Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Still Wondering What’s Up With Olivet University

It’s coming up on a year now since Bethany University, my alma mater, finally ran out of money and was forced to close its doors. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Bethany alumni were initially quite excited to hear that another Christian school, David Jang’s Olivet University, had agreed to buy the campus and continue our school’s mission. But then we started noticing weird things about how the transition was being managed, and started hearing even weirder things. In the first place, it was a little odd that Olivet wanted to purchase the Bethany name along with the campus. I loved Bethany, but it’s not as if a tiny denominational school that shares a Biblical name with half-a-dozen other Christian colleges had any particular value as a brand. We’re not talking Harvard here, or even Wheaton. So that had the alumni scratching our heads. But then, when Olivet first put up their new Bethany.edu website, they baldly mischaracterized their acquisition of the campus, stating inaccurately that they had been around for 90 some years, and that they were Bethany. Not to put too fine a point on it, that was a lie, and it made nearly everyone associated with Bethany pretty uncomfortable. Eventually, after it became clear that they weren’t going to be able to make this claim without being challenged, Olivet agreed to change the language on the Bethany website; and now if you read the site carefully, you can tell that it’s not actually the same school (though it still has things like “Since 1919” on the home page – which, I hasten to say, is not true).

OK, so that’s some of the background. But it’s worth noting that while I was doing my research into Olivet last September, I kept turning up all sorts of weird little facts that I had trouble putting into a coherent picture. For starters, one of the Bethany alumni noticed one day that the new Bethany website had a “policies and procedures” page with this text on it:

Non-Constructive Negative Statements about University of Phoenix Faculty or Administrators: Comments or forum posts that make libelous statements or aggressively attack faculty or administrators, in general or by name, are not permitted.

Commercial Posts and Solicitations: Posts containing commercial content or solicitations are not permitted. This extends to students seeking to drive traffic to their own, non-University of Phoenix -affiliated websites and/or commercial ventures.

Note the references to the “University of Phoenix”. In other words, this page was lifted straight from the corresponding page on the University of Phoenix website, and whoever brought it across forgot to do a search-and-replace.

This faux-pas got discussed at length in the Bethany Alumni Facebook forums, and apparently someone from Olivet was paying attention, because by late that afternoon, all references to the “University of Phoenix” had been replaced by “Bethany University”. (And by now, six months later, they seem to have been removed altogether.)

I’ve thought a lot since then about whether there was anything significant about this particular misstep. Some folks on the Bethany forums were indignant, saying that it seemed to violate Olivet’s own honor code. Maybe; but at the same time, I’m a big fan of not doing more work than you have to, and if I was putting together a set of policies for a university, I can’t imagine a better place to start than with a set of tried and tested policies from a similar institution. It’s not as if this was being submitted to an instructor for academic credit, or to a journal to be published. Furthermore, as I’ve acknowledged earlier, Olivet was under significant pressure to get this deal closed, and closed quickly. In the process, they did, in fact, manage to get a great deal accomplished in a brief period of time, and it would be surprising if they hadn’t made some mistakes along the way.

But there does seem to be a different sort of significance to the mistake. In most academic institutions, policies like this, even if they're initially borrowed from somewhere else, go through a long process of review, argument, debate, revision, and finally, approval. And only after that process would it get posted to the website. The fact that "University of Phoenix" was still in the text shows that the process for creating this particular policy was rather different. A reasonable assumption is that an Olivet manager told some poor web designer, "We need some text to throw up in this particular slot, and fast. Go find something."

So is there anything wrong with that? Well, I think there might be, but it lies less in the details of this particular mistake than in an overall pattern that I’ve noticed on the websites of Olivet and especially its sponsor, the Evangelical Assembly of Presbyterian Churches in America. I don’t so much mind the fact that Olivet copied its policies from somewhere else (I've done that for internal policies before), but it seems rather odd that their process for coming up with them was so clearly disconnected from the organic life of the institution. They didn't create a policy because the university needed a policy. It looks very much like they created (well, copied) a policy because they wanted people on the outside to think, "Oh, Olivet has a policy for this."

And I’ve found evidence of that approach in all sorts of different places. The EAPCA website is an interesting case study in this regard. It repeatedly portrays the EAPCA denomination as a dynamic, thriving institution, with a rich, vibrant life. It has resources for congregations. It talks about planting churches. It describes a thriving “I Love Jesus Youth Ministry”. It advertises speakers who can come visit your church. It talks about a wide range of publications available for folks to access.

But when you dig just a little deeper, it all gets a mite strange. As I’ve been perusing the EAPCA website, I keep having the nagging feeling that a Stepford Wife is peering over my shoulder. The thing you realize pretty quickly is that nobody would ever actually use this site. For instance, there’s no place to actually order the periodicals that the site advertises. There are a couple of email addresses which you can supposedly use to order these magazines – but emails to at least some of those addresses bounce, and the rest go unanswered. The page that describes the speakers who can come to your church is very vague and general, and gives no way to actually request a speaker. The resources on the “I Love Jesus Youth Ministry” lead either to dead pages, or to sites that don’t have anything to do with the EAPC. And most astonishingly of all, there’s no phone number anywhere on the site, even on the “Contact Us” page.

And there are other weird things beyond that. For starters, every one of their position papers was explicitly lifted from other denominations (usually the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, but one from the Assemblies of God). The description of their “Presbyterian Heritage” is puzzlingly vague, and manages to avoid the obvious question, “In what sense is the EAPC actually connected to this heritage?” I haven’t been able to find any of the periodicals they describe referenced anywhere else.

Now, most small, new denominations that I’m familiar with got started organically, when a particular pastor has a particular vision or style or message, and over a decade or two, that vision spreads informally via the planting of new churches and the growth of existing ones. Eventually, the problems and possibilities inherent in any large, dynamic movement come to the fore, and the churches in question decide – often quite reluctantly – to organize themselves more formally. This was certainly what happened with the Assemblies of God, and more recently has been the case with groups like The Vineyard and Calvary Chapel. You can also see it in its incipient phases in the variety of churches that have sprung out from Mars Hill or Applegate Christian Fellowship. The life and growth come first; the denomination comes next; and the website, if any, comes last of all, in service to the pre-existing life of the denomination.

But that doesn’t appear to be what’s happened with the EAPCA. On the contrary, I get the overpowering impression from the EAPCA website that the ordo websitis was something like this: “We really ought to have a denomination. Denominations should have a website. Let’s get working on that website.”As a result, the website mostly seems to be a large and rather clumsy advertisement for a denomination that someone was hoping would spring magically into existence. That’s why the website seems to have very little connection to any actual denominational life: the website is more real than the denomination it describes.

But there’s more. So next, take a look at the EAPCA’s Facebook page, and more specifically, at the statistics page that summarizes its “Likes”. As of 4/10/12, this is what it looked like:


Notice how it has almost precisely 1500 likes each day, lasting for precisely seven days, and then stopping? And almost nobody talking about them? That particular pattern is a sure sign of what is sometimes called a “Like Farm”. In other words, by far the most likely explanation is that somebody at the EAPCA paid a company (presumably in Romania) to generate 1500 fake “Likes”, so that the EAPCA would look like it was bigger and more important than it was. (Probably only 1500 total "Likes" are listed, rather than, ~10,500, because Facebook caught them at it and trimmed all the rest from some of their stats, though not all.) For a good comparison, check out the stats page for my old denomination, the PCUSA, which is at least 100 times larger than the EAPC, maybe more. It has fewer clicks per day, but the pattern indicates that they’re clearly organic. (Edit 4/12/12 – I also found that another domain associated with David Jang, http://ibplace.com/, has an identical pattern of fake “likes” on Facebook: 1500 a day for one week, with Romania as their primary source.)

Now, this is disturbing, right? Granted, this technique is de rigeur for slimy companies trying to cheat Google and Facebook, but it’s pretty surprising to find a Christian denomination engaging in outright click fraud. Perhaps we should be grateful that they were so clumsy about it. But it confirms the impression I gathered from the EAPCA and Olivet websites, that they’re trying very hard to make themselves look bigger and more important than they really are. And apparently they’re willing to go so far as to engage in unethical methods to create that impression.

[Edit 4/14/12 – It looks like both the EAPCA and IBPlace Facebook pages have been taken down. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this was done out of embarrassment at having been caught cheating.]

OK, well, that’s interesting. But there’s more.

One of the things that you realize pretty quickly when you talk to folks at Olivet is that they’re very proud of the fact that they’ve been accepted for membership into the World Evangelical Alliance. And, indeed, that’s nothing to sneeze at. The WEA has been around in one form or another since the 1840’s, and can count among its past leaders such Evangelical luminaries as Harold J. Ockenga and John Stott. When the Assemblies of God leadership first presented the offer from Olivet to assume Bethany’s campus and brand, they trumpeted the fact that Olivet was a member of the WEA (presumably this had been pointed out to them). And Olivet prominently displays their membership in the WEA on their website. The Christian Post (one of the numerous media organizations associated with Olivet) has a big story on the initial acceptance of the Chancellor and former President of Olivet, David Jang, onto the WEA board back in 2007. And there’s lots more, but suffice to say, Olivet’s membership in the WEA has been a big deal for them.

But then the story gets just a little odd. It turns out that the WEA hasn’t just accepted the EAPCA as a member organization; it looks like it may have practically become an Olivet subsidiary. For instance, the WEA website shows that they have three different US offices. But it turns out that two of these offices actually share mailing addresses with one or more Olivet-affiliated institutions, and the third office is less than half a mile from the EAPCA headquarters.

WEA Office Olivet/EAPCA Office Map

74 Trinity Place
Suite 1400
New York, NY 10006

6 Barclay Street 4th Floor
New York, NY 10279

1605 US Route 11
Kirkwood, NY 13795

Olivet World Assembly
1605 US Route 11
Kirkwood, NY 13795

125 Bethany Drive
Scotts Valley, CA 95066

(You can read about the opening of this last office here.)

Bethany University 
800 Bethany Drive
Scotts Valley, CA 95066

And if you check around, you can see that new Chief of Staff at the WEA is a man named Chris Chou; he also happens to be the ex-director of the Jubilee College of Music (another Olivet-associated institution) and a member of the leadership at Olivet University New York.  Less obvious, but still interesting: the CEO of IBTimes, a business connected to David Jang, is a man named Etienne Uzac; he is presumably connected in some way with the Marion Uzac who is (or was) the press secretary of the WEA.

On top of that, it appears as if the WEA website is now actually controlled and managed by the Olivet family. David Jang’s organization apparently has leased some rackspace at an XO communications hosting site in Fremont, CA, which is where all of their web servers are located. They’ve got hundreds of domains hosted there from their dozens of media companies; and it turns out that this same subnet is exactly where the worldea.org website is hosted as well.

And I have one more detail to add. I was recently contacted by someone inside Olivet whom I’m going to try to keep confidential. This person told me that David Jang actually funded the WEA’s move from Canada to their conveniently close New York offices, and continues to provide a significant portion of the WEA’s operating budget. My source also tells me that David Jang has stated that he intends to take over the WEA and to merge it into his organization. Apparently, like Bethany, the WEA had been in financial difficulties for some time (you can get a sense of that here), before David Jang stepped in to rescue them, so it looks like he may have the leverage to accomplish this.

So as it turns out, then, the WEA isn’t really an independent organization which can independently vouch for David Jang and Olivet and the EAPCA. Rather, it looks to be yet another mainstream evangelical organization which David Jang is in the process of, well, taking over. He’s funding them. He’s put one of his lieutenants in charge of day-to-day operations. He now runs their website. He’s moved their offices right next to his. It’s maybe even a little creepy.

So what’s going on here?

Well, that’s hard to say. If I had to give my considered impression, it would be that these guys are trying very hard to do something, and they think that that something would be easier if they had the respectability that came from being a denomination. And from owning the oldest Pentecostal university in the United States. And from controlling the oldest Evangelical organization in the world. But it’s the something that all this is about which still eludes me. Perhaps they’re just trying very hard to carry out the Great Commission, and all this stuff which looks so strange from the outside is just their way of doing it. But I can’t quite shake the feeling that maybe there’s something more sinister going on. I’m still just asking questions, not making accusations, and my intuition might very well be wrong. But I have to say, all this continues to feel weird to me. These guys are trying too hard.

And that leads me to the topic of my next blog post. As I mentioned above, I was recently contacted by someone inside David Jang’s organization. What this individual had to say was pretty fascinating – among other things, our conversations confirmed that my take on the EAPCA website was spot-on – and if it’s true, it’s also pretty worrying. I’ll try to write up some of it over the next day or two.

P.S. A journalist by the name of Ann Brocklehurst has an interesting theory about what the folks at the IBTimes might be up to, namely, using early press access to “locked-up” government data to manipulate markets. I think she’s pretty clearly discounting the Christian angle too much – reporters in general don’t get religion – but her theory is interesting as far as it goes, though I should be clear that all she has so far are just suspicions.


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