NEWBERG, Ore. – Students and campus leaders at a small Christian university founded by Quaker pioneers in 1891 denounced the hanging of a life-size cardboard cutout of Sen. Barack Obama on campus, vowing to work together to fight racism and intolerance.
A custodial crew at the 3,355-student George Fox University found the Obama likeness hanging by fishing wire from a tree at 7 a.m. Sept. 23 and tore it down before students arrived for classes.
A sign taped to the cutout said, "Act Six reject," referring to a scholarship program for Portland students, many of whom are minorities.
George Fox President Robin Baker, standing with dozens of Act Six students and student leaders in front of a packed auditorium Wednesday morning, urged students to show the incident has no place in Christian ideals.
"We absolutely cannot hate those around us and say we love God," he said. "It is not possible. Yesterday was not a good example of what it means to follow Jesus."
Quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, Baker said the university has long had difficulties recruiting students of color, and his dream has been to help create a campus that "more broadly represents the kingdom of God."
Students said they were shocked and angry when they learned of the stunt in an e-mail Wednesday morning. They said the incident was isolated and did not reflect beliefs on the predominantly white campus.
"Obviously, it's not something you'd expect for a Christian campus," said Jared Rogers, a 21-year-old senior. "To me, it's completely inappropriate and ridiculous."
Baker said the incident was a blow to efforts over the past several years to recruit more diverse students by developing relationships with minority groups in Portland. This fall, 25 percent of the 390 freshmen are students of color, up from 16 percent in 2005.
The Act Six program, which started last year, provides full scholarships each year to as many as 10 students chosen for their leadership potential from Portland high schools.
"The reason we hadn't been successful at recruitment in the past is there wasn't a relationship," Baker said after his speech. "Those communities need to trust you, so this one incident could mess up our entire trust network."
Several Act Six scholars said they feared the incident has inaccurately tainted the school's reputation, and agreed that the incident was not representative of Christ or George Fox.
"One person's actions should not change how we look at this campus," said Ryan Moats, 19, a social work sophomore from Portland.
Baker said he didn't know how to interpret the political connection to Obama. "We just thought it was a student making a comment about our efforts to recruit," he said.
But the tone of the display brought underlying political and racial conflicts to the surface in a historic election involving the first black presidential candidate from a major party. University leaders are planning a series of forums for students to discuss the issue.
A campus investigation is under way as part of the university's judicial process, and Newberg police have been notified.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Pardington writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. Noelle Crombie, Yuxing Zheng and Helen Jung contributed to this story.)