Most Students at Evangelical Colleges Are Actually Appreciative of LGBT People, Even if Their Trustees Aren’t

By Kevin Singer, Alyssa Rockenbach, Laura Dahl, and Matthew Mayhew

When Azusa Pacific University removed a clause from their student standards of conduct prohibiting romantic same-sex relationships in September 2018, 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 changes had not been approved by the university’s trustees.

“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 their students who are embracing progressive values in greater numbers.

Students like Sophomore Hannah McElfresh, who 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.” 

And disputes like the one at Asuza are unlikely to go away, according to a new analysis of data from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Study (IDEALS), an ongoing nationally representative study that tracks a cohort of students from 122 colleges and universities across four years in college (Fall 2015-Spring 2019).

IDEALS was developed by Dr. Matthew Mayhew (The Ohio State University) and Dr. Alyssa Rockenbach (North Carolina State University), who lead research teams at their respective universities, in partnership with Interfaith Youth Core, a national collegiate organization striving to make interfaith cooperation a social norm. 20,436 students took the survey at the beginning of their first year in 2015, while 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 at the conclusion of their fourth year this Spring 2019. Students represent four-year colleges and universities that are both public and private, faith-based and non faith-based, small and large, from every region of the United States.

A new analysis of data from IDEALS reveals that at the outset of their first year of college in 2015, 51% of students attending evangelical institutions agreed that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people make positive contributions to society—and this number grew to 66% in just one year’s time when these students were surveyed again in 2016.

A similar pattern was discovered with respect to evangelical college and university students’ attitudes toward transgender people; 42% of students affirmed the positive societal contributions of transgender individuals in 2015, a figure that increased substantially to 64% in 2016. Positive attitudinal shifts, in the range of 5-14 percentage points, were evident when we asked students about the extent to which they agreed with positive statements toward LGBT students:

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% — feel their campus is welcoming to transgender people.

While a majority of evangelical college and university students are optimistic about campus climate, it turns out that other types of institutions in the U.S., religious and nonsectarian alike, are much farther ahead when it comes to welcoming the LGBT community. Marking a 20 percentage-point difference from their evangelical counterparts, 87% of students attending private nonsectarian institutions say their campuses are welcoming places for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (and 78% 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.

Some trustees may be under the impression that incoming students aren’t actually expecting that their campus will be welcoming toward LGBT people.

But this simply isn’t true; IDEALS data reveals that a whopping 85% of incoming students to evangelical colleges and universities find it at least moderately important that their campuses are welcoming toward LGBT people, with 44% finding it very important. That only 67% of these students actually perceive their campuses to be welcoming toward LGB people and 62% toward Trans people, however, suggests that students’ expectations of a welcoming campus for LGBT people are not being met; could this explain the uptick in clashes between trustees and students over the last few years?

To meet students’ expectations of a welcoming campus for LGBT people, trustees will first need to come to terms with their changing campuses, and how their positionality as trustees might be preventing them from fully seeing or appreciating their students’ changing values regarding LGBT issues. These changing values may also extend to their staff and faculty, which could explain why students’ attitudes toward LGBT people have improved after one year in college.

Meeting students’ expectations for an LGBT-welcoming campus will also require that trustees 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. For example, some have removed overt discriminatory language against LGBT students from their policy statements, without moving to acknowledge the presence of LGBT students or clarify their value-add to campus. Some suspect that this increasingly common maneuver is to protect institutions from accusations that might compromise their eligibility for federal aid.

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, have things in common with LGBT people, and have a positive attitudes toward them. We see no compelling 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 in front of them to help create the welcoming campus for LGBT people that their students are expecting but not necessarily perceiving right now. Furthermore, 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 PhD student in higher education at North Carolina State University.

Alyssa N. Rockenbach, PhD, is a professor of higher education at North Carolina State University.

Laura Dahl is a PhD candidate in the higher education and student affairs program at The Ohio State University.

Matthew J. Mayhew, PhD, is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Educational Administration at The Ohio State University.

You can learn more about The IDEALS project on twitter and on the web.

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