Public President's Religious Appeal

The Mormon president of a community college in Wyoming is actively recruiting students who share his faith, inviting questions about the separation of church and state, and criticism from some who think he may have violated the state Constitution.

February 23, 2010

The Mormon president of a community college in Wyoming is actively recruiting students who share his faith, inviting questions about the separation of church and state, and criticism from some who think he may have violated the state Constitution.

Paul B. Prestwich, who was named president of Northwest College less than two years ago, sent recruitment letters to about 1,000 Mormon high school students this month, encouraging them to apply. While Northwest is a public institution with no religious affiliation, Prestwich impressed upon students that it was a Mormon-friendly campus.

“As an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I am quite familiar with the advantages that Northwest College and Powell [Wyo.] have to offer LDS students in particular,” the letter states.

Prestwich was supplied the names and addresses of the students by an organization in Wyoming that serves Mormon high schoolers. The college has not sent similar letters to students of any other religious affiliation, but Prestwich says that may happen in the future.

Photo: Northwest College

Paul Prestwich

The targeted Mormon students were also sent a letter from the president of the Cody Wyoming Stake, which runs a group of Mormon congregations -- much like a Catholic diocese. Fred Hopkin, the stake's president, promoted the Institute of Religion in Powell as a place near campus where students can “continue your gospel education.”

The letters were first reported on by the Northwest Trail, the college's student newspaper.

Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the letters create some real problems.

“The president’s actions are completely inappropriate,” he said. “A public university shouldn’t even know what religious backgrounds its students are coming from.”

Prestwich says he was simply trying to give Mormon students more information about the offerings in the area.

“My philosophy (of recruitment) is that I hope our potential students see where they can fit into Northwest College and our community, and I think that means showing them the resources both on and off campus,” he said.

Wyoming, which borders Utah, is consistently ranked among the top three states with the highest Mormon populations, and about 5 to 7 percent of Northwest College students are estimated to be LDS.

While Prestwich's letter has sparked controversy, he said that the practice of targeting Mormon students predates his tenure. Several years ago, the college sent a packet of general information to Mormon high school students, and the nearby LDS Institute followed up with a letter of its own, according to Prestwich. If that happened, however, it wasn’t common knowledge on the campus, said Charlotte Patrick, a professor of speech communication who joined the college in 1966 and has been active in governance issues.

“If it did [happen before], it was kept a deep secret. I am not aware of anything like this happening under any other president,” said Patrick, who retired last year and still teaches as an adjunct.

If the college really wanted to let students know about spiritual opportunities around campus, there were ways of doing that without the president using university letterhead to recruit students of a single faith, Patrick said.

“Had the letter been all inclusive, and just identifying the various religious activities or opportunities there are on campus, I wouldn’t have a problem with that particularly,” she said. “But when we target one specific group, and exclude all others, I think that’s inappropriate. When a person in power utilizes his power and influence in that way, I think it’s inappropriate.”

Pestwich said he was encouraged by admissions officials to write the letter.

Jim Vogt, president of the college’s Board of Trustees, said the board was not consulted about the letter prior to its distribution. He would not comment on the matter Monday, saying he planned to speak to Pestwich today and “look at the legal side of it.”

“Without visiting with the president first, I’m hesitant to say a whole lot,” Vogt said.

Some who’ve questioned the legality of recruiting Mormons cite the state’s Constitution, which mandates that sectarian tenets and doctrines will not “be taught or favored in any public school or institution” established by the Constitution. Steve Thulin, a history professor at Northwest who teaches about the state’s Constitution, said that using university resources to print and distribute the letters raises legitimate constitutional concerns. The college’s assertion that it will distribute other letters to more religious groups in the future doesn’t resolve those concerns, he added.

“We are regularly told that we cannot use resources paid for by the state, including computers and other resources, to teach religious or sectarian doctrines or to favor religious or sectarian doctrines,” Thulin said. “So the concern of people is that simply writing letters to other religious groups, saying that because of their faith they would be comfortable at Northwest College, doesn’t really address the issue of constitutionality.”

Using students’ religious affiliations for recruitment purposes isn’t completely without precedent in public higher education, where some colleges have sought to improve diversity by reaching out to churches with significant black and Hispanic populations. Indeed, Northwest College’s own enrollment plan discusses working with church groups to boost the number of Hispanic students. But reaching out to organizations known to serve a minority population is different from a public college billing itself as somehow uniquely suited to serve practitioners of a particular faith, according to Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

“Candidly, it just strikes me as very odd and peculiar and probably legally problematic,” he said. “The best advice with regard to public institutions is they should not be in the business of attempting to market themselves on the basis of religious affiliation. I’ve never heard of that.”

But would there be similar consternation if the faith in question weren’t Mormonism? That’s a question for Michael T. Benson, the Mormon president of Southern Utah University.

“If you were to change religions and say, 'We have a mosque and an imam here,' I wonder if there would be that much of an outcry,” Benson said.

Benson said Southern Utah doesn’t “overtly campaign” for Mormon students, but -- knowing that the campus is about 70 percent Mormon and welcoming of the faith -- the university has recruited those who self-identify as Mormons through testing services like the ACT.

“We sell SUU based on the fact that it is a safe environment with small classes and a manageable campus -- this marketing tack certainly resonates with a whole spectrum of students, not just LDS ones,” he wrote in an e-mail.

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