Pepperdine University is a lone outpost among Church of Christ-affiliated colleges and universities, with its closest sister campus 1,300 miles to the east in Abilene, Texas. That, and the fact that the California campus is idyllically nestled at the foothills of the coastal mountains and within sight of the beaches of Malibu, give the impression that the school and its moral underpinnings are more attuned to the liberal social and political leanings associated with the West Coast.
That's why it came as a surprise to some when Pepperdine administrators in December turned down a request by a group of homosexual students and their supporters to form an official student organization. Advocates for the group Reach OUT cried foul and began a petition drive to force a rehearing, but the school stood firm.
School officials say the decision did not signal a conservative shift on campus. Pepperdine has remained faithful to the Christian doctrines at its foundation, they say. But academics from other Church of Christ colleges acknowledge that Pepperdine is known as the denomination's liberal school, a label it earned primarily because of its willingness to hire professors who don't share its Christian values.
Jerry Derloshon, Pepperdine's senior director for public affairs, said the school's stance on Reach OUT's request was nothing new.
"This is not a big news story for us," he said. "We've been who we are for 75 years."
Had the school sanctioned the group, that would have been a news story, Derloshon said, adding that such action would have been contrary to the school's founding principles.
In a prepared statement released after the decision, Derloshon said rejecting Reach OUT's request was consistent with the school's traditional views of biblical teaching throughout history, including within Churches of Christ. But he also reiterated the school's desire to respect its homosexual students: "Pepperdine respects the right of individual members of our community to hold different viewpoints, and we also affirm that those with differing views should be treated with dignity and respect."
Pepperdine proactively seeks the security and well-being of all its students, Derloshon said.
Although Pepperdine's homosexual students cannot form a school-sanctioned organization, they are allowed to meet as a group on campus. Through the school's Building Bridges initiative, the students have a framework for dialogue with campus officials.
Professors and administrators on Pepperdine's sister campuses often use terms like "liberal" and "progressive" to describe the West Coast campus, labels that are not off the mark, they say. But such descriptions are most accurate when comparing Pepperdine to other Church of Christ-affiliated campuses in the United States, they say.
"Pepperdine, in comparison to other denominational schools, would be considered conservative," said Flavil Yeakley, retired professor of Bible and Religion at Harding University, in Searcy, Ark.
Reach OUT's December attempt to gain official recognition was the fourth such effort by lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender students and their supporters in 10 years, Derloshon said. Pepperdine also rebuffed suggestions by an off-campus organization making similar demands.
In 2007, the homosexual rights organization Soul Force met on campus with students, staff and administrators in an effort to press for official recognition and special accommodations for Pepperdine's gay students. Representatives from both Soul Force and university administration gave presentations throughout the day, which began and ended in prayer. But in the end, administrators rejected the visitors' recommendations for change.
"Pepperdine has the right to be the institution that it is," Derloshon said. "People aren't drafted to come here."
But the faculty members are, and as the liberal shift at other schools founded on religious principles has shown, it is the cultural and spiritual diversity of the students and faculty members that try a school's commitment to its core values.
Hiring staff and faculty outside the denominational - and, in some cases, religious - association has proven to be a slippery slope toward secularism and outright antitheism, Yeakley said, pointing to Princeton and Harvard as prime examples. Both were founded as religious institutions and both, in an effort to draw more students to their campuses, hired teachers renowned in their fields of study but often lacking in Christian fidelity, he said.
Oklahoma Christian University president Mike O'Neal, who spent 26 years of his academic career at Pepperdine, said the school's founder recognized he would have to be open to hiring outside the denomination because the Church of Christ didn't have much of a presence in the Los Angeles area: "George Pepperdine knew that the west coast was more of a mission field. He knew from the beginning that he could not start a school like Abilene Christian University or Lipscombe. [Pepperdine has] always been much more open to hiring people who are not from the fellowship of Church of Christ."
At Harding and Oklahoma Christian, the president, trustees, faculty and most staff are required to be affiliated with the Church of Christ. At Pepperdine, only the president and a majority of the Board of Regents must be associated with the denomination.
Pepperdine's 1,500 faculty members "represent all faiths and backgrounds -Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, and all Christian denominations," Derloshon said.
But Christianity predominates among students and faculty, he said.
Currently, 20 percent of the undergraduate student body comes from a Church of Christ background. But that number has been as low as 5 percent, said Yeakley, who authored a 2010 study of enrollment of Church of Christ students on the denomination's campuses.
O'Neal sees the lack of such students as a witnessing opportunity. Pepperdine's students come to the campus "less grounded in faith and less biblically knowledgeable," he said.
"But, the flip side of that is young people come to us hungry," he said.