Cedarville University President Dr. Thomas White
Cedarville University President Dr. Thomas White offers an "apology" to students at a chapel on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. (Video screengrab)

Analysis: Was Cedarville President’s “Apology” Just an Attempt at Image Repair?

By Julia Dahl

Cedarville University President Thomas White this week offered an apology to returning students and others for his grievous actions that led to a major scandal at the school.

But was this an authentic apology, or just an attempt at image repair?

As an image repair analyst, I’ve discovered that leaders in crisis often craft persuasive statements to engender sympathy. Yet when analyzed, these statements fall far short of biblical repentance, and often mislead by employing image repair techniques like minimizing, bolstering, and reverse victimization.

Unfortunately, Dr. White’s recent apology is no different. 

In his recent “apology” during a school chapel—similar to White’s “apology” that was the subject of a recent podcast—White is scant on details, both of the injury and the specifics of his apology. 

He never mentions that he had hired an admitted sexual predator, Dr. Anthony Moore, and had withheld that information from the Cedarville community. He never admits that he lied and covered up for what he had done once he was exposed.

Instead, Dr. White obscures the facts and attempts to repair his image.

Below is video of White’s “apology” (from about 6:00–12:00), followed by my detailed analysis. The analysis draws heavily on the work of William L. Benoit, and specifically Dr. Melody Fisher, who has studied its use by religious leaders in crisis.  It’s my prayer that it will help you discern both what has been said, and not said. 

Introduction

Returning students were greeted by Dr. White, whose demeanor in the opening remarks doesn’t foreshadow that there’s a weighty apology coming. 

He focuses the students’ attention on being excited to be back, on feelings of being seen, belonging and a sense of family.  This draws the students to identify with Dr. White and Cedarville in a positive way. 

The highlighted phrases are form of minimization* of White’s leave of absence, and transcendence* to pull the students into identifying with Cedarville.  White’s demeanor is quite different than one might expect from a man who is humbled by the gravity and depth of his errors.  

*See guide at end of article

BREAKDOWN OF THE APOLOGY

An effective apology includes several elements:  expression of regret; an explanation of what went wrong—usually in some detail; acknowledgement of responsibility; statement of repentance; offer to repair; and lastly, a request for forgiveness.   White’s apology is broken down here, with each paragraph followed by a brief description of the image repair method being used.

MINIMIZATION: Dr. White mentions that some students may be aware of a “recent hiring decision and situation.”  This fails to describe the actual offense in any detail and offers the most minimal of description.  The offense included not only hiring, but placement of a person with predatory history in contact with the group previously targeted.  White’s phrase also omits that the “situation” included significant failure to disclose to many parties, including students who were at risk.

DENIAL: By stating that he “can’t go into details,” White effectively closes any inquiry.  White is refusing to provide any degree of transparency, but he’s making it seem like there’s nothing he can do about it.

PROVOCATION/DENIAL BY BLAME SHIFTING: By stating “legally it’s just not possible,” White implies that if he COULD speak about the details he would, but he’s being forced to withhold information. Here, White is shifting the blame for his continued lack of transparency to some unnamed party.  Using the term “legally” infers that the unnamed party is either law enforcement or lawyers. 

ADMIT RESPONSIBILITY (PARTIAL): White’s statement—“I need to apologize to you”—implies that he understands he’s harmed someone and admitting responsibility. 

But has Dr. White admitted responsibility?  What does he admit responsibility for?  By saying “I need to apologize,” the reader/listener is invited to come to their own conclusion. 

MINIMIZATION:  “I made a mistake.”  This is intentionally vague and allows the reader to conclude what they believe that White is referring to.  The hiring of a sexual predator to work at a Christian university where the predator will be in contact with people of similar age and gender to the previously targeted victim(s) being characterized as a “mistake” grossly understates the gravity of White’s actions, inactions and implies that there was not wilfull intention to do something eggregious. 

DENIAL:  “I made a mistake.”  White chooses to use the singular “a”.  This gives the impression that only one “mistake” occurred.  This reinforces the idea that the only issue at hand is the hiring of Anthony Moore.  To use the singular form DENIES that there were several actions by White that were plainly wrong.   White hired a sexual predator.  White was dishonest in the information he shared and did not share with others.  White had wilfull disregard for parents and students.  To use the singular portrays that this is not a pattern of behavior; when indeed there is a pattern.

MINIMIZATION/DENIAL: “I had bad judgement.”  This underrepresents the pattern of behavior and again indicates a one time failure rather than a pattern of deception and harmful choices.

ADMIT RESPONSIBILITY:  “I blew it.”  This statement is intentionally vague; however admits some degree of responsibility.

REQUEST FORGIVENESS:  White apologizes, without detail and requests forgiveness.

DENIAL: White says, “The trustees do know all of the details.”  This denies that White has further withheld any detail from the trustees, despite that he previously has done so.   

REVERSE VICTIMIZATION/CONVERSION: White uses triangulation— casting himself as the person who is the hero. He’s protecting the institution by remaining silent when he wants to tell his side of the story. He’s also protecting the trustees from blame or criticism. The victims are now the trustees and the villains are the bloggers, who exposed the matter of Anthony Moore’s hiring.  Notice how in the instance of White’s hiring a sexual predator, he’s not the villain. Anthony Moore isn’t the villain. The villains are the bloggers who required that the truth be told.

ATTACK THE ACCUSERS: “Through the blogs this summer . . . even slandered.”  White uses the term “slander” to imply that what the bloggers have published is false.  Slander also portrays an intent to harm.  So calling out slander reinforces the idea that White is the hero protecting Cedarville against harm from the outside.

DENIAL: White asserts that the “law won’t allow us to tell the other side of the story.”  This denies that White and Cedarville can address the findings of Cedarville’s investigation. The denial is convenient since the investigation found that White “took steps that . . . clouded the specific nature of Dr. Moore’s conduct” and withheld information from trustees.

Some pertinent questions:  Has law enforcement been involved?  Is there an ongoing criminal investigation that would bar any of the people with evidence from speaking about an on-going criminal investigation?

REVERSE VICTIMIZATION/CONVERSION:  White says he feels “sorry” for the board and urges his audience not to “blame them.”  These statements are intended to make the reader to feel sympathy for the board.  The trustees are the ones who decided to reinstate White.  He has a vested interest in the reader/listener having a favorable and sympathetic view of the board.  To achieve this, he invites you to feel sorry for them.

ADMIT RESPONSIBILITY (MORTIFICATION/APOLOGY):  “I want to apologize for all those things too . . .” White says. This appears to be a statement of apology.  But what has White actually apologized for in this statement? 

In his previous statement, there is very little detail. This is likely intentional and allows the listener to come to his own conclusion. Because he’s painted himself as the hero, many may conclude that White has actually apologized.

BOLSTERING:  By calling the trustees “Good, godly men and women who deserve your admiration and respect,” White characterizes the trustees positively.  Again, they reinstated him.  He has a vested interest in them being viewed positively.

BOLSTERING:  White goes on to list things that would indicate his improvement as a leader.  This combines the portrayal of humility (“I want to improve”) with what appear to be actions.  This completely sets aside any consideration that it is a rational expectation that the president of a Christian University might already be versed in these things as a condition of employment.

BOLSTERING:  Again, White portrays the humility of someone willing to learn, which is an attempt to be seen in a positive light.

DENIAL: White says, “I’ve learned that restoration plans like the one we attempted don’t need to happen on a university campus . . . ”  This denies that White already had some basic understanding that putting a predator among the same type of people that he had preyed upon previously was not a good idea.  It also contradicts his assertion in April that he was motivated by good intentions— the radical mercy of the Lord. 

PROMISE NOT TO RECUR: White promises that the schoolwon’t be doing that again.”  This is an appropriate corrective action.

DENIAL: White also assures listeners that the school has “no other similar situations.” The use of the word similar may be clarifying previous statements that indicated similar restoration may be possible.

BOLSTERING: White portrays a new understanding (“deeper appreciation”) of the impact of abuse and respect for professions that help abuse victims.  This generates the sense that White is on the side of abuse victims and those who help them. It also conveys humility. 

ABSENCE OF CONCERN FOR ABUSE ITSELF: Similar to previous statements, White avoids confronting the actual issue of abuse on Cedarville’s campus.  White is now speaking about the aftermath of abuse.  What is White doing to prevent abuse in the first place?  There’s only sentence about prevention.

DENIAL:  Denies knowledge of anyone harmed by Anthony Moore or this incident. Yet, how many parents, students, and faculty were harmed by White’s deception and mishandling of the “incident”?

RESTORATION:  White speaks to future activities, primarily related to abuser awareness and advocating, with one sentence about prevention.  He does not speak to any actions that would repair the violated trust that occurred when he hired an abuser.

BOLSTERING:  White admits he needs “to do better and improve.” This conveys humility and makes White appear as a man humbled by this process. 

MORTIFICATION: Without offering any specifics of what he is apologizing for,White says he’s sorry and requests forgiveness.  Immediately requesting forgiveness generally places the responsibility for next steps on the listener, not the person who caused harm.

CONVERSION:  White describes himself as unworthy, which provokes sympathy.

TRANSCENDENCE:  The apology has been offered and forgiveness requested, essentially directing focus away from White’s egregious conduct and to the Lord.

Image Repair Analysis Guide:

Image Repair Analysis Reference

 

Dr. Julia Dahl is an image repair analyst and advocate for abuse survivors. She’s also an assistant professor of pathology at the University of Michigan Medical School and the associate director of Michigan Medicine Laboratories.

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20 thoughts on “Analysis: Was Cedarville President’s “Apology” Just an Attempt at Image Repair?”

  1. How about “I’m sorry that i lied to you”? How about “I am sorry that i showed poor judgement in hiring a known sex offender and putting him in close proximity to students and basketball players without letting them know of the risk?” How about “I am sorry that my actions resulted in the Pastor of Grace Baptist Church resigning”? How about “i’m sorry that I threw Anthony Moore under the bus and publicly humiliated him”?

    Disappointing but expected from Dr. White.

  2. I don’t know how any parent could read this report and continue to spend $40,000. a yr on tuition to send their child there.

    This is your chance to raise your student up and protect them, not throw them into this toxic environment.

    What will you say to God, when you’re held accountable for your life?
    Don’t think “I didn’t realize” will hold up.

      1. Huge scholarships must have been offered to lure in the masses. Whatever amount of $ it takes for everything to appear normal and “thriving” would seem to be of utmost importance for CU. Why would newcomers be informed of the deplorable truths? Just innocent people taking the bait. I feel very sorry for those ignorant of this toxic, corrupt cult.

  3. Proud CU Alum and Parent

    It says far more about Julie and her team than it does about Dr. White when they continue to be obsessed with this story.

    “No room for grace” should be the name of this organization moving forward.

    1. I am a parent, an almnus and a donor (for now.) I am listening to White carefully this year. I was glad that he addressed it right off the top, and mentioned some reparative steps. The blurring over of details did seem a bit facetious, and I do not accept his “legal” excuse for not going into further detail.

      So, I’m grateful for the analysis provided by Dr. Dahl. Her toolkit is essential in an age when undiscerning listeners join personality cults and seek to have their ears scratched.

      White will need to back up his accusation of slander very soon. This is not going away.

      If you’re listening CU, be warned. The very best outcome will be a repentant White offering himself as one completely abandoned to God’s mercy. The lawyers will hate it, and you might have to pay Moore, but God will be honored.

      1. Juila Dahl, M.D.

        Dr. White, and CU are invited to rebut any of this analysis and/or my previous analysis.

        For slander to apply, Dr. White must prove:
        1) What I have written is materially false.
        2) I know that it is false.
        3) Dr. White is harmed by my knowingly writing something materially false about him.

        To accuse me of slander and be unwilling to show that any of these statements are false, that I have reason to know that it’s false and how Dr. White is harmed is in itself a form of attacking the accusers. The intent is to reduce my credibility and therefore reduce the offensiveness of his deception, choices and failure to truly address the issue of abuse.

        1. Interesting that you seem to either have no respect for the legal restrictions on Dr. White/trustees discussing details. Also interesting that somehow, with your training, you seem to think you can get inside someone’s head, inside their words, and determine they are not sincere. This is the last time I will go to the Julie Roys website. I don’t work at CU, but I know people who do, and the number of inaccuracies and total falsehoods in these various reports is astounding.

          1. Gary,

            I seem to either have “no respect for the legal restrictions” or what? You appear to have not completed your sentence.

            Citing legal restrictions is a method of abruptly closing dialogue. White, who is the person who made the serious errors is choosing to not provide the basis for what the legal restriction is – but to simply say there is one. It would not be unreasonable for White to state what the restriction is.

            Keep in mind: There are two forms of legal restrictions: voluntarily entered into under civil law and involuntary as a function of complying with criminal or civil law decisions imposed by others.

            IF there are legal restrictions, this indicates that either (1) there is a non-disclosure agreement between White, CU and/or Moore +/- other parties; (2) there is a criminal investigation occurring.

            On the first matter: non-disclosure agreements are voluntary contracts. A voluntary NDA being cited as a “legal restriction” is disingenous at best. Christian organizations that use NDAs are defying Biblical principles. If there is a criminal investigation occurring – White could have said that and didn’t.

            If there is an NDA – why is there an NDA?

            If there is a criminal investigation going on, that is significant information for students and families at CU to know.

            With my training – I am a pathologist. Image repair analysis does not attempt to get into the head of someone to determine whether they are sincere. It simply recognizes methods of communication that are used. If you’d like to study more about it, you can do literature searches and read more about it quite easily.

    2. Julia Dahl, M.D.

      Responding to Dr. White’s continuing to use image repair methods is not equivalent to nor indicative of obsession, CU Alum/Parent.

      It may be acceptable to you to be lied to, mislead and to refuse to press Thomas White into actual repentance. That is your choice. Others, however, may not wish to believe his deception.

  4. Thank you for an excellent analysis of Cedarville University President Thomas White’s cunning “apology” Dr. Dahl. As one of the bloggers who labored to bring truth and light to the Anthony Moore scandal I particularly appreciate that you have highlighted White’s blame-shifting:

    “The victims are now the trustees and the villains are the bloggers, who exposed the matter of Anthony Moore’s hiring. Notice how in the instance of White’s hiring a sexual predator, he’s not the villain. Anthony Moore isn’t the villain. The villains are the bloggers who required that the truth be told.”

    It doesn’t appear to me that White has learned a thing over the past five months. His actions have caused untold damage to so many, yet the bloggers are the villains! If White were half the man he fancies himself to be he would resign immediately. But no, that will never happen. Instead he will parade around the campus with the approval of a Board of Trustees who have lost the only two members who were brave enough to proclaim that the emperor has no clothes.

  5. Thomas White’s so-called apology/explanation here is garbage, as Dr. Dahl expertly notes with her meticulous analysis. So, Cedarville has a proven liar/deceiver for a president, who will not call his multiple sins and failures affecting many what they are and apologize for them. Slander is a crime, involving knowingly spreading lies about someone to harm their reputation, and here White ironically slanders the generic, nebulous, evil bloggers to create a villain, although he wouldn’t have the guts to name names, because his vague accusation could then be criminal, since the bloggers told the truth about his multiple underhanded dealings. Does White also appreciate the 2 trustees who resigned out of godly principle when the other trustees, with their perks from the university and close personal ties to White, shamefully decided not to fire him? And yes, as Julie notes, God forgives when we repent, which White has not adequately done on many levels.

  6. The “Caring Well” program Dr. White references is a SBC program(!) designed to be implemented in local churches. Pastoral staff training includes 12 – 20-minute videos, and training time for a Caring Well Team is about 8 hours, comprised mostly of watching videos. In addition, Dr. White completed a 43-hour (secular!) program (what program specifically? – again, no details) through the Office for Victims of Crime… and he is becoming a “national victim advocate”. Total Training Time for both programs: 55 hours

    For comparison, from what I can find online, the training time for a host/hostess at Bob Evans is 2 weeks. Total Training Time: 80 hours

    Conclusion: A Bob Evans host/hostesses has had more hours of training to do their job than Dr. White has had in his quest to become a “national victim advocate”. (No disrespect to Bob Evan’s host/hostesses – just using the training time as a comparison… could’ve used almost any job training example).

    Congratulations, Dr. White and Cedarville University on this major step forward toward advocating for victims! Not.

    1. Julia Dahl, M.D.

      Thank you for this very relevant math. Physicians invest roughly 18,000 hours over 7 years to become trained in the most basic of offering medical care to patients. Every year, we are required to have no less than 40 hours of additional form continuing medical education to maintain our medical licenses. Less than 1/10000 physicians is considered a national expert on anything.

      What was curious to me about his statement is that he portrays a degree of humility in coming to a new understanding and a new found respect for people who choose to be victim advocates and care for victims as their life calling, that he could not do what they do AND THEN he goes on to say he’s going to be a “national victim advocate.” Didn’t he just say that he couldn’t do what skilled professionals do in this sphere? But in the next moment he’s going to go ahead and be a national victim advocate? So, he can’t do the basics, but he’ll be an expert?

      Does he just mean that he’s getting a certificate to hang on his wall for paying some $$ and taking a brief course?

  7. Justice Collective

    Dr. White has no qualifications whatsoever to become a victim advocate because he still has not acknowledged, apologized for, and repented over the cover-up of Megan Lively’s rape in 2003 at SEBTS, a cover-up he assisted Paige Patterson with. Lively has clearly testified to the fact that White was in the room with Patterson and helped him cover up that rape. In addition, she has clearly stated that Joy White blamed/shamed her for the rape during the aftermath. It is unconscionable that White is still CU’s president considering that fact alone. Patterson lost his job and his SWBTS campus retirement house; White has lost nothing. It boggles the mind and delays justice for Lively.

    White also has never publicly apologized for his abusive behavior toward other victims, including faculty he has shamed publicly in faculty meetings, such as Dr. Melissa Faulkner whose story represents the stories of many others. How can White say he now has a greater regard for those in psychology and social work yet remain silent about the liberal arts he has censored so strictly? Those professors also are trying to prepare students for the real world, too, and develop in them compassion for those who’ve been victims of abuse as well as model empathy. But no, they are left out because the censorship policy will stand.

    So as Dahl has insightfully revealed, White’s vague, faux apologies regarding his hiring of Anthony Moore continue. And as others have noted, he has never apologized for lying about and covering up Moore’s crimes in Texas either. He likewise has not publicly cleared the names of those whose character he impugned in his blog, such as Pat Estep, men’s basketball coach, and the Bible department’s professors. He claimed in that blog that they knew all about Moore, but they did not. Where’s his apology for these deceptions in his blog?

    Julie, thank you again for pursuing this story. Many of us are grateful for the education at CU we received when Drs. Dixon and Brown were president. We, too, are proud alumni of THAT education. But we are ashamed of CU’s Board of Trustees and Pres. White now. We cannot and will not donate any more money to the school since this is its present leadership.

    And those of us who still work at CU and those of us who fled because of White know the other truth the Trustees and White refuse to acknowledge–and change: White has created one of the most hostile work environments in higher education. No one is allowed to raise questions or concerns about White, ever, and they are punished if they do. It is an oppressive, toxic environment, which continues to cause much trauma for CU employees. Those of us who’ve gotten out are the lucky ones. Those still stuck there because attempts to leave have, to this point, been unsuccessful truly suffer. The Trustees, however, do not care that employees suffer, and have now told professors they can never refer to White’s behavior as “deception”; they must use the word “mistake.” Everyone has to play along and pretend the Emperor’s new clothes are fine.

    And that is also tragic: The university administration which prides itself on standing for truth actually doesn’t tell the truth.

  8. I listened to the recording and you left out at the beginning his comments that say, “I made a mistake. I had bad judgement. I blew it. I want to ask you for forgiveness today as well as those in the Cedarville community. I want to ask you to forgive me for this.” Why did you leave those phrases out of your analysis?

  9. Julia Dahl, M.D.

    Thank you for your catching this. This was an unintentional omission during the course of quickly editing the document. I’m sending Julie Roys an edited version that includes this analysis.

    MINIMIZATION: “I made a mistake.” This is intentionally vague and allows the reader to conclude what they believe that White is referring to. The hiring of a sexual predator to work at a Christian university where the predator will be in contact with people of similar age and gender to the previously targeted victim(s) being characterized as a “mistake” grossly understates the gravity of White’s actions, inactions and implies that there was not wilfull intention to do something eggregious.
    DENIAL: “I made a mistake.” White chooses to use the singular “a”. This gives the impression that only one “mistake” occurred. This reinforces the idea that the only issue at hand is the hiring of Anthony Moore. To use the singular form DENIES that there were several actions by White that were plainly wrong. White hired a sexual predator. White was dishonest in the information he shared and did not share with others. White had wilfull disregard for parents and students. To use the singular portrays that this is not a pattern of behavior; when indeed there is a pattern.
    MINIMIZATION/DENIAL: “I had bad judgement.” This underrepresents the pattern of behavior and again indicates a one time failure rather than a pattern of deception and harmful choices.
    ADMIT RESPONSIBILITY: “I blew it.” This statement is intentionally vague; however admits some degree of responsibility.
    REQUEST FORGIVENESS: White apologizes, without detail and requests forgiveness.

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