WENHAM — Faculty and students celebrate Gordon College for its intellectual bent, a place where big ideas are bandied about and opposing views welcomed. They describe a place that prides itself on being more diverse and tolerant than many of its peers.
As an evangelical school in the most liberal of states, the college has managed to strike a delicate balance between the secular and religious, and largely avoid such emotionally charged issues as gay rights or abortion.
Until this summer.
Since the college president’s decision to join other religious leaders last month in calling for a religious exemption to federal workplace protections for gay and transgender workers, Gordon has been squarely cast into the culture wars, an unfamiliar scrutiny that has caused widespread unease among students and alumni. Some fear lasting damage to the school’s inclusive image.
“As an institution, Gordon has avoided cultural politics,” said Jonathan Sherwood, a 1987 graduate who recently returned his diploma to the college in protest over the letter, saying the college’s stance was flatly discriminatory. “It’s a faith-based institution, but it hasn’t cornered its students or the community by pushing heavily on these kinds of issues.”
The controversy has brought to the fore longstanding tensions over the college's policies toward gay students, many on campus say.
“We’ve been pushed around and treated as inferior for so many years, and we’ve decided it has gone on long enough,” said Zach Alexander, a 2006 graduate who was an activist for gay rights on campus.
President D. Michael Lindsay defends his position as a stand for religious freedom, specifically the right of faith-based colleges to set their own “conduct expectations.”
In an interview last week, Lindsay said that when he joined other Christian leadersin signing the letter to the Obama administration, he did so to affirm his support for religious freedom, specifically the ability of faith-based organizations to “hire for mission.”
“It’s a principle that’s incredibly important to us,” he said. Faith-based colleges must have the freedom to “set the conditions of community life,” he added.
Staff and students are required to abide by the college’s statement of faith and conduct, which prohibits homosexual acts and any sex outside of marriage. Such expectations have been in place for decades, he said.
“It’s who Gordon has been for 50 years,” he said.
Lindsay said Gordon does not discriminate against gays in hiring or admissions.
“Gordon is not a place of strident intolerance,” he said. “It never has been, and it never will be.”
Lindsay said he was frustrated that some saw his support for the religious exemption as a shift in policy or outlook, but that more than 90 percent of people who have contacted the college in recent weeks have expressed support for the school. The college has called all 500 students admitted for the fall semester, and none has decided to attend elsewhere because of the issue, he said.
Gordon has built a reputation as a faith-based institution with an inclusive feel, well to the left of more doctrinaire religious schools.
“It’s always enjoyed a wonderful reputation among the faith-based liberal arts colleges,” said Bill Robinson, interim president of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, a Washington, D.C., group that represents 120 American schools.
Robinson defended the president’s stance, saying the college has the right to set its own standards.
“The issue is not homosexuality, it’s religious freedom,” he said. “For 125 years, they have had a community that has abided by their understanding of Scripture on this point.”
Yet several students said they had gay friends who were hesitant to come out at Gordon because they feared the potential consequences.
“Most are at least semi-closeted,” said Jessica Mahan, a senior. “I think they worry about people misjudging them and making assumptions about their life.”
Jesse Steele, a senior who is gay, said he never has felt marginalized on campus, and while he respected the college’s policies against homosexual behavior, he did not feel threatened by them.
“I was proud to call myself a Christian and gay, and if people had a problem with it then I really didn’t care,” he said. “I wasn’t going to college to make everyone like me — I wanted a degree and to learn why I believed in the God that I do.”
Founded in Boston in 1889, Gordon College moved to Wenham in 1955, selling its old facilities to Wentworth Institute of Technology. Today, the college has more than 2,100 students, nearly 40 percent of whom come from beyond New England.
About one-third graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class, and the average SAT score is over 1,700.
In full, the college costs almost $45,000 a year, but nearly all students receive financial aid. Almost all students live on campus, an expanse of woods, wetlands, and grassy quads.
Students are required to take courses on the Old and New Testaments and Christian theology, and most attend chapel regularly. The school’s Christian mission is a pervasive influence on campus, many students say.
Rini Cobbey, chairwoman of the Department of Communication Arts, describes Gordon as an intellectually dynamic place, where a wide range of ideas are up for debate, and a wide range of viewpoints are accepted — almost always with a sense of civility.