Grove City College as to what happens when an institution publicly and clearly comes out as anti-anti-racist.

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Rebekah is a curious atheist, lifelong student, and creative introvert. She graduated from the conservative Christian Grove City College with a bachelor's degree in Communication Studies and a desire to...