Religious recruitment letters sent by NWC raise concerns

Posted 2/25/10

In a letter posted on college letterhead and mailed by NWC, Prestwich identifies himself as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and highlights the “remarkable opportunities for LDS students” at Northwest …

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Religious recruitment letters sent by NWC raise concerns


A letter written by Northwest College President Paul Prestwich and mailed to 1,002 Mormon students earlier this month was intended to generate interest in the college. The letter has indeed accomplished just that — but likely not the kind of interest Prestwich originally had in mind.Within weeks of their postmark date, the recruitment letters have caught the attention of a national publication, local media, the American Civil Liberties Union's Wyoming office and the Northwest College campus community.

In a letter posted on college letterhead and mailed by NWC, Prestwich identifies himself as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and highlights the “remarkable opportunities for LDS students” at Northwest College.

The envelope also included a letter on church letterhead from Fred Hopkin, president of the Cody Wyoming Stake, describing the student ward's offerings.

Separation of church and state

For some, the recruitment letter raises serious concerns about the ethics of a publicly funded college's recruitment of students on the basis of faith.

“Should you be recruiting anyone on the basis of the compatibility of their faith with the campus's culture?” asked Steve Thulin, Northwest College professor of history.

Some would say that when it comes to a public institution, the answer is absolutely not.

“The issue really is one of separation of church and state, and the use of resources at a public institution to target a particular faith — regardless what faith it is,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Nassirian emphasized that it doesn't matter what brand of faith the college is targeting — public institutions should not be in the business of marketing themselves on the basis of religious affiliation.

While Nassirian represents a national organization, his concern is shared locally.

Some have questioned the legality of the college's religious recruitment letters.

Thulin, who teaches NWC students about Wyoming's Constitution, noted that Article 7 Section 12 mandates that secretarian tenets and doctrines will “not be taught or favored in any public school or institution” established by the Constitution.

“It is inappropriate to target one group at the exclusion of other groups, especially when we are a public institution,” said Charlotte Patrick, an adjunct communications professor who has worked at NWC for 44 years.

Neither Patrick nor Nassirian sees a problem with Prestwich identifying himself as an LDS church member, but rather, the way he disclosed his beliefs.

“He is entitled to his particular beliefs,” Nassirian said. “He doesn't need to keep that a secret.”

Rather, the issue is that the president of a public college is selectively targeting students of faith for recruitment, he added.

“We are using taxpayer dollars to promote the recruitment of students affiliated with one particular religion,” said Patrick.

It is entirely appropriate for a privately-funded school, such as a Catholic college, to recruit students based on their religious preferences, Nassirian said.

“Appearance of preferential treatment is perfectly fine at a Catholic school,” he said. “There's nothing odd, noteworthy or irregular with a private school targeting students based on religious affiliations. When it comes to public instutions, the issue becomes more vexing.”

Prestwich responded to the concerns and indicated that, even as a public institution, it is appropriate for the college to let prospective students with a religious background know about faith-based organizations at Northwest College and in Powell.

“We need to think of them in a holistic way,” Prestwich said.

Prestwich said the intent of the letter was to let students know about the community resources that may be important to them.

“Clearly, the goal of the letter is to recruit students to Northwest College, and let them know that if they come, there is support beyond just the college,” he said.

The 1,002 students who received the letter are Wyoming high schoolers enrolled in an LDS program already, and the college was simply giving them information about opportunities they may be interested in at NWC and Powell, Prestwich said.

“Students are more likely to succeed in an academic sense if they can be included in organizations within the college and external groups in the community,” Prestwich said.

The information about faith-based organizations helps students determine “whether Northwest College is the right fit for them,” he said, noting that the campus becomes their home.

The college offers a student club fair each year that features booths with faith-based groups, and letting them know about these clubs as they are choosing their college may help students make their decision, he added.

“Whether a student is LDS or another faith or non-religious, our hope is that we can share enough information to help them choose what college is best for them,” Prestwich said.

However, concerned Northwest College student, Joseph Hanson, believes that recruitment efforts should be strictly focused on academics and athletics. It is wrong for the college “to target a specific group based on religion,” he added.

The issue prompted Hanson to file a complaint with the Wyoming office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last week.

“I don't think they should be using them (LDS students) as a resource pool,” said Hanson, who is an NWC sophomore.

Other students and faculty members who Hanson spoke with share his concern, he said.

“Nobody was happy ... they all said it was wrong to use (religion) as a contact method,” he said.

Prestwich said he is planning to hold open forums for students, faculty and staff this week so they can discuss the matter.

Recruitment effort

Representatives from the Northwest College admissions office contacted Prestwich to write the letters, and they say it was just a recruitment tool — one that the college has used before.

In the past, the college has had a good relationship with religious organizations such as the LDS Student Institute and the Catholic-based Newman Center, said NWC Registrar Brad Hammond.

The LDS church has supplied the college with a list of potential students in the past.

“We would send out general packets, and they (ward leaders) would follow up with letters,” Hammond said.

The college lost touch with some of the Mormon and Catholic religious leaders, and Hammond said NWC has sought to rebuild that relationship.

Hammond said the college also plans to work with Campus Ventures, a Christian campus ministry, and the Newman Center to mail out letters to other religious students. As to the content and wording of those letters, “we haven't gotten to that point,” Hammond said.

Hammond said the admissions office does not see the letters as a violation of church and state.

“We're not recruiting them for their religion; we're recruiting them to come to Northwest College,” Hammond said.

Enrollment management plan goal: diversity

“Part of our enrollment management plan is to recruit a diverse student population,” said West Hernandez, admissions manager.

Indeed, the plan includes a strategy “to attract and admit a quality and diverse student body” and a goal to “increase diverse student population.”

In the plan, an action listed to achieve this goal is to “partner with local churches, NOWCAP, Headstart and local businesses.”

Some at the college, including Prestwich, interpret that to mean religious diversity as well as ethnic diversity.

“I don't read that goal as one that's just limited to ethnic diversity,” Prestwich said.

Prestwich added that the college has worked with a variety of international student agents, including one who works with LDS students from Asia. The students want to attend a school that serves Mormon students with a student ward, or congregation, and the agent typically helps them attend colleges in Utah. Prestwich said the college recently sent a letter to Asian students with an LDS interest that was “very similar” to the letter sent to Wyoming Mormon students.

Recruiting students based on religious affiliation for recruitment is not without precedent among public universities and colleges, according to an “Inside Higher Ed” article about the situation at Northwest College. In an effort to improve diversity, schools have reached out to churches with significant black or Hispanic students, according to the article.

Others interpret Northwest College's 2007-10 enrollment management plan to align with this practice, meaning that the college will work with local churches only to recruit Hispanic students.

In the college's accreditation process, NWC is expected to have a proportion of local minorities, said Thulin.

The plan's aim for diversity was purely in regard to recruiting local minorities, such as Hispanics, he noted.

“In no sense was that ever intended to be ‘religious diversity,'” Thulin said.

He added, “I would have a problem with any marketing plan that has as its premise that the religion of a person was the point of our marketing efforts.”

In the enrollment plan, local churches are considered as an avenue to reach Hispanic students, not a way to recruit students of a certain religion.

Rather, churches would help NWC get in touch with potential students so they can receive a general recruitment packet.

The college's board of trustees does not generally review the institution's recruitment efforts, said Jim Vogt, board president. Given the nature of the letter and the response to it, Vogt said board members will certainly discuss it.

“What this has raised and continues to raise is going to be reviewed,” Vogt said Tuesday. “I'm sure we'll discuss it — there's no question about it.”

Vogt said he had spoken to Prestwich about the letter, “and he was open and honest about it.”

Vogt acknowledged that the use of college letterhead raises some questions about judgment.

“It's one of those things that happened, and now we have to deal with it,” Vogt said.

Inclusion of other faiths

The letter has caused some to question how the school should inform students about religious opportunities. One suggestion is to include various religious resources in a single letter sent to students of different faiths.

“We talk to prospective students about general (religious) resources in other ways,” Prestwich said.

Because this was a specific segment of students, the letter sent to LDS students was marketed for them, Prestwich said.

“We knew exactly what our market was, and the letter was tailored for that,” he said.

He said the college started with faith-based organizations that are recognized with student groups.

Faculty member Patrick said if religion is involved with recruiting, she'd like it to be all-inclusive with a line such as:

“We invite and encourage students of all faiths or no faith to attend Northwest College.”

“I'm respectful of all beliefs and respectful of the right people have to not believe,” she added.

Seth Carter, director of the local Campus Ventures, said the group is willing to work with the college to craft a recruitment letter. He also would be comfortable with a letter that was all-inclusive for a variety of religions.

When he first heard about the letter, Carter said he was frustrated — not necessarily because LDS students received the letters when Protestant students had not, but because he dealt with a separation of church and state issue with the college recently.

Last summer, Carter joined other local faith leaders in signing a letter to the Tribune editor that criticized Legislator Dave Bonner, R-Powell, for his votes related to issues such as abortion.

Following the letter, Northwest College received negative feedback because of Carter's signature on the letter.

While Campus Ventures is a privately-funded organization, some residents were concerned that NWC was endorsing or funding Campus Ventures.

A college representative met with Carter to discuss it and asked that in future cases, Carter clarify that Campus Ventures isn't under the NWC umbrella.

“They weren't upset, but had a problem with the semantics. They wanted me to word it differently so that it was obvious I wasn't employed by the college,” he said.

Carter said he understood the concern with separation of church and state — so he was surprised to see Prestwich's letter.

“It's an interesting contrast with this letter of a religious nature sent on college letterhead,” Carter said.