I have a long history with Columbia International University. My wife and I were both students and worked for the campus food service. After graduation, we started a church in Northeast Columbia where we remain to this day. I have remained close with many faculty, staff and students, and have served as pastor for a number of them.
So I was shocked to read the headline, “Alumni: Inappropriate conduct at a Columbia college went all the way to the top.” I was surprised to see that alumni claimed the university has a “culture that enables sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct” and that “Every alumni I’ve interacted with since the story broke had at least one story of sexual harassment or knew of someone who experienced sexual harassment.”
Then I kept reading, and I found one thing very telling: The article noted that there were no formal records of complaints by any of the eight students interviewed. There was not a single accusation of sexual assault or sexual harassment associated with either of the university presidents mentioned; the only claim of sexual assault literally presented no factual support.
There were complaints specifically about former president Bill Jones, but the article also noted that “nobody The State interviewed accused him of sexual assault.” This would support what I know to be true of Dr. Jones, the faculty and staff. This is an organization of the highest integrity and strictest standards, which believes in the God-given dignity of every person.
We are in a time of hypersensitivity, and any of us who lead organizations need to be sensitive to that. From Matt Lauer to Harvey Wienstein. from Penn State University to Michigan State University, we have seen men use their positions for sexual exploitation. These were criminal acts. In response to events such as these, we have seen the #metoo movement and increased accountability for people and organizations.
The problem now is that even trusted organizations can have doubt cast upon them by mere accusations.
This problem is compounded by the fact that we seem to lack a common language.
The type of touching highlighted in the article about Columbia International University was non-sexual, physical interaction; several alumni even made the point of saying they did not think it was meant in a sexual way.
That’s not what I think of when someone mentions ‘inappropriate conduct’ or even ‘inappropriate touching’ — especially when that language makes its way into a headline.
That’s not what I think of when someone mentions “inappropriate conduct” or even “inappropriate touching” — especially when that language makes its way into a headline.
I would urge people to use two criteria for determining if a touch is appropriate or inappropriate: “intent” and “extent.”
It is difficult to evaluate any individual’s intent in a touch, whether it be a hug, a tap on the shoulder or a tickle. One guide might be the character of the individual involved. If that individual has a clean track-record throughout a long career, then it’s appropriate to give him benefit of the doubt. This is especially true if the people receiving the touch say they didn’t believe it to be of a sexual nature.
What was the duration of the physical contact? How often has it occurred?
Extent concerns the touch itself. What was the duration of the physical contact? How often has it occurred? Is the contact particularized to one individual or to a group of individuals? The article about CIU presented no evidence that Dr. Jones engaged in ongoing physical contact with any individual or group of individuals — much less what most of us would consider “inappropriate” contact.
As a pastor, I have love for the Lord, for people and truth. I would never want any person to suffer abuse. However, we need to be careful that we don’t use such inflammatory terms as “inappropriate conduct,” which has a clear meaning to most of us, to refer to something less serious than that.
Dr. Philpott is lead pastor of Sandhills Community Church; contact him at email@example.com.