Many cults are said to operate under the guise of nonprofits and recruit on campus.
The list of problems plaguing college campuses is extensive: illegal drugs, alcohol abuse, sexual assault. But according to experts, there’s a lesser-known, but equally-present danger: cults.
As part of Parents Weekend, the USC Department of Sociology presented “Sects in the City: Protecting Your Children from Cults” Thursday afternoon, with the aim of educating parents about how to help their children avoid cult recruitment techniques.
“Cults are known to recruit on college campuses,” said the presenter, Doni Whitsett, a professor in the School of Social Work and an independent clinician. “Students are invited to a dinner, a retreat, a special lecture, and they may not know who’s sponsoring it.”
Oftentimes cults will operate under the guise of human rights groups, she said. Her lecture began with an anecdote about a female college student who attended a cult retreat, thinking it was an activist event to end poverty.
Whitsett prefers not to use the term “cult” because she says it’s a loaded word fraught with controversy. She said better descriptions are “high-demand” and “destructive” groups. They require exceptionally high levels of dedication and sacrifice from their members, and they manipulate members by not disclosing that the group is a cult.
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“The techniques are subtle,” Whitsett said. “They use mind control techniques, and one hallmark of them is that you don’t know it’s happening.”
People should be wary of groups that discourage questioning or discussion, convince members to sever ties with the outside world and refuse to let them leave, said Dr. Robert J. Lifton, a renowned psychiatrist who published groundbreaking work about cults in the 1960s.
Whitsett said experts agree that college students are especially vulnerable to destructive groups for a variety of reasons. They are transitioning to adulthood, searching for acceptance and direction, and are open to innovative ideas.
Although cults are prohibited from recruiting on many college campuses, Whitsett said these groups could be present at USC because their actions on campus do not violate university rules.
“They will meet criteria for a booth on campus, but it can be a gateway,” she said. “There’s no control over what happens off campus.”
Although a discussion about cults on college campuses might seem sensationalist to some, groups on and around USC’s campus – including the LaRouche movement and the Los Angeles Church of Christ – have been accused of cult activity in the past.
Students and parents said they were drawn to Thursday’s lecture out of curiosity. After Whitsett finished lecturing, a discussion followed. Parents said their students spent hours completing AlcoholEdu and asked why a session about cults couldn’t be offered as well.
“I liked the [AlcoholEdu] comment – when the freshmen come in they can spend an hour on cults and what to look for,” USC parent Debra Sherman.
She added that although she is not concerned her children will join cults, she thinks it would be a good idea to educate incoming students about them.
The lecture not only discussed what students should watch out for, but also signs that parents should be wary of. Signs of cult activity include dramatic changes in grades, quitting school to go on a mission, spouting rhetoric, and a decrease in communication with parents.
Whitsett explained that if parents do notice such behavior, they should stay calm and educate themselves about the group as much as possible. She cautioned parents not to criticize the group or get angry and said that the goal is to stimulate students’ doubts by asking questions, not by badgering them.
“Don’t be discouraged by resistance,” she said. “Kids will remember your questions when they begin to doubt. Question, but don’t give advice.”
According to a 2006 article in The Boston Globe, the potential cult groups on and around USC are the two most prevalent groups on college campuses nationwide.
The LaRouche Youth movement, which was started by Lyndon LaRouche in 1965, handed out “LaRouche for President” literature last semester on the corner of Jefferson Boulevard and Hoover Street.
LaRouche members have been accused of recruiting people on campuses and influencing them to drop out of school to promote LaRouche’s political agenda. Critics say those who try to leave the group are threatened.
In 2003, a British student named Jeremiah Duggan went to Germany for what he thought was a peace protest against the war in Iraq, but was actually what critics called a LaRouche rally with anti-Semitic overtones.
After calling home worried about his safety, Duggan’s body was found by the side of the Autobahn. German authorities ruled it a suicide, but independent forensic experts have said he was beaten to death.
Another group on campus, the Los Angeles Church of Christ, has been accused of cult activity. In 2000, a USC student wrote an account of her experience with the church, which is a branch of the International Church of Christ, for a USC Catholic Community newsletter.
She wrote that the church expected her to give 10 percent of her money to the church. She also had to ask permission before making decisions.
The church convinced her that she would go to hell and would abandon God if she left it, she wrote. The article reported that when she left the congregation, its members shunned her and spread rumors that she was pregnant.
In a 2003 Daily Trojan article, Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of religious life at USC, said the group meets all guidelines described in the “Ethical Framework for Religious Life at USC,” and therefore qualifies for recognition as a student organization.
Some students said they did not consider the advice too invasive of their privacy.
Amanda Rossie, a graduate student studying print journalism who attended Thursday’s event, said parents have a right to be involved with their college-age children and the decisions they make.
“I think as a freshman coming in ,,you’re still a child, whether or not you like to think so,” she said. “If you’re taking your parents’ money for school, they have a right to know what you’re doing there. They have a vested interest.”
Eric Holmes, a senior majoring in business administration, said that although he doesn’t know of any specific cult activity at USC, he wouldn’t be surprised if it exists.
“If [parents] can help their kids make the right decisions, they should,” he said. “Cults aren’t what they’re made out to be.”