Just weeks into its fall semester, Pepperdine University is mired in debate over its mission and merits, with students divided on how they are perceived by the rest of the world.
The school was featured in a nine-page (four photo, five text) article in the September issue of Los Angeles Magazine titled, “And God Created Pepperdine,” and suggesting the school was suffering an “identity crisis.”
Student reaction was swift and predominantly negative, with The Graphic running as its lead story Aug. 30, “‘Identity Crisis’ at Pepperdine?” Also, two opinion pieces, one semi-pro and one con, both labeled the article “biased” and “dishonest and shallow,” respectively.
The administration took a softer line. “We’re a little puzzled that the magazine wanted to do the article they did,” said Talmage Campbell, Pepperdine’s director of public information. “It had more interest among the journalism students because it’s a major magazine and it reflected on the school. I didn’t think it was bad. From a certain point of view, it’s fairly accurate.”
The strongest criticism came, as is often the case, not from the text of the article, which was by many accounts well researched and balanced, but from headlines, decks and pullout quotes that played up the negative to entice readers into the story.
The deck reads, “It’s an earthly paradise high above Malibu: bible-quoting jocks, virgin sorority sisters, a world-class volleyball team. It even has a decent law school. So why can’t Pepperdine U get any respect?” and is clearly designed to hook readers, who might otherwise pass over a college story with no binge drinking, hazing deaths or rampant rebellion. The cover teased the story with, “Inside the Weird World of Pepperdine,” obviously to sell copies, ignite the buzz and stir up a little “controversy,” which it did.
The meat of the article, however, gives statistics on tuition rates among undergraduate universities — contrasting Pepperdine’s tuition, room and board of about $30,080 a year with UCLA at $3,863 for California residents (almost $10,000 more for nonresidents) plus $7,285 for room and board. This, along with a 1997 survey that found 38 percent of freshmen came from families with incomes in excess of $100,000 a year, the article says, may explain BMWs in the parking lots, fashion wardrobes and the perception that all students are rich.
But the article also allows that 75 percent of students receive some form of financial aid, and the school’s “14 NCAA Division 1 sports teams benefit from some 85 athletic scholarships doled out each year.”
Malibu residents also observe many students who drive compact 4x4s and used pickups to their off-campus jobs in local restaurants and coffee bars.
The article also traces the school’s Christian roots — founded in South Central L.A. by George Pepperdine, “a zealous member of the Church of Christ, a loosely organized group of 18,000 churches with a credo similar to that of Southern Baptists” — that relocated to Malibu in 1972. Its reputation as a right-wing refuge, enhanced when independent counsel Kenneth Starr was offered a dean’s position in the law and public policy schools (which he later declined), has been fodder for satirists, the article points out.
So, nobody disputes any of this. It’s just that students object to the way facts were presented as blurring the line between perception and reality.
And while the school may seem to be at a crossroads, with President David Davenport set to retire next year, the article states, “Christianity is still at the core of the University’s curriculum.” All students must attend 14 religious convocations (for credit) every semester and undergraduates must take three mandatory religion courses.
But facts are just the facts, ma’am, and don’t make very exciting copy, so catchy quotes from some students, mostly grads or dropouts, were played up. That seems to have gotten everyone’s attention.
In a basically pro column in The Graphic, Mark Ross said, “While the article is slanted against Pepperdine, its points are important and need to be examined.” Among them, Ross acknowledges the campus is populated by women but dominated by men, from student leaders to faculty. “Can anyone imagine President Davenport being replaced by a woman?” He adds, “Ethics and humanities teach the equality of all humankind, but women just won the right to pass the Communion tray in church.”
Andrea Alejandro’s column attacked author Jeanne Fay for including so many negative quotes from disgruntled former students, while ignoring the majority of students involved in volunteering and community service.
The Graphic is seeking more student opinions to be published in future editions