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A group of male students, possibly drunk, attack a smaller group of minority students, with fists and slurs. It's the kind of thing people think can happen anywhere -- well not quite anywhere.

Or so many people at Guilford College thought when they heard about the alleged attack on Palestinian students by Guilford football players January 20. There are a lot of lessons that the Quaker liberal arts college’s students, faculty and administrators may end up learning from the incident as the still cloudy facts become clear. Among the less profound: Never underestimate the power of irony in the American imagination. As one of about a dozen colleges in the United States tied to the pacifistic Religious Society of Friends, an attack at Guilford (and, by some accounts, a bigoted one at that) seems so paradoxical that it not only shook up the campus, but also attracted widespread interest from people with no connection to the North Carolina college or Quakers.

As perhaps would be expected, the Guilford administration has responded to the alleged attacks by reiterating the college’s commitment to Quaker values. But what, exactly, does that mean?

Being Quaker

Paperwork was filed Monday for the arrest of a sixth Guilford College student in connection with the alleged attack on Palestinian students at a college dormitory, Bryan Hall -- which, according to court documents examined by the Greensboro News & Record, involved feet, fists, brass knuckles, racial slurs and at least 15 members of the football squad.

"I can't believe that this happened on this campus,” one student posted on  the student newspaper's Web site, The Guilfordian. “I came here because I never heard anything negative about this school.”

The student wasn’t alone in his shock. After all, liberal Guilford --  which offered a program to recruit Japanese-American students during World War II and which today actively recruits Palestinian students from Friends high schools in Ramallah on annual staff and faculty-led trips to the West Bank -- is hardly a hotbed for either violence or anti-Middle Eastern sentiment. The incident raised questions about a perceived rift between Guilford’s athletes and non-athletes (Quakers, historically, are not known for their football skills), brought attention to student alcohol use, and sparked intense discussion on campus on the question of what, if anything, this incident says about Guilford’s success in fostering Quaker values.

Guilford, with approximately 10 percent of its student body identifying as Friends, is at the high end of the spectrum in terms of Quaker representation at Friends colleges, says Rebecca Mays, clerk of the Friends Association for Higher Education. What distinguishes Guilford and other Quaker colleges as Quaker institutions is not a plurality of Quaker students, Mays says. There just aren't enough Quakers around aspiring to enroll. Instead, the colleges are known for a commitment to the religion’s peace testimony and for fostering a sense of inclusiveness through silent worship service and an embrace of patient listening. 

“It’s why you can have a Quaker school with only 10 percent card-carrying Quakers. The meeting for worship in silence allows for an inclusivity that’s remarkable. And so anyone whose practice is at all grounded in the spirit will find a place to walk there and be respected,” Mays says. Guilford is among institutions like Earlham College in Indiana that still maintain particularly strong ties to their respective regional Quaker associations. Other colleges -- founded by Quakers and still embracing parts of their philosophy -- are now officially secular. These include Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore Colleges in Pennsylvania. (Quick fact: "Hold onto your bonnet," says Max Carter, director of Guilford’s Friends Center -- North Carolina has the highest percentage of Quakers in the nation).

“There’s a particularity going on and an inclusivity. It’s very exciting. And high-striving, which is why when something happens at Guilford like it did, it’s newsworthy, because it’s very high-striving. It’s a high ideal and when you strive for a high ideal, people point a finger at you more when you fall short of it," Mays says.

But a Quaker college that fosters inclusiveness, both deliberately for diversity purposes and also by necessity, faces special challenges in maintaining its heritage, if only because the number of Quakers is so small. There are about 90,000 Quakers nationally, as Douglas Bennett, the Quaker president of Earlham College, in Indiana – which at 12 percent Quaker representation is about as Quaker as American colleges come – points out. “Numbers matter," Bennett says. “We look very hard at them."

Quaker colleges face an uphill struggle in the numbers game: Generally, religious colleges need to maintain at least a 30 percent student population from the affiliated faith in order to maintain their spiritual vitality, says C. John Sommerville, professor emeritus of history at the University of Florida and author of The Decline of the Secular University ( Oxford University Press: 2006).

In response to the incident, Guilford’s administration rapidly regrouped and trotted out the elements of its 2005-10 strategic plan regarding a need to strengthen the college’s ties to its founding faith (a marked departure from other religious institutions that continue to sever religious ties in subtle and unsubtle ways). Among the priorities that have been met, according to the college: The Friends Center is working with congregations in North Carolina to provide programs in Quaker history, spirituality and testimony; booklets on Quaker history and testimony have been developed for campus use; faculty, staff and students have attended Quaker decision-making workshops, all students have been introduced to Quaker ethos through their first-semester courses, and all new faculty and staff are provided with an extensive orientation to the religion. Carter adds that all Guilford students are required to take courses in subjects reflecting Quaker values -- such as diversity and environmental protection -- during their years at Guilford.

But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that, while Guilford has kept its 10 percent Quaker enrollment figure steady during its recent growth spurt, and has of late made numerous Quaker faculty and staff hires, its Quaker representation pales in comparison to what it once was. Founded as a boarding school in 1837 by abolitionists who saw a need for Quaker education in a slaveholding state, within 10 years the school decided to experiment with opening its doors to non-Quakers, says Gwen Erickson, the Guilford College archivist and a librarian for the college's Friends Historical Library. By 1850, only 59 percent of the boarding school’s students were Quaker. The institution transformed into a four-year degree-granting college in 1888, and by 1950, had just 18 percent Quaker enrollment. Mandatory worship services were phased out completely by the late 1960s, as they were with many colleges across the country, says Erickson. The small numbers of Quakers force the college to constantly "grapple with what it means to be a Quaker institution," she says.

In 1982, adds Carter, cognizant of the "strains and trends in other colleges to distance themselves from their founding religious body," a Friends Center was established at the college. For what it's worth, Guilford today is considered among the more "Quakerly" of the Quaker colleges -- among those who know Quaker colleges, that is.

In his official remarks on the attack, President Kent Chabotar – Guilford’s first non-Quaker leader – doesn’t use the word Quaker. But he uses some of the religion’s catch-phrases: “We seek truth, justice, and reconciliation. Truth, justice, and reconciliation are hard things to achieve. Truth, justice, and reconciliation are impossible without due process, respect, and listening to other voices," Chabotar said at a forum last Wednesday.

Due or Undue Process

But if Quaker values are a part of the discussion, so are modern issues of image and the recent history of colleges handling or mishandling accusations of misconduct involving their athletes. It’s a logical error,  says Bennett of Earlham, to use an isolated incident like what happened January 20 to define the tenor of a college. “On almost anything that happens on a college campus, he says, “It’s what happens next that matters.”

It's a bit tricky there too. While the administration’s response has been rooted in Quaker values, some have made the case that a broader tendency, on-campus and off, to automatically assume the guilt of the accused is a bit un-Quakerly and surprising, given Guilford’s proximity to Durham and the rapidly unraveling case against the once presumed guilty Duke University lacrosse players there.

"Justice is a core value of this college and part of the Quaker testimonies. That means that we are committed to peaceful conflict resolution, and appropriate justice then mixes with integrity, which is another core value of the college. That is why we are so doggedly determined to follow our process, at least as far as the internal investigation goes. No matter how long it takes, we will follow our process through, so it is fair and justice is served," says Aaron Fetrow, Guilford's dean for campus life.

But not everyone's satisfied with how completely those values have been embraced in the aftermath of the alleged attacks. A Saturday New York Times article describes a football player who was out of town the weekend of the incident being cursed at by another student, and mentions that some wonder about the incident being deemed a hate crime before a full police accounting has been issued. 

“I really like how the Quakers handle things, they have a system where there’s a student board, they have advocates who are faculty,” says Kevin Kiesel, Guilford’s head football coach, in reference to Guilford’s judicial procedure. “The problem with it, the shame in this whole matter, is that everyone should have believed in the system and let everything be handled in the walls here.”

“We should have practiced Quakerism instead of sensationalism," Kiesel adds. “I think the same thing that happened at Duke happened here.”

KC Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center who has a blog devoted to the Duke case, says he is also struck by the similarities, though he cautions there seem to be a number of differences. “As far as I know, no one is denying that there was a fight. All sides are conceding that something did happen, that’s a little different than Duke,” says Johnson. But while Johnson generally praises the administration’s "even-handed" official response, he questions what appears to be a rush to judgment by some on campus.

“One of the things I thought we would have seen from the Duke case is that the constituencies on campus that are inclined to rush to judgment and assume the worst in their own students might have said, 'OK, we need to pause and we need not to do what the people at Duke did.' That doesn’t seem to have happened at Guilford," Johnson says.

The Sports Factor

The perceived rush to judgment might have resulted in part from an athlete/non-athlete split that characterizes many small colleges, but poses a special problem for religious institutions. As Robert Benne, director of the Center for Religion and Society at Virginia’s Roanoke College says, “Schools are pressured to field good teams, and often they’ll lose their soul to that particular purpose. There’s a lot of pressure to win and therefore to overlook a lot of other things.”

“It’s an enormous problem,” says Benne, author of Quality with Soul -- How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep the Faith with Their Religious Traditions (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001). “Only the very best are able to maintain some of the values of their ethos with integrity in their athletic programs.”  The University of Notre Dame, he says, is the most famous success story.

Kiesel, the football coach, disputes the idea that there’s a rift between athletes and non-athletes, arguing that’s a distortion that’s been created in the sensational response to the alleged attack. And he says a point is made to speak with every football recruit about the college’s Quaker mission and heritage before they come to Guilford. While the football team may not often draw from the Northeastern private Quaker schools (many of which lack football programs), as the rest of the college does, the largely Southern football players who come to Guilford do so, in part, because of the college's emphasis on spirituality, Kiesel says.

“We attract people not essentially because it’s Quaker but because it’s a religious school. If you’re at a state school, they question whenever anyone talks about a religion. If you’re at a religious college, religion’s accepted, whatever your religion is.”

But Carter of the Friends Center says that as the college has grown to 2,700 students, the stature of subcommunities that may or may not buy into Quaker values grows. “As you grow larger, these subcommunities develop a life of their own because they have more and more students. We have a football program that probably has 80 athletes in it. There are 80 athletes who share this passion for football who in most cases come from small, rural North Carolina or Virginia, South Carolina towns. They have much in common with each other, so they’re going to hang out with each other." 

“Look at the cafeteria and you can tell that the football players are sitting together because they’re big hulking guys and they stand out. You don’t notice the other subcommunities. The Quaker students hang together, the international students hang together, people of color hang together.”

“As the college gets larger and larger, it makes it more and more difficult to integrate.”

While Carter thinks alcohol played a larger role in the January 20 incident than any "simmering" tensions, racial or otherwise, now is not a bad time, he thinks, to step back and take stock of who's sitting where in that cafeteria -- and why.

“We need to look at our Quaker values of how to look to the light in one another,” he says, citing a Quaker tenet finding that the light of God is in everyone. “We are to listen to the light of others because truth can come from unlikely sources. That’s all part of Quaker values, but how do we intentionally make that happen?”


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