This Christian college that attributes its soaring enrollment to free speech has a checkered past

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The president of a Christian college attributed his university’s soaring enrollment to its commitment to free speech, but the school initially blocked conservative commentator Ben Shapiro from speaking on campus just a few years ago.

Grand Canyon University, founded in 1949 in Phoenix, Arizona, has tripled its enrollment over the last decade, surpassing 25,000 in 2022. The university president told Fox News the college has committed to teaching — not indoctrinating — its growing student body.


“Not everybody that comes here has the same biblical belief that we teach here, but they’re free to be here, and they’re free to share their worldview in the classroom and outside the classroom,” GCU President Brian Mueller said. “We are very serious about honoring free speech.”

But the school faced backlash in 2019 after initially barring Shapiro from speaking on campus to avoid divisiveness following student concerns, though the Daily Wire co-founder did eventually speak at GCU that year.

The national wing of the Young America’s Foundation announced that Shapiro would speak on GCU’s campus, even though the college hadn’t approved the local chapter’s official request, according to a GCU press release.

GCU subsequently denied the request, saying in a press release that the school aimed “to bring unity to a community that sits amidst a country that is extremely divided.” The college also said the rejection was partly because YAF’s premature announcement breached its approval protocols.

“By caving to an unseen mob and ignoring the popularity of Shapiro among its student body, Grand Canyon University just played itself and deserves whatever negative response this brings,” YAF spokesman Spencer Brown said at the time. He also wrote that GCU administrators mentioned that there were concerns of offending its DACA students due to Shapiro’s strict views on immigration.


The university itself ultimately invited Shapiro to speak as it continued to battle with YAF, but the conservative commentator initially declined. But Shapiro eventually agreed to speak on campus. 

“I have worked with YAF and YAF students for years,” Shapiro tweeted. “I will not go around the hard-working, dedicated YAF students at GCU; I’ll go to GCU when YAF brings me to GCU.”

Ultimately, Shapiro did speak at the college later that spring.

After learning about the incident, Fox News reached out to GCU for additional clarity. A GCU spokesperson told Fox News the school has invited speakers of “from a variety of political viewpoints,” including many conservative speakers.

“Mr. Shapiro’s conservative perspective aligns with more than 90% of our values as a university,” the spokesperson told Fox News. “There were some initial missteps involving our internal communication as well as our approval process, but we are happy those were resolved and Mr. Shapiro was able to visit and speak to our students. We continue to have a positive relationship with Mr. Shapiro today.”

Meanwhile, Mueller told Fox News in a recent interview that he’s committed to promoting the First Amendment at his college. He said the prospect has been enticing for parents as battles over free speech on college campuses have continued to escalate nationwide.


Parents don’t want their kids “to get indoctrinated into an ideology that maybe is not one that they were taught at home” once they go to college, Mueller said. 

While the student body is primarily comprised of conservative Christians, Mueller said he expects its political and religious diversity to grow. The Christian college has expanded over the last decade, even as college enrollment across the country is down. 

“We’re not a church,” Mueller told Fox News. “We’re a university.” 

“I think that’s a really healthy environment that has led to a very, very strong community that has become very attractive to people across the country,” Mueller said.

A YAF spokesperson, Michael McGonigle, responded to Mueller’s recent comments in light of GCU’s previous controversy involving Shapiro.

“Though YAF has hosted several high-profile conservatives at GCU — including Elisha Krauss and Ben Shapiro — the University has not always been fully supportive of our efforts to do so,” he said. “Hopefully, the school has learned from its past mistakes and will remain resolute in the fall, as we work to bring additional speakers to campus.”

Shapiro declined to comment on Mueller’s recent remarks.

To watch Mueller’s full interview, click here.

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