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Why Did the Ultra-Religious, Anti-Gay President of "God's Harvard" Suddenly Resign?

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Late in the afternoon of Wednesday, October 15, the students of Patrick Henry College were called to an all-campus meeting. Patrick Henry College President Graham Walker announced his resignation, effective immediately. With his wife accompanying him on the piano, Walker bid the students farewell singing "I'd Rather Have Jesus," a song from his April 2006 inauguration ceremony. 

Patrick Henry College officials were quick to say that Walker's abrupt resignation had "zero connection" with "Sexual Assault at God's Harvard," a story I wrote in March for The New Republic about the mishandling of sexual assault and harassment cases at the elite evangelical school. (Patrick Henry maintained that Walker stepped down over a disagreement with the Board about the school's plans for raising enrollment.) In my investigation, I reported allegations that PHC administrators treated accused sexual assault perpetrators with impunity, discouraged women from going to the police, and blamed victims for dressing or behaving immodestly.

"It is no secret that there has been tremendous friction between the alumni community and Dr. Walker during the independent review process," Patrick Henry College Alumni Association President Daniel Noa wrote in a statement the night of Walker's resignation. Noa was referring to the "Alumni Review Committee" the school created to examine the issues raised in my article. (The college also announced the hiring of "a specialized legal firm” to audit the school’s policies and procedures but refused to disclose the name of the firm.) 

In early August, the nine-member Alumni Review Committee released its findings. The report grappled honestly with sexual assault and harassment and institutional failure. Clearly frustrated with Patrick Henry administrators, the report noted, "The Committee is unanimous in our belief that the responses we received from the College did not display the level of candor and transparency that we expected upon the formation of this Committee."

According to the report, Walker first instructed the committee "to abide by certain guidelines for the interviews." Then, it seems, the administration tried to stonewall the committee. The report continued, "According to Dr. Walker, College staff refused to be interviewed unless the Chair agreed to refrain from asking questions about the New Republic article and the incidents detailed therein.”

The Alumni Review Committee also conducted a survey of 300 alums. Dean Sandra Corbitt told the committee that there had been four or five instances of "alleged sexual misconduct" at the school since 2006. But alums told a different story. "The survey responses revealed a radical difference between the allegations of sexual misconduct that students and alumni claimed to have reported and the small number reported by Dean Corbitt," the report continued.

"We believe that the College’s policies and practices on this issue need significant adjustment," concluded the Alumni Review Committee report, offering ten pages of recommendations. Chief among them: remove responsibility for handling sexual misconduct from Patrick Henry's Office of Student Life, so that the same people handing out punishments for things like dress code violation aren't the ones investigating reports and offering counseling.  

Responding to the Alumni Review Committee report, Patrick Henry College founder and chancellor Michael Farris objected to the New Republic's investigation of the school, writing, "Other campuses report multiple forcible rapes each year, and this magazine has focused on two incidents from years earlier that were clearly not on that level of criminality." While noting that more deliberation was needed, Farris concluded, "I would expect our future path to be in substantial accord with the suggestions made by the [Alumni Review Committee]." 

This was the backdrop for Patrick Henry President Graham Walker's exit two weeks ago. By then, many alumni felt like it was time for Walker to go. Walker had taken the president’s job over from Farris in 2006, a time of campus upheaval referred to as "the Schism." Nearly one-third of the school's faculty resigned in protest of what they said were “arbitrary limitations” on academic freedom in the name of a biblical perspective. Walker was brought in to quiet the unrest. Critics within the school saw Farris as hotheaded and anti-intellectual. "If it wasn't the Bible or the Constitution, Farris basically thought it was a waste of time," said one alum. "Walker was immediately adored. His manner is just completely different—he comes across as thoughtful, humble, and soft-spoken."

But others saw a different side of Walker. He often recounted his denial of tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, attributing it to anti-gay comments he'd made to colleagues and students during an orientation event. "I thought the freshmen needed some ability to resist the indoctrination that was going on," Walker once said. Walker recounted this story again last year in a speech in Uganda shortly before Parliament passed the notoriously draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act (which was later struck down). 

Several former Patrick Henry students recalled Walker making fun of gays in chapel. “He openly mocked gay people all the time. He used to do what the students called 'gay hands,' where he would make them floppy at the wrist while talking in a stereotypical lisp," remembered Rachel Leon, a 2010 graduate. "I definitely do remember Walker (repeatedly) doing the limp-wristed 'gay hands' thing, while speaking in a lisp," added Tim Raveling, who was expelled from Patrick Henry in 2009 for writing a paper declaring himself no longer a Christian, in an email. In a statement from the school, Walker denied mocking gay people, saying it was a “hideous accusation.” He continued:
Someone must have remembered, I suppose, that I have at times affected the tone of voice of that of a 'cool, surfer dude' from my home state of northern California, to humorously caricature the stereotypical West Coast point of view about some issue or another.

And then there's Walker's response when details emerged about Patrick Henry professor John Montgomery's past. In May of 2008, PHC journalism students happened upon a 1989 Los Angeles Times article about Montgomery. The Times quoted court documents in which Montgomery's wife accused him of bigamy and "severe beatings and kicks in the back." In the court filings, Montgomery denied the abuse allegations and countered that his wife was prone to "provoking conflicts." Furthermore, Montgomery explained, "She has refused to cook any of my meals for the past several years and for the past 18 months has rejected all marital intimacy." 

According to Leon, Walker gathered the journalism students in a classroom—along with Provost Gene Veith and journalism Professor Les Sillars—and threatened them, saying that spreading the Times article constituted slander and libel. In a statement, Patrick Henry acknowledged the meeting: 

Given the datedness of the information and the inappropriateness of circulating an uncorroborated press story about a professor solely with the intent of painting the professor in a negative light, the College sought to ensure that students understood the impropriety of replicating such a communication.

Over the years, some students—and especially alumni—started to see Walker as an authoritarian leader. This came out, for example, in 2009 when Walker stripped the Student Body President of his responsibilities. The offense? Delivering a speech that quoted sociologist and pastor Tony Campolo talking about poverty, saying, “Most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit.” 

"You had to be pretty drunk on Kool-Aid to like that guy," one alum, who asked to remain anonymous, said of Walker. The friction between the alumni community and Walker during the Alumni Committee Review was an escalation of tensions that’d already been building. 

"Alumni are generally happy [with Walker's resignation], but there are certainly the hold-outs—especially the younger alums, like those who graduated in 2014," said the anonymous alum. "Conservative homeschooled kids are taught to respect authority instinctively.” In a private Facebook group, one member of the class of 2014 wrote of his “heartbreaking shock” at Walker’s resignation. Many students, he wrote, "speak of Dr. Walker as a close friend and spiritual mentor." On the Friday following Walker's announcement, Patrick Henry students wore bow ties in homage to their departing president. 

“When authority is placed in the hands of someone who loves control and believes their religion justifies almost any use of that control, you create a toxic environment," said the anonymous alum. "That's what happened under the Walker administration."

And so the Walker era comes to a close. Meanwhile, Sandra Corbitt—the dean who directly handled the sexual assault allegations raised by The New Republicremains at the head of Patrick Henry's Office of Student life.