Vanderbilt University: Imposing a Policy to Which it Would Not Submit

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Posted: Feb 08, 2012 12:01 AM

This piece was authored by Jeffrey Shafer of the Alliance Defense Fund

What’s sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. But at Vanderbilt University, the sauce distribution doesn’t follow that pattern. The university administration would never conform itself to the rule it now imposes on the religious student groups on campus.

On Jan. 20, Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos officially announced to the university community what other school officials had been insisting on in recent months: Vanderbilt’s nondiscrimination policy will now be interpreted to require that religious student groups open their membership and leadership to all students. Atheists must be given access to leadership opportunities in Christian student organizations; Hindus must be offered the reigns of authority over Jewish student groups. And so on.

Not surprisingly, the numerous affected student organizations have not received this news happily. The chancellor scheduled a town hall meeting for Jan. 31 at which the matter would be discussed.

At that meeting, the room was filled to capacity and hundreds of students were turned away at the door. Provost Richard McCarty and Vice-Chancellor David Williams spoke on behalf of the chancellor and the university. The goal of these gentlemen was to convince the assembled students that religious groups’ limitation of their leadership to co-religionists is discriminatory, in violation of school policy, and that the groups would be well-served by opening their leadership to unbelievers.

The students in the religious groups didn’t see it quite that way and were evidently baffled that university officials—grown-ups—would be defending such policies as both reasonable and fair. How is a religious group to maintain its identity, purpose, and mission if those who lead it do not subscribe to (and may even deplore) the tenets that define the organization? What could be wrong with a religious group requiring its leaders to share its faith? Isn’t it disrespectful to religious students to forbid them the most basic means of preserving the integrity of their support organizations? The responses the school officials offered to such questions ranged from arbitrary to offensive, confused to willful.

But apart from the substantive weakness of these officials’ comments, the very presence of these gentlemen was self-refuting.

Vanderbilt University had a mission that night: to set forth and defend its new institutional outlook and policy. How did the university carry out that objective? Did it leave the decision as to who would speak on its behalf to a referendum vote of its employees? Did it seek out those with strong leadership skills—regardless of their position on the policy in dispute? Did it embrace an “all-comers” policy and authorize anyone who wished to speak on its behalf? Of course not.

Vanderbilt discriminated in assigning those who would represent it at the meeting. The point of the gathering was for the university to persuasively make its case. Its discriminatory selection of speakers was essential to accomplishing that goal. When it comes to its own interests, Vanderbilt carefully adheres to a course that ensures that its mission and purposes are served rather than compromised. At the town hall meeting, its spokesmen carried out their duties in rare form, even offering autobiographical revelations to lend pathos to their assertions, as they demonstrated—often with emotion—their personal embrace of the university’s policy position.

But this is precisely what the university now forbids to religious groups. And this irony was evidently lost on the administration’s “true believers” tasked with defending the university’s creed at the town hall meeting. These officials kept straight faces while explaining to religious groups that they should be pleased to open their leadership to those who don’t believe the faith the groups were formed to propagate.

A modest proposal: Chancellor Zeppos should demonstrate the university’s stated commitment to its version of diversity and nondiscrimination by assigning Professor Carol Swain (faculty advisor to the Christian Legal Society) the authority and task of designing the policy that will govern university student religious groups. She is, after all, intelligent, well-informed on the issue, and insightful—thus possessing skills relevant to this leadership task.

If the chancellor were (accurately) to object that Professor Swain does not share the Vanderbilt administration’s policy views and therefore her selection would be counter-intuitive and self-defeating, we would applaud his adherence to common sense. We also would point out that his objection eloquently refutes the “logic” of the university’s proposed student group policy.

On the other hand, if the chancellor really is committed to the “diversity” he now aims to foist on religious student groups, he should welcome Professor Swain’s leadership over the policy construction. She could then exhibit her diversity and thwart the university’s designs to upend liberty of religious association on campus.

Granting leadership positions to those who disagree with an organization’s outlook is a most effective means to undermine it. That’s precisely why the university would never submit itself to the policy it is imposing on its religious student community—revealing that the university is fully aware of the destructive effect of that policy. The student body at Vanderbilt deserves better treatment than that.