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Most evangelical college students appreciate LGBT people even if trustees don’t

Clashes between trustees and students at evangelical institutions over the last few years are explained by a longitudinal survey of young Christians' attitudes toward marginalized groups.

The rainbow flag is a highly recognized symbol for the LGBTQ community. Photo by Ludovic Bertron/Creative Commons

(RNS) — In September 2018, when Azusa Pacific University removed a clause from its student standards of conduct prohibiting romantic same-sex relationships, it appeared that a new day was on the horizon for LGBT people at evangelical colleges and universities.

That hope was short-lived.

A few weeks later, the school reversed course, saying the university’s trustees had not approved the changes.

“We pledge to boldly uphold biblical values and not waver in our Christ-centered mission,” the trustees said in a statement. “We will examine how we live up to these high ideals and enact measures that prevent us from swaying from that sure footing.”

Though the reversal was striking, what happened at Azusa Pacific was just the latest chapter in a growing tension between trustees at evangelical institutions and students who are embracing progressive values in greater numbers.

Sophomore Hannah McElfresh told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune after the reversal, “We can only dream to love like Jesus did, and I think I’m just recently starting to say that I’m 100 percent OK with being Christian and part of LGBTQ community because I’ve been loved, especially by people at APU who may not even know I’m a part of this.”

Disputes like the one at Azusa are unlikely to go away, according to a new analysis of data from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Study, an ongoing nationally representative study we are heading up, tracking a cohort of students from 122 colleges and universities from fall 2015 to spring 2019.

Our research teams at the Ohio State University and North Carolina State University work in partnership with Interfaith Youth Core, a national collegiate organization striving to make interfaith cooperation a social norm. At the beginning of their first year in 2015, 20,436 students took the survey; 7,194 of those same students took the survey again at the conclusion of their first year, in spring 2016.

The same cohort will be surveyed again at the end of the students’ fourth year this spring, 2019. The students represent four-year colleges and universities that are both public and private, faith-based and not faith-based, small and large, from every region of the United States.

A new analysis of data from the study reveals that, at the outset of their first year of college in 2015, 51 percent of students attending evangelical institutions agreed that lesbian, gay and bisexual people make positive contributions to society. This number grew to 66 percent when these students were surveyed again a year later.

“Appreciative attitudes toward LBG people increased between Fall and Spring for first-year students at Evangelical Colleges and Universities.” Graphic courtesy of Kevin Singer

A similar pattern was discovered in evangelical college and university students’ attitudes toward transgender people; 42 percent of students affirmed the positive societal contributions of transgender individuals in 2015, a figure that increased substantially to 64 percent in 2016.

“Appreciative attitudes toward transgender people increased between Fall and Spring for first-year students at Evangelical Colleges and Universities.” Graphic courtesy of Kevin Singer

When asked whether LGBT people are ethical, whether they have things in common with LGBT people and whether they have a positive attitude toward LGBT people, over the course of the first years, their answers shifted in the range of 5 to 14 percentage points.

Sixty-seven percent of students “agree” their campus is a welcoming place for gay, lesbian and bisexual people. A slightly smaller share of students — 62 percent — feel their campus is welcoming to transgender people.

Still, other types of institutions in the U.S., religious and nonsectarian alike, are some 20 percentage points ahead when it comes to welcoming the LGBT community. Eighty-seven percent of students attending private nonsectarian institutions say their campuses are welcoming places for lesbian, gay and bisexual people (and 78 percent say their campus welcomes transgender people).

Large numbers of students attending public and mainline Protestant institutions also agree their campuses welcome the LGBT community. Differences in LGBT inclusivity by institutional religious affiliation have been noted in other national assessments as well.

“Evangelical campuses are least welcoming to LGB and Transgender students compared to other types of campuses.” Graphic courtesy of Kevin Singer

But if trustees are under the impression that incoming students aren’t expecting that their campus will be welcoming toward LGBT people, this simply isn’t the case.

IDEALS data reveals that a whopping 85 percent of incoming students to evangelical colleges and universities find it at least moderately important that their campuses are welcoming toward LGBT people, with 44 percent finding it very important. That only 67 percent of these students actually perceive their campuses to be welcoming toward LGB people and 62 percent toward trans people, however, suggests that students’ expectations of an inclusive campus are not being met.

Could this explain the uptick in clashes between trustees and students over the last few years?

If they want to meet students’ expectations, trustees will first need to come to terms with their changing campuses and how their position as trustees might prevent them from fully seeing or appreciating their students’ changing values regarding LGBT issues.

These changing values may also be held by their staff and faculty, which could explain why students’ attitudes toward LGBT people have improved after one year in college.

Trustees may have to become proactive, rather than reactive, toward supporting the well-being of LGBT students on campus.

Too often, evangelical institutions have taken a defensive posture toward LGBT issues or not gone far enough to make students feel LGBT students are welcome. Some have removed overtly discriminatory language from their policy statements without moving to acknowledge the presence of LGBT students or clarify their value-add to campus.

This increasingly common maneuver is thought to protect institutions from compromising their eligibility for federal aid. But it can backfire, as we can surmise from Azusa Pacific University’s snafu.

Finally, trustees should seek meaningful common ground with their students on LGBT issues. As IDEALS has shown, a majority of their students agree that LGBT people are ethical and make positive contributions to society; the students also say they have things in common with LGBT people and have a positive attitude toward them. We see no reason to believe that trustees at evangelical schools cannot also assent to these statements without forfeiting their beliefs and values, unless those beliefs and values are inherently slanted against LGBT people.

We hope that trustees at evangelical colleges and universities recognize the opportunity to help create the welcoming campus for LGBT people that their students are expecting but not necessarily perceiving right now.

Furthermore, we hope that they would begin to see their students’ growing appreciation for LGBT people as an asset to be celebrated rather than a threat that they must defend themselves against.

(Kevin Singer is a doctoral student in higher education at North Carolina State University, where Alyssa N. Rockenbach is a professor of higher education. Laura Dahl is a doctoral candidate in the Ohio State University’s higher education and student affairs program. Matthew J. Mayhew is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher professor of educational administration at the Ohio State University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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