Art by Vivian Hsia
Something simultaneously minuscule and monumental took place on Alumni Park on Sept. 22. At approximately 10:45 a.m., chair of the Pepperdine Board of Regents Dee Anna Smith read George Pepperdine’s dedicatory address aloud to a crowd of Pepperdine students, alumni, faculty and staff as part of the annual Founder’s Day celebration.
Except, it wasn’t George Pepperdine’s dedicatory address. At least, not exactly.
“In advance of this year’s Founder’s Day, I authorized and approved a small handful of one-time modifications intended to update and modernize the language used — without changing the underlying meaning — so that the listener was not distracted from his original vision,” President Jim Gash wrote in an Oct. 17 email to the Graphic.
The changes made were as follows:
- “Man” to “men and women” or “person” in the first several paragraphs
- “Conservative, fundamental Christian supervision” to “thoughtful, disciplined, Christian supervision”
- “strict Christian living” to “authentic Christian living”
- “fundamental Christian leadership” to “disciplined Christian leadership”
- “among the children of men” to “in the world”
A note on each Founder’s Day flyer alerted attendees that “minor modifications had been made.” However, there was no note on what exactly these “modifications” were or why they were made.
These changes are significant because they paint a false picture of Pepperdine’s past.
George Pepperdine was, like anyone else, a flawed man. He deserves criticism for his original words, which have set the tone for the University since its inception. Changing George Pepperdine’s words to fit a desired result only serves to make him undeservedly invulnerable to criticism.
“One such example in the Dedicatory Address is the gender-specific reference to ‘…the children of men,’ when Mr. Pepperdine was not intending to be gender exclusive,” Gash wrote.
But, Pepperdine — intentionally or not — has been gender exclusive. This is evidenced by the make-up of its administration throughout history: All seven of its presidents have been men.
Further evidence of Pepperdine’s gender exclusive nature lies in the University’s relationship with Title IX. William S. Banowsky, Pepperdine fourth president, applied for an exemption from Title IX in 1976. The exemption — which targeted women and members of the LGBTQ+ community on campus — was granted in 1985, and only became inactive in 2016.
“There are two principal religious tenets which are inconsistent with the Title IX Regulations,” Banowsky wrote in the exemption application. “The first such tenet is the belief that women should not serve in positions of authority or leadership over men in public worship, religious instruction, or in the home. The second such tenet is the belief that God approves sexual relationships only between male and female in holy wedlock.”
In a similar vein, there were allegations of sexual misconduct within Pepperdine’s Department of Public Safety in April 2020. The allegations also detailed a significant mishandling of the investigation into the incident.
Another example: changing “conservative, fundamental Christian supervision” to “thoughtful, disciplined, Christian supervision” ignores Pepperdine’s history as a conservative Christian institution.
Pepperdine’s history as a conservative, Christian university has been discriminatory, regardless of its intent.
As was characteristic of Church of Christ schools at the time, students of color were not allowed to live in the same on-campus housing as white students when the University was established. This policy was in place until 1944.
Pepperdine continuously upholds a doctrine of Christian conservatism both in academia and in student life. The Dean of the School of Public Policy, for example, shared a Pepperdine-affiliated petition Oct. 12, 2020, accusing the “far left” of “indoctrinating students for decades” and condemning The 1619 Project.
Pepperdine maintains its policies of gender-segregated housing because of its Christian, conservative basis, as it does with its harsh alcohol and drug policies.
Pepperdine, as a private institution, is allowed to do these things. But, changing the words of its past to reflect anything other than a conservative Christian institution is dishonest.
These events indicate a history of discrimination at work on Pepperdine’s campus. To alter George Pepperdine’s rhetoric is, in a sense, to erase the suffering and discrimination women, the LGBTQ+ community, students of color and other consistently marginalized communities face because of Pepperdine’s actions; it is to hide Pepperdine’s past and present shortcomings behind a veil of revisionism.
“As is the case with many historic documents, the understood meaning of certain words in their original context, along with writing conventions, can change — potentially leaving the audience with a misimpression of the speaker’s intent,” Gash wrote.
George Pepperdine’s “intentions,” as used in this context, are irrelevant. His words and actions in the University’s founding paved the way toward the exclusionary tendencies rooted in Pepperdine’s framework.
If the administration’s goal is to be more gender-inclusive and more inclusive in general, that is admirable and should be encouraged. But, growth is never achieved through airbrushing the past. Recognition and reconciliation are the first steps in the path toward progress.
The best way to understand and critique George Pepperdine is analyzing his original words — not hearing them through a second-hand, doctored account. Pepperdine, in this case, has resorted to the rhetorical equivalent of escapism: It has used its words to avoid a complex discussion on its own shortcomings. This has been a pattern at Pepperdine; it is not a one-off incident.
The solutions to this problem are both specific and extensive. In the short term, avoid changing the words of George Pepperdine’s original dedicatory address. In the long term, Founder’s Day may need to be recontextualized as a learning opportunity as opposed to a celebration.
To a certain extent, at least, it seems like Gash agrees.
“I have come to believe that the better approach would be to set the context in advance of its reading, rather than modifying the text itself. This was an error in judgment on my part, and one that I will not repeat. For the remainder of my presidency, and hopefully into the indefinite future, the Dedicatory Address will be read in its original form each Founder’s Day,” Gash wrote.
It’s important to remember that minuscule changes can have monumental impacts.
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