Students, experts mixed over teacher
Lecturer: Past stint with group doesn't affect his instruction
Press » The Modesto Bee » 2007-01-26
By MICHELLE HATFIELD
BEE STAFF WRITER
Students and experts are divided over how a California State University, Stanislaus, lecturer's religious past might influence his teaching.
Barry Gerard-Prendergast acknowledged this week he was a member of The Family International, a controversial group formerly known as the Children of God. Some ex-members say it's a cult.
The sociology lecturer denies that his experience with The Family affects his teaching.
"No past group influences," he wrote in an e-mail to The Bee on Wednesday. "I teach using my academic knowledge and study of sociology which I have attained at graduate school."
He was replying to questions The Bee had e-mailed to his attorney.
Some experts believe membership in a controversial religious group does not necessarily affect teaching ability; others say students can provide a pool of potential converts.
Students have said they know little, if anything, about Gerard-Prendergast's personal life or religious beliefs.
Students who took classes from Gerard-Prendergast last semester vary in their evaluation of his teaching style. The Bee interviewed a few of his students last semester and received e-mails from others after a Bee story about him appeared in December.
One student said he loved Gerard-Prendergast's boisterous lectures while another called him unprofessional, unqualified and chauvinistic.
Gerard-Prendergast's effectiveness as a teacher depends on whether he denounces the group's beliefs or is a cult apologist, according to Rick A. Ross, an international cult expert based in New Jersey. He has studied controversial groups and interviewed former members for 25 years.
"The question is, how is this teacher influencing his students?" Ross asked. "Is he in a role as a cult apologist, minimizing the damage they do, apologizing for their behavior, minimizing what the group has done?"
Cult experts say people can live normal lives once they leave the lifestyle. Several former cult members have landed jobs teaching at universities.
Ross called the group "one of the most destructive cults in the history of the United States."
Colleen Russell, a Mill Valley therapist who specializes in helping former cult members recover, said she'd be wary of teachers who are or were members of cultlike groups.
"I know from what former members have told me that often a teacher was responsible for getting them involved in a cult," Russell said. "The main focus of every cult I know of is to recruit more members."
Expert: Attracts the vulnerable
The groups attract people going through vulnerable times in their lives, such as going off to college or surviving personal losses, said Russell, who belonged to a new age cult in the 1970s.
Officials should keep track of a former or current member's research topics and where research grant money comes from, Ross said.
Ross is concerned about former members teaching sociology classes because some topics cover the emergence of cults.
"Sociology, unlike math or science, is a particularly relevant area of study," Ross said. "It may color the way in which he teaches his students in the manner of cults."
But Ross also said that depending on Gerard-Prendergast's detachment from The Family, his experience could be helpful to students.
"He's seen them from the inside out. He does have something he can share that is meaningful," Ross said.