- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2001

BUENA VISTA, Va. In the past, Mormons have taken much inspiration from their pioneer history of how the early Latter-day Saints surmounted all obstacles to move west.
But some young Mormons are moving east these days to a small college in central Virginia that's more than quintupled its student body in less than five years.
In the spring of 1996, Southern Virginia College (SVC) was ready to close its doors after 130 years as a small women's junior college. Then a group of Mormon businessmen stepped in to take over the college and its debts, transferring its stewardship over to a new board of trustees. No money was exchanged.
The idea was to found a college based on Mormon ideals on the Eastern seaboard. SVC, which has no official ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), started with 74 students in the fall of 1996.
This semester, enrollment is at 375. Ninety-eight percent of the students and 75 percent of the 40-member faculty are Mormons.
"There was really a need for this," said SVC President Curtis Fawson. "We have a culture here that provides academic excellence and a spiritual environment where students can practice their religion without fear of reprisal or being put down."
Students and faculty label the college "BYU East" after the mammoth Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah for a reason. The marriage- and missionary-friendly Mormon culture is very much alive here. Seventeen college couples got engaged last semester and 20 married couples attend class now.
Seventy-eight percent of the male students drop out their freshman year to go on two-year missionary stints around the world before returning to their studies. About 10 percent of the female students go on 18-month mission journeys, but most wait until graduation to do so.
"Campuses have become very hostile to anything of a religious nature," says Mr. Fawson, who was named provost in 1998 and president a year later. "You hear from students about having to use co-ed dorms, co-ed bathrooms that is not an environment where parents want their youth to go to."
The college has been praised by the local community for the many hours of volunteer work students do around town. Although the college is in a heavily conservative Protestant part of the state, about 10 Rockbridge County residents become Mormons each year, says Donna Sexton, spokeswoman for the Buena Vista Stake. A "stake" is LDS terminology for a local congregation.
The college's clean image also helps. All students must agree to abide by an honor code requiring them to abstain from premarital sex, alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, tea, illicit drugs, cheating, cursing and pornography.
The college cafeteria, chapel and administration offices are housed in a former Victorian resort hotel on 150 acres overlooking the small town of 6,005 souls. Inside are opulent furnishings left over from the previous college and a painting of the Mormon temple located next to the Washington Beltway.
The school offers 10 majors. Average class size is seven to 10 persons.
"There's more opportunity to participate in class," says SVC senior John Chapman, 24, who is married with a 5-month-old son. "When you're in a class with only four people, the faculty pressure you to give them more."
Senior Morgan Pinnock, 23, says it takes a special kind of student to come to such a new venture.
"Pioneering is what you do here," she says. "You learn how to make things from scratch here, from creating a volleyball team to starting up a literary magazine to building up a theater program."
"The good news," says student body President Scott McKeon, 24, "is that you made the volleyball team. The bad news is that you are the team."
Still, there is a market for such a college. Every year, approximately 100,000 Mormon seniors graduate from high schools in the United States and Canada. BYU and Mormon-affiliated colleges in Idaho and Hawaii take 11,000 freshmen, which leaves no church-related schools for the remaining 89,000.
Meanwhile, enrollment in all degree-granting, religiously affiliated institutions (ranging from a Bible college with one major to multivaried research institutions such as Georgetown University) has been booming. Since 1980, enrollment in all religious colleges has grown 43 percent, from about 1 million to about 1.4 million students, according to the American Council on Education (ACE).
"There's been a change in the American zeitgeist," says Jacqueline King, director of the ACE Center for Policy Analysis. "There's more of an interest in faith-based institutions."
The number of religiously affiliated colleges went from 774 in 1980 to a high of 922 in 1997. It is now at 884, she said. During that same period, the number of new Jewish institutions more than doubled from 24 to 56. Those in the "Protestant/other" category went from 11 to 57.
But there were no new Mormon institutions of higher learning, even though the Latter-day Saints is one of the world's fastest-growing faiths.
It was to correct that imbalance that Stephen Biddulph, a former Marine Corps officer with a master's degree in counseling and psychology, moved his family to Virginia to be the new dean of students.
"Instead of going West to pioneer, we came back East," he says. "Kids ought to get a good education in an environment that fosters wholesomeness. At most colleges, you get an education. Here, you get that and you help create a school."
They have a ways to go. Full accreditation is not expected for another three years. The male-female ratio is a skewed 38 percent to 62 percent. Dorm space is limited. The endowment is at $600,000, an amount Mr. Fawson is trying to ratchet up to $20 million over the next five years.
Wealthy Mormons such as the Marriott family have contributed $2 million. So has Richmond businessman Glade Knight, who heads the SVC board ($2.5 million), retired CSX executive Don Davis ($1 million) and Tony Burns, CEO of Ryder Corp., the truck-rental company, who has contributed cash and three free vans.
SVC has attracted some prominent people to the faculty, such as Glen Goodsell, a retired constitutional-law lawyer who lives in nearby Lexington and has argued cases before the Supreme Court.
Business, however, is SVC's largest major. "I've been surprised by how many businessmen like to teach students and will drive a distance to do it," says Academic Vice President John Peterson. SVC also shares two professors with the Virginia Military Institute six miles away.
Despite SVC's early success, starting up a college is an expensive, multimillion-dollar proposition. Other colleges have asked them for help, Mr. Peterson says, on how to switch over to an LDS curriculum, creating a worldwide network of Mormon schools.
"A lot of eyes are watching us to see if we make it," he says. "If we do, others will try it."


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