Two members of Vanderbilt University's administration articulated the school's stance on nondiscrimination with regard to registered student organizations at a town hall held Tuesday night, as students and faculty members questioned the ability of religious groups to maintain their identity in the face of an "all-comers" policy.
Emotions ran high at the three-hour forum, which drew a crowd well over the 203-person occupancy limit of Furman Hall room 114, causing university staff to turn people away at the door.
Yet the real tension was inside the room. This pressure reached its breaking point when starting quarterback for the Vanderbilt Commodores Jordan Rodgers spoke out on behalf of the Fellowship for Christian Athletes, a group currently on provisional status because it restricts its leadership positions to only members who affirm the organization's core beliefs.
Taking a confrontational tone with the university representatives - Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Richard McCarty and Vice Chancellor for University Affairs and Athletics, General Counsel and University Secretary David Williams - Rodgers delivered a defense for religious organizations before walking out with a small group of audience members.
"The purpose of this organization is to teach this faith," Rodgers said. "So, the fact that we are not going to change the fact that you have to affirm your faith in Jesus Christ to be a teacher, to be a leader ... we don't feel that's discriminating, we don't feel that's a problem ... and I think (the policy) undermines the mission of every organization on campus."
Rodgers' comments drew applause from the audience, which mostly consisted of members of religious groups opposed to the university's policy. After several minutes of back and forth, the moderator James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School, said that nothing new was coming from the exchange and moved onto other questioners. Rodgers and a group of around 20 other fellow students then got up from their seats and walked out of the room. During the walk out, a student yelled "shame on you" to the panel.
McCarty and Williams, representing the views the Vanderbilt administration, disagreed with Rodgers statement.
"Any student in good standing must be eligible for membership in any registered student organization that he or she has a sincere interest in," McCarty said. "When it comes to leadership, the same basic principle must apply, that is all members must be eligible for leadership positions."
Adding onto McCarty's statements, Williams specifically referred to the university's position as an "all-comers" policy, borrowing language from a Supreme Court decision (Christian Legal Society v. Martinez), a case in which a divided court upheld a policy at a public law school that required recognized student groups to accept all students regardless of their status or beliefs.
"Simply put, it's a situation where we say, if we're going to offer you admission at this university, we shouldn't be about closing any doors to you," Williams said. "You should be able to join any organization you want."
The "all-comers" approach drew criticism from multiple members of the audience, including second-year law student and Vanderbilt CLS President Justin Gunter.
"The reason all-comers policies are extremely rare among universities is because they create absurd results," Gunter said. "Not only can organizations not limit their leadership to those who support the beliefs, activities, and purpose of the group, but an all-comers policy also requires honor societies to accept anyone who wants to be a part of the group."
When the floor opened to audience participation, the first questioner asked everyone in the room who opposed the policy to stand up, and over 100 students in the audience did, all wearing white.
McCarty said the students standing were not a "random sampling" of the school population, and they did not accurately reflect the views of the majority of students on campus. Williams drew on Vanderbilt's own history of segregation in the 1960s, saying there would have been a similar reaction from those who opposed integration.
McCarty returned to the integration reference later on in the panel discussion, calling them "dark days."
"We have been down the road of discrimination at this university," McCarty said. "It has left a stain on this university that is still felt today."
In response to McCarty, one student stood up and said the "dark days" are over.
Addressing this student's "dark days" comment, sophomore Brian Rizzo, who identified as gay, stood up and addressed the audience and the panel, charging that the nondiscrimination policy hasn't done enough to protect minorities during the Greek recruitment process.
"These are still the dark days," Rizzo said. "There is a reason that when you walk down Greek Row the majority of the fraternity members are white, straight men."
Other members in the audience questioned the university's perceived uneven application of the "all-comers" policy to social fraternities and sororities on campus. However, Williams pointed to Title IX exemptions for those groups, granting them the ability to discriminate based on gender.
Some of the questions asked reflected misunderstanding and miscommunication of the policy and how it applied to religious groups. Both McCarty and Williams apologized on behalf of the university for the breakdown in communication.
McCarty seized the opportunity at the town hall to clear up these misconceptions about the implications of the policy during the selection of leaders. During an exchange with former Student Body President Joseph Williams, McCarty emphasized that groups still have the power to select their leaders in the parameters of the nondiscrimination policy.
"If the person is eligible to run and loses in a fair election because of the internal requirements of its members, that is not discrimination," McCarty said. "That's a misstatement of what we are trying to achieve."
McCarty and Williams also addressed questions from members of organizations that appoint their leaders. One student asked if using faith as criteria for leadership during an appointment process violated the nondiscrimination policy. Williams said that faith can be used as one of many criteria, but it cannot be the absolute or primary consideration.
A deadline for compliance has been set for April, when campus groups reapply for registered student organization status. McCarty said he hopes the town hall will facilitate compliance with the nondiscrimination policy.
"I'm hopeful this is the beginning of an active dialogue with Mark Bandas' office to find a way forward so that all of our registered student groups can comply fully with our nondiscrimination policy and yet still flourish as groups," McCarty said.
Dean of Students Mark Bandas and his office have been doing the majority of the groundwork regarding policy compliance by meeting with incompliant student organizations. He was in attendance at the town hall last night.
"The discussion was both passionate and thoughtful," Bandas said. "The students, with very few exceptions, raised complex and value-laden issues in a respectful, challenging and compelling manner. Their passion, commitment and deep reflection about the issues was obvious to anyone in the audience."