Vanderbilt administrators defend nondiscrimination policy to packed town hall

Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 12:42am

Emotions ran high at Vanderbilt University on Tuesday evening as the school addressed its nondiscrimination policy regarding university-sponsored student organizations in a schoolwide town hall meeting.

It started as hundreds of students were left outside as Furman Hall quickly filled to capacity — and reached its tipping point when many students left after Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers wasn't afforded a response to a statement. 

Under the "all-comers" nondiscrimination policy, Vanderbilt requires that all organizations' membership and leadership positions be open to every student on campus regardless of "race, sex, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, military service, or genetic information." Several student organizations, most of them religious, have been deemed as non-compliant because of religion-centric qualifications for leaders. All student organizations were subject to review after a gay male was allegedly forced to resign from a Christian fraternity last year. 

"We feel very strongly about all-comers," Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor for University Affairs and Athletics David Williams said. "To us, membership and leadership are one in the same." 

Things got off to a tense start when the first statement from the crowd of students proclaimed unity and asked opposers of the policy to stand up. A majority of the crowd, most of them wearing white shirts, stood and applauded. But Provost Richard McCarty quickly shot the group down, saying the roughly 200 students at the meeting were not a "random" sample. Williams took it a step further. 

"When we integrated, [that question] might have gotten the same [kind of] response," Williams said. 

Several leaders of Christian student groups like the Medical Christian Fellowship, Christian Legal Society, and the Navigators spoke out against the policy. 

McCarty and Williams spent most of the meeting defending and clarifying the policy. According to them, a non-Christian should have the opportunity to be a member and be elected to lead a Christianity-based group.

"We believe in inspired leadership … I want that person to earn your vote," McCarty said. "We want you to be open to that rare individual." 

For example, McCarty said, a white, Jewish female student ran an afternoon program at a predominantly black Baptist church in North Nashville — a healthy connection that wouldn't have been possible without an all-comers policy. 

But some student organizations argued that allowing a person to run for leadership who doesn't share convictions and beliefs consistent with the group was counterproductive. 

"If someone [running for leadership] doesn't share the faith that is being taught, what's the point of having these organizations?" asked Rodgers, an active member of the school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Williams responded by saying members of the FCA could collectively choose not to elect a non-Christian — but that person should at least have the opportunity to run for office. Rodgers conceded that a non-person-of-faith wouldn't be elected.

"If we're jumping through the hoops of your policy as a facade, what's the point?" Rodgers said. Williams acknowledged that the school wouldn't make exceptions to the policy for faith-based organizations and that he understood the opposition. 

When Rodgers continued to push his point, Dean of the Divinity School and moderator James Hudnut-Buemler asked that others be given an opportunity to talk. Rodgers, along with almost 20 other students, stood up and left, after more than two hours into the meeting. One student yelled "Shame on you!" on his way out. 

While out-numbered, several students supported the policy. A caucasian male, draped in a rainbow flag, said he was elected as vice president of the Asian American Student Association. 

"This policy is really important to me," he said. "I have been able to take this position and grow as a person." 

A gay undergraduate student took exception to a previous statement that Vanderbilt's "dark days" of discrimination were in the past. 

"These are still the dark days," he said, referencing discrimination toward homosexuals on campus.

The university did acknowledge that there was a great deal of misunderstanding regarding the policy. 

"Let me apologize on behalf of the university," Williams said. "We are trying to make sure everyone gets on the same page." 

Brant Bonnett, a senior at Vanderbilt, was one of the hundreds of students turned away from the meeting. He watched it via an internet stream in a classroom — and said he was glad to see the school clarify their stand. 

"The biggest thing is that the university finally owned its position in a public way and really defined the way they see the policy," Bonetti said. "I disagree with their value judgement, but at least I know the choices they are making."

23 Comments on this post:

By: govskeptic on 2/1/12 at 6:09

It appears the Vanderbilt Board has decided if your Christian beliefs are that
strong in your life, then maybe some other school would be more productive
for those individuals. Religion or faith can be a pesky hindrance in the march
to a secular society filled by "Progressive" graduates from the "enlightened
universities"! These measures are a must in order for the school's reputation
to catch up with the high cost of admissions in the national media! After all,
those are the items that are important to Board members and administrators!

By: freedan on 2/1/12 at 7:22

And the shame of it is, this school was founded by a Christian. What a pity. It used to be a good school for everyone.

By: Rasputin72 on 2/1/12 at 7:57

The country is hell bent on trying to make sure that this country works as a democracy.

I can assure the country that history says that a demcoracy will only work when it's citizens have a common goal and culture. Irag has not worked for over 2000 years because they have three cultures. I cannot imagine our democracy continuing to work more than another 25 to 30 years with 20 cultures and common goals.

By: spooky24 on 2/1/12 at 8:33

Simple. Being Christan is not politically correct. I can't understand why Vanderbilt continues to push this-it makes the board look like narrow minded fools.


By: jvh2b on 2/1/12 at 9:12

Oh horse s*@t all of you.

It's really quite simple...if you don't want a black/homosexual/asian/german as an elected official of your organization...THEN DON'T ELECT/VOTE for them!!!

All this bull hockey about Christian discrimination....get off the cross...that was for your savior...and we need the wood.

By: localboy on 2/1/12 at 9:21

Who better to be allowed into a Christian organization than a non-Christian? Isn't the whole point to church and it's related functions to get the non-Christian exposed to Jesus and his teachings? The Christian groups that I've been around are strong enough to take on all comers.
Besides, doesn't this present an opportunity for a hetero to join the campus LGBT organization and make a stand?
And Spooky, Vandy pushes this in part due to the federal dollars...follow the money trail.

By: JohnGalt on 2/1/12 at 9:33

The key here is "university-sponsored".

Once upon a time few if any student groups received money from the school. Then the "activities fee" was greatly increased and most groups signed up for money to run their organizations. So, just like when government has a hand in funding something, the university now has a say-so over how the groups receiving their money operate.

Solution? Forego cash from the college and run your organization any way you please.

By: girliegirl on 2/1/12 at 9:33

This doesn't pass the "sniff" test: now boys can join and LIVE in girls sorority houses. Think not? Read it again, folks.

By: BusinessLeader on 2/1/12 at 10:06

Incorrect -groups receive no cash from the college, only free space for meetings. There are hundreds of various groups that meet on campus. Self organized and assembled and set their own rules. The university wants to dictate structures for these freely assembled groups. College should be a place to allow for the free exchange and discussion of ideas. But the rule may push Christian groups to meet off-campus. I can tell you that Vanderbilt did use COLLEGE MONEY to open a GAY-Social Club on campus which is staffed by a FULL-TIME Vanderbilt employee. I think it is time to ask for Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos to RESIGN for poor decision-making!!! This action are also a direct result of a letter from Barak Obama to all College Presidents to push for special outreach to muslims and gays. This is FACT - check it out....

By: somewhere110 on 2/1/12 at 10:34

The issue is choice. The university is effectively removing the ability of the organization to discern the intent of the applicant. All are welcome in church, but if the purpose is disruption then the motive was bad. The organization should have the right to discern the intent and motive of anyone attempting to join. If you walk into church with a sincere desire to learn more about God, please come.
Also ironic that in a forum whose purported goal is unity, that those in opposition were asked to stand. An intimidation tactic 'fail'. The reference to 'integration' is more histrionics from the left aimed at analogizing racial discrimination to the current topic. I'm sure his next line could have been "... you backward hillbillies...". No matter your side in the debate, you should at least recognize that what you are supporting is your BELIEF in the moral direction, not FACT. The elitist administrators are operating under the illusion that their belief IS fact.
Oh well... I feel better getting that off my chest. Thanks for listening...

By: brrrrk on 2/1/12 at 10:47

It's beyond me why Christians are in such fear of everyone. If your message is so strong, if your faith is so righteous, if what you believe is so obviously the right thing.... then it seems to me that it would stand up to all opposing views without having to resort to something as petty as discrimination.

By: oldbailey on 2/1/12 at 11:09

Vanderbilt's policy -- as applied to faith-based organizatioms -- is facially ludicrous, not to mention insulting. Imagine what will happen if a bunch of conservative Christians stuff the ballot-box on a Muslim organization. For a host of good reasons, our nation has always placed a high value on the freedom of association in a religious context -- witness the First Amendment. I'm stunned that Vanderbilt can't see that. As a parent, this will factor very heavily in my consideration of VU as a place to send my kids. Given the unconscionably high tuition, I don't see how any parent in a family of faith could not find this a black mark against the school.

By: somewhere110 on 2/1/12 at 11:37

brrrrk (hope I got enough r's in there)... that line of thinking didn't help the Jews in Germany...

But it's not about fear of opposing viewpoints. In fact, most of us relish the opportunity for reasoned discussion. Unfortunately this is rarely afforded by those on the left. Most recent example with the Occupiers shouting down a peaceful pro-life event in Rhode Island. Doesn't seem far-fetched that some might have concerns that these same tactics might not be used to disrupt their meetings.

And really, to use your own logic, if the message of the anti-Christians and other groups is so strong, why do they feel the need to force themselves into the equation? The answer is the same. IMO

By: jambenp on 2/2/12 at 9:03

The issue isn't the policy itself. Organizations should be open and accepting of new members. Members should be involved enough to elect leadership that reflects the values and goals of tbe organization.
The joke is that Vanderbilt has created and is attempting to enforce rules that I'm sure its own employment contract prohibits from it's employees. Look at your employment agree, I'm sure in some manner it includes language which says, failure to adhere and at all times uphold the rules, principals and values of the Universty is a reason for termination. The schools policy denies organizations these same rights regarding its members and leadership.

By: Jughead on 2/2/12 at 9:13

It's clear that the libtards who own Vandy hate Christianity and capitalism. I'm sure Michael Moore would be welcomed to attend Islam prayers in the Chancellor's office.

Screw Vandy.

By: Jughead on 2/2/12 at 9:14

Vandy is aligning with Nazi Germany. Next up:gas chambers for Christians.

By: JeffF on 2/2/12 at 10:22

When did the higher education elite lose track of who the customers are and who the employees are? Are they so out of touch with the real world that they really do see themselves as lords and everyone else as serfs?

Over a decade go Vanderbilt took a beating in the one of the college rankings because alumni did not like many of the decisions being made by the lords of the school. They bucked their alma mater pride and were not so glowing on their reviews (I think Business Week was the publisher of these particular rankings). Vanderbilt took it in the shorts and course corrected because a drop in rankings means a drop in revenue, prestige, and eventually management salary.

Vanderbilt's intellectual has lost touch with just how conservative and traditional their student body truly is. The "stand if you do not support this policy" event was humorous because they truly did believe their students were just like the sheep at other schools. Some in the Vanderbilt administration let it get under their skin and have decided not to back down. I would hope some administrators took the surprise as a kick to the gut and are reassessing their politically correct stance (throw the Christians to the gay lions).

This is all probably going to be a good thing in the end. The professors and leadership hoping to reshape Vanderbilt into the liberal colleges they have always respected will look elsewhere for work in their closed off world. The more conservative thinkers will remain and Vanderbilt will draw the educators and researchers who want to work in the more conservative culture. Vanderbilt will be strong in the eyes of its customers (students) and alumni while taking it on the nose from the intelligentsia "teaching" at the Northeastern and West Coast schools. In the end, does it truly matter what the purveyors of "openness and acceptance" in the dying rust built states think of a top school in the growing and successful South? No one with a backbone really cares what they think of the South, why should we care what they think of Vanderbilt?

By: zebrotha on 2/2/12 at 11:40

By compelling non-discriminatory access for everyone to every organization, men must be included in women’s groups, all other colors in African-American groups, heterosexuals in gay groups and Christians in both atheist and Islamic groups.

In fact, this new policy prohibits the possibility of creating _any_ gender, color, sexual orientation and religion specific organizations, since such organizations can form on the basis of specific physical traits and beliefs _only_ by excluding the rest…a practice Vanderbilt just prohibited.

Should be interesting to see what happens when discriminatory exclusion from one of the currently favored groups is challenged... whether Vanderbilt will adhere to today's politically correct double standards, in which some people practicing exclusionary prejudice are assisted and applauded, while others are prohibited and condemned....or does this new policy indicate that Vanderbilt recognizes that the origin of prejudiced exclusion is always stereotype driven bias, no matter who practices it.

By: conservarage on 2/2/12 at 12:44

if you're wanting a christian environment, you shouldnt go to vanderbilt in the first place. i sure wouldnt put much trust in someone that went to their divinity school, for sure. that's like studying engineering at a beauty school.

By: on 2/2/12 at 6:12

I always learn more from the responses to the posts on this paper then from the articles. This has been a really good exchange. If Vandy had this kind of discussion before the rule was passed then maybe they wouldn't be having to have this discussion now. Good job folks.

By: kistlemk on 2/2/12 at 10:19

I just wanted to correct BusinessLeader's comment. I am a Vanderbilt student and I know that student organizations can apply to receive money from the school through Acfee. The school cannot regulate off campus organizations but it can regulate organizations that are on campus and/or ones that receive money from it. It has every right to implement whatever nondiscrimination policy it chooses and anyone that has trouble with it can move off campus. The fact is that the Christian fraternity initiated a member and then, when he came out to his brothers, who had at initiation pledged to support him in his life, they revoked his membership. They did not have to initiate this person, but they did. There are plenty of gay Christians and therefore he had every right to expect his brothers support. Revoking his membership because of his sexual orientation is discrimination, pure and simple.

By: Nitzche on 2/3/12 at 8:03

can christians get leadership roles with the muslims and convert them to christianity?oh, that is different, hhmm

By: jrbbg on 2/3/12 at 10:04

As an alum I am appalled by this exercise of PC run totally amok. No more $ from me. Freedom of association is a fundamental right, unless you are a Vandy student. The Supreme court just upheld the principle that secular authorities should stay out of religious affairs. That should apply to NGO bodies like colleges as well. Fellowship of kindred spirits is the core of free expression so why is the Vandy administration so blinded by this perverse exercise of disciplinary power? Time for zeppos and his big salary to go.