Incoming students may not be familiar with the recent controversy over Vanderbilt University’s nondiscrimination policy. This fall, over a dozen religious student organizations have been denied official recognition for refusing to comply with the university’s nondiscrimination policy. Considering the damage it has done to the diversity of student organizations on campus, the policy deserves continued debate and Vanderbilt should reconsider its stance on the issue.
This controversy began in fall of 2010, when accusations of discrimination based on sexual orientation were lodged against Christian fraternity. This resulted in an investigation by the university and a comprehensive review of the constitutions of all student organizations. Student groups with constitutions that did not comply with the university’s understanding of its policy were placed on provisional status.
Vanderbilt’s revised nondiscrimination policy requires registered student organizations to accept all students and allow any group member in good standing to seek leadership positions. The university claims it was only clarifying its previous “all-comers” policy because some student groups were not following the rules.
Student groups now have a choice — they can either revise their membership requirements or not be recognized as an official student organization. Campus religious groups, which require officers to hold the same beliefs as those of the group, were among the most impacted.
Over a dozen groups refused to remove their belief-based requirements and were denied recognition. These groups include the Asian American Christian Fellowship, Bridges International, the Christian Legal Society, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Vanderbilt+Catholic.
As a result, these organizations will not be able to use the Vanderbilt University name to advertise their institutional affiliation, nor will they be eligible for funding through the university. Participation in student recruitment fairs, use of university listservs and the ability to post fliers on campus will likewise be denied. As a result, students will find it harder to join and participate in the activities of these organizations.
Although I have never been a member of any religious group on campus, I admire the principled stance that many student organizations have taken. I support the right of student organizations to define their own missions and identities.
For many religious student groups, complying with university policy would mean compromising their unique identities. For a religious organization
whose mission is to promote certain beliefs, the elimination of faith-based leadership requirements weakens the message it promotes. The standards that groups expect their leaders to uphold are themselves a form of free speech. Forcing an organization to strip itself of these standards is a form of censorship.
Many of the religious student organizations that have chosen not to comply have done so out of a desire to be honest about the fact that they use religious criteria when voting for new leadership. As InterVarsity Christian Fellowship explains on its website: “We want our expectations of leaders to be explicit and transparent. We believe that having ‘under the table’ requirements in general elections lacks integrity, is hypocritical and will lead to far more invidious discrimination than would having transparent and honest expectations of leaders.” This commitment to transparency is quite admirable given the sacrifice these organizations have made.
Some supporters of the nondiscrimination policy may be glad that organizations they view as intolerant are no longer welcome on campus. However, the best way to approach views that one disagrees with is not to support their censorship, but rather to encourage open discussion in a free marketplace of ideas. Let students decide for themselves whether they wish to associate with certain groups or start their own groups if they want to promote alternative or opposing messages.
Enforcing an all-comers policy attempts to create diversity within groups at the expense of diversity among groups. Allowing all students — Christians and non-Christians alike — to join a Christian organization would make student groups more internally diverse but would erode the differences between them.
Vanderbilt’s Faculty Manual states that both faculty and students “are entitled to exercise the rights of citizens and are subject to the responsibilities of citizens.” If the university wants to follow through with this promise, it should grant students and student groups the same freedom of association and trust them to exercise this freedom responsibly.
Earlier this year, 12 religious student organizations wrote an open letter to Vanderbilt administrators and the Board of Trust urging the university to “adopt a policy that not only clearly advances our shared commitment to nondiscrimination but also adequately preserves the religious liberty and the creedal integrity of faith-based student groups.” Vanderbilt would do well to take this request seriously.
- Kenny Tan is a junior in the College of Arts & Science and president of the Young Americans for Liberty at Vanderbilt. He can be reached at email@example.com.