Higher education postcard: Bob Jones University

This week’s card from Hugh Jones’s postbag brings you the world’s most unusual university

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

Greetings from South Carolina!

Collecting and sharing higher education postcards has shown me that there are many, many different kinds of university. There’s variety in the UK, but this variety is nothing compared to the different kinds of university you find out there in the big old world.

Let me introduce to you Bob Jones University, proudly self-proclaimed as the “world’s most unusual university.”

Founded in 1927 by Bob Jones, it has from the outset sought to promulgate Christian values, based on “old time religion and the absolute authority of the bible”, to quote the back of the postcard. It’s not my job to be theological, so let’s instead have a look at the university’s history.

Bob Jones was an evangelical preacher, at age thirteen organising his own church with a congregation 54 strong, and at age 15 becoming a licensed methodist minister. He became famous as a preacher, and was one of the first televangelists, when mass meetings faded from fashion. He founded Bob Jones College, apparently, through concern that the teaching of evolution as fact would lead to universal atheism.

Initially the college was established in Florida, but after six years – in 1933 – moved to Tennessee. These were the years of the great depression, and money was clearly tough for everybody, newly fledged colleges included.

The Tennessee incarnation did better: growth in student enrolments, a new campus constructed. And towards the end of World War 2, a very significant piece of US legislation was passed: the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the GI Bill. This provided a range of benefits to ex service personnel, including contributions to university tuition and living costs. This resulted in a significant growth in enrolments, and another move was on the cards.

This time the move was to Greenville, South Carolina, in 1947. Two significant events occurred: the first was a growth in academic disciplines, leading to the college adopting the title university. The second was that Bob Jones stood down as president, to be replaced by Bob Jones. His son. So we now have Bob Jones Snr and Bob Jones Jr. Pay attention, there’s more to come and a test later.

In the 1950s the university continued to grow, and started new activities: a radio station, and a movie production company Unusual Films, named for the university’s then strapline, “the world’s most unusual university.” The American Film Institute lists three films from the production company: Wine of the Morning, Flame in the Wind, and Red Runs the River. Entertainingly, the latter two seem to star Bob Jones – senior, junior, and Bob Jones III, of whom more below.

Does anyone know of a UK vice chancellor who has starred in a film?

Anyway, back to the story. The 1960s saw Bob Jones Jr become chair of trustees as well as being president, and Bob Jones III become vice-president. And yes, he was the son of Bob Jones Jr, and the grandson of Bob Jones snr. In 1971 Bob Jones III became president.

In 2005 Bob Jones University broke with precedent and tradition, and appointed someone other than Bob Jones as President. This was Stephen Jones, son of Bob Jones III, grandson of Bob Jones Jr, great grandson of Bob Jones Snr. Stephen stayed in office until 2014, when a non-Jones was appointed. This was Steve Pettit, a graduate of the University.

(It is perhaps important for me to make clear at this point that I am, to the best of my knowledge, no relation to any of the Joneses at Bob Jones University.)

Pettit stood down in March 2023. He resigned as president, having given the trustees an ultimatum: sack the chair of trustees, or I’ll resign. And the board of trustees did not sack the chair. So he resigned. And then a week later, the chair of trustees stood down. There is currently no president, but an acting chief executive officer.

So far I’ve treated this account relatively light-heartedly, but we now need to get serious. From the outset the university operated a colour bar: Black Africans and African Americans were not permitted to enrol. This bar was partially rescinded in 1971, when married Black students were permitted to enrol. In 1975 this restriction was removed too, but the university instituted a rule against interracial dating. In 1983 the university lost a court case and lost its tax exemptions, on the basis of its racial discriminatory policies. The university chose to pay back taxes, rather than change its policies. It was not until 2000 that the rules against interracial dating were removed, announced on Larry King Live following public controversy. In 2008 the university publicly apologised for its past policies; and in 2017 it regained its tax exempt status.

You clearly don’t go to Bob Jones University unless you know what you’re signed up to. This includes student codes of conduct which appear odd to UK eyes: dress codes for men and women; compulsory daily attendance at chapel; a ban on culturally corrupt music such as rock, pop, jazz, country, rap and hip-hop; a ban on visiting off-campus bars, taverns, or dance halls.

So there we have Bob Jones University. Unashamedly religious, with theological and social positions described in some detail on their website. Very conservative in outlook. Very conservative in practice. But also a fully accredited university, since 2017, with progression and achievement rates which look pretty good.

Truly, the world of higher education has many and wondrous sights in it.

2 responses to “Higher education postcard: Bob Jones University

  1. How fascinating, John! My son and his family live in South Carolina and we have many times visited Greenville.

  2. There must surely be a better answer to your mid-article question, Hugh, but I’ll start you off with Professor Joe Wilson, Principal of Leeds Conservatoire, who graced screens around the world as a member of the band Sneaker Pimps in the music video of their best known song “6 Underground“.

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