The security guards were bored. It was the first weekend of May 2010—a time when students at other universities were partying before finals. This, however, was Patrick Henry College (PHC), the elite evangelical school better known as “God’s Harvard.” Here, in sleepy Purcellville, Virginia, instead of police officers or rent-a-cops, the security guards were all upperclassmen. On a good Friday or Saturday night, they’d catch freshmen trying to sneak back onto campus after an evening visiting the monuments in nearby Washington, D.C. Mostly, though, they just double-checked that all the doors were locked.
Patrick Henry College was founded in 2000, but you won’t find any bold, modern architecture on campus: Its buildings were designed in the federalist style to evoke an Ivy League school. Dress code is business casual during the week. Daily chapel is mandatory. Drinking, smoking, gambling, and dancing (outside of dance classes) aren’t allowed on campus—only wholesome, school-sanctioned hijinks, like the tradition of tossing newly engaged young men in the central retention pond known as Lake Bob: a “Bobtism.” The security guards saw quite a few Bobtisms.
That May night, Adam Fisher and another guard watched the security monitors from their post. It was long past the 1 a.m. weekend curfew, a time when campus had the still and quiet feel of a small town hours after everyone has gone to bed. It seemed like any other night, but then Fisher’s colleague called out in excitement. He’d caught something on the monitors: the dim glow of brake lights, out there in the darkness. A car was pulling up to the campus entrance.
Fisher and his partner headed out past the dorms, to the fields near the entry. By the time they arrived, the car was gone, and Claire Spear was lying in a field. There was grass in her long, red hair, and she was crying.
Fisher could tell something was very wrong. “Claire, we need to go find your R.A.,” Adam said. “I’m going to take you. Is that OK with you?” She couldn’t answer. She was panicking and having trouble breathing.
Adam picked Claire up and carried her back across campus to the dorms. She was limp in his arms, and her eyes were closed. Claire struggled to explain what had happened.
“She kept saying that she had been violated,” Adam remembers.
When Claire Spear arrived at Patrick Henry as a freshman in 2009, she, like all new PHC students, affirmed a statement of faith saying the devil is real, the Bible is without error, and “Jesus Christ literally will come to earth again in the Second Advent.” It was a great comfort to both Claire and her parents knowing PHC was a bubble unto its own: On campus, only good, moral Christians would be found—their kind of people, people they could trust.
“I figured nothing bad could happen to me,” Claire says.
With just more than 320 current students and 590 graduates to date, Patrick Henry is a tiny school with an outsized influence as a training ground for the religious right and a pipeline to conservative jobs in Washington. The Bush-era White House had about as many interns from PHC as Georgetown, the journalist Hanna Rosin wrote in her 2007 book, God’s Harvard. Students in the school’s Strategic Intelligence Program can graduate with security clearances from their summer internships, making PHC a feeder school for the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency, various branches of the military, and intelligence contractors. Many students go there with dreams of becoming a senator or the Supreme Court justice who helps overturn Roe v. Wade. A prospective student pamphlet quotes George W. Bush, saying, “The College holds a vision for the future of America.”
The founder of Patrick Henry College,Michael Farris, came to prominence in the early ’80s as the head of the Washington state branch of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. In those days, home-schooling was illegal in most states. But within some conservative evangelical circles, the practice took off. Under their own roofs, the thinking went, parents wouldn’t have to worry about their children being inundated with evolutionary theories or arguments in favor of abortion. Farris, an attorney, formed the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) to wage state-by-state court battles for the right to opt out of public education and abolish child-protection laws that the homeschooling movement viewed as state intrusion and a threat to certain tough-love forms of discipline. (Farris did not respond to an interview request.)
Underlying homeschooling culture is the Christian patriarchy movement, which teaches that men and women have separate, “complementarian” roles: A woman’s highest calling is as a mother and submissive “helpmeet” to her husband, who in turn functions as God’s representative on Earth. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church,” reads Ephesians 5:22, an oft-cited biblical passage in the movement that is also invoked in the PHC student handbook. The most conservative patriarchy devotees—like Farris, a father of ten—call themselves “Quiverfull” and believe in having as many children as God gives them.
Farris has said a main drive behind the founding of PHC was the demand from homeschooling parents for a college that promoted courtship culture, in which male students ask female students’ fathers for permission to “court” with marriage in mind. About 85 percent of PHC students have been homeschooled, and all students pledge to “reserve sexual activity for marriage, shun sexually explicit material, and seek parental counsel when pursuing a romantic relationship,” according to the PHC student handbook.
For many homeschoolers, PHC offers the first opportunity to have classmates of the opposite sex who aren’t their siblings. If a boy and a girl start becoming friends, before long, they’ll sit down and have a “DTR”—Define The Relationship—to see if they have feelings for one another and should start involving their parents.
While parents can’t be there to directly supervise budding romances, the Patrick Henry administration can be trusted as a surrogate. If, for example, a couple is seen doing much of anything beyond a quick kiss, R.A.s might e-mail or talk to them individually. Like it or not, the rules are in place for the students’ own good. A passage in the Student Honor Code reads: “I pledge, by the grace of God, to submit to proper authorities.”
The self-policing that courtship culture requires, however, is not egalitarian. Responsibility falls disproportionately to women, who are taught to protect their “purity” and to never “tempt” their brothers in Christ to “stumble” with immodest behavior. “The lack of men’s responsibility or culpability for their own actions and the acceptance of male ‘urges’ as irresistible forces of nature is the understructure of Christian modesty movements and their secular counterpart,” the journalist Kathryn Joyce wrote in Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. These movements, she noted, see “women’s bodies as almost supernaturally perverse and corrupting.”
At Patrick Henry, one alumna remembers a chapel lecture that compared women who have had sexual contact before marriage to used cars. “You want to be a Porsche,” was the message, she says, adding in an e-mail, “They basically at no point accounted for sexual assault/rape etc (cases where girls’ ‘purity’ was taken from them) and left many girls who’d been victims in the past feeling ashamed.” According to a current PHC junior, the school puts the “burden” on female students to ward off the male gaze—be it from students or professors. She remembers being called in to talk to the residential director, who told her that a male professor had informed the Office of Student Life that her shirts were too revealing when she bent over.
In 2012, Representative Todd Akin, running for Senate in Missouri, sparked a national outrage by speaking of what he called “legitimate rape”—a category, he implied, that did not actually apply to many rape cases. Patrick Henry College has sponsored similar ideas on sexual assault. Last September, the school chose Dr. Stephen Baskerville, a professor of government, to deliver a speech that the entire student body was required to attend. He argued that feminism and liberalism have transformed the government into “a matriarchal leviathan.” The result, he said, according to a copy of the speech, was a society plagued by politically motivated “witch hunts” against men—while “the seductress who lures men into a ‘honeytrap’ ” was really to blame. “Recreational sex in the evening turns into accusations of ‘rape’ in the morning, even when it was entirely consensual,” Baskerville explained. “This is especially rampant on college campuses.” (In a statement, PHC said Baskerville’s speech was “an exercise in academic freedom” and not “endorsed by the administration.”)
“When you have a culture of license where you can’t tell the difference between what’s full rape or fake rape and what’s real rape,” PHC journalism professor Les Sillars added during the post-speech Q&A, “it makes dealing with real rape really, really hard.”
Researchers estimate that one in five American women is sexually assaulted in college, and Patrick Henry College’s unique campus culture has not insulated the school from sexual violence. In fact, it puts female students, like Claire Spear, in a particular bind: How do you report sexual assault at a place where authorities seem skeptical that such a thing even exists?
Claire was not the first female student to leave PHC disillusioned with the administration she had trusted to protect her. Other female students who say they reported sexual assault or harassment to the administration also left feeling that school officials blamed them instead of holding the accused male students accountable. The administration, they say, seemed much more concerned with protecting Patrick Henry’s pristine public image.
“Basically, my issue was swept under the rug, and the assaulter received little else but a reprimand,” says a young woman who attended Patrick Henry between 2004 and 2008. The student fell asleep at an off-campus party where there had been drinking and was awoken by a male PHC student assaulting her. She says she reported the incident to Patrick Henry. “The administration encouraged me to not go to the police and said that, because alcohol was involved and I was violating the rules there, they hinted that I could be expelled if I brought light to the incident,” the student says. “The focus was the alcohol. I drank. I sinned. I deserved to be assaulted in the middle of the night.”
Another student, who asked to remain anonymous, says she was raped the summer before her freshman year. When she arrived at PHC in the fall of 2007, she was deeply depressed and cutting herself. She was summoned to Corbitt’s office. “I remember her smiling a lot in a forced, insincere way while she was telling me that ‘someone’ had relayed to her my ‘issues,’ and the ‘administration was concerned about my ability to successfully complete the semester,’ ” she wrote in an e-mail. The dean insisted that she take a psychological evaluation, then called her back to the Office of Student Life, got her parents on speakerphone, and made her tell them about the assault. When she choked up, the student says, Corbitt cut in to finish the job. Then the dean informed her parents that she was unfit for PHC and needed to be retrieved immediately. Her father flew out the following day and whisked her away, says the student.
In the spring of 2008, another young woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity says she made a sexual-harassment report to Corbitt. A male student was sending threatening messages, including an e-mail that conveyed that “he wanted to forcibly take my virginity,” she says. When she met with Corbitt to show her the e-mail, the student remembers the dean saying, “The choices you make and the people you choose to associate with, the way you try to portray yourself, will affect how people treat you.” In subsequent meetings, the student says Corbitt told her to think about her clothing and “the kinds of ideas it puts in men’s minds.”
The woman asked Corbitt to alert security and to keep an eye out for the student in question. Corbitt wouldn’t even consider it, the student says. In the end, “nothing came of it. The school consistently prioritizes keeping its spot-free image (necessary to maintain its far-right, hyper evangelical donor base happy), over the well being of its students,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Patrick Henry College is not alone in internally adjudicating sexual assault. Every college and university maintains its own shadow legal system—and many secular colleges have a terrible track record of investigating and punishing sexual assault. But Patrick Henry College is one of only four private colleges in the United States that eschews federal funds in order to avoid complying with government regulations. This poses financial hardships for students and their families—PHC students are prohibited from accessing FAFSA loans, Pell Grants, state funds, scholarships, or the G.I. Bill—and it makes the institution particularly dependent on its conservative evangelical donor base. Homeschoolers see this as a worthwhile price to pay for freedom from government intrusion. The financial-aid page on PHC’s website notes, “In order to safeguard our distinctly Christian worldview, we do not accept or participate in government funding.”
This also means PHC isn’t subject to the Clery Act, Title IX, or the more recent Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act. The Clery Act requires schools to issue campus crime reports. Title IX says schools must hold an investigation independent of a criminal investigation and ensure that victims can change dorms and class arrangements, get campus restraining orders, and receive help filing a police report if they choose to do so. The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act mandates that schools have prompt disciplinary proceedings and inform victims of their rights and options under Title IX. These regulations are no guarantee that sexual-assault accusations will be handled properly, and students at dozens of schools have recently filed Title IX and Clery Act complaints with the Department of Education that document widespread victim-blaming, mishandling of reports, and impunity for perpetrators. Yet, PHC students lack even that legal recourse. (The school says it tries to “generally follow the principles of those laws,” but it is not legally bound to comply with them.)
“As a private campus, it’s outside of federal influence. They can do whatever they want,” says Brett Sokolow, an attorney and president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management. “If you’re a female student, and you elect to enroll at a campus that does not provide any of the federal protections that attach to other colleges and universities, you need to know that going in.”