At Vanderbilt, all-comers policy and athletics butt heads

Sunday, May 20, 2012 at 11:15pm
By Pierce Greenberg and Jerome Boettcher

On a public stage in a packed lecture hall in January, Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers quietly raised his hand and took the microphone. What followed was a bold declaration of belief as one of the school’s most notable athletes took three of the university’s top officials to task about the university’s newly clarified “all-comers” policy.

“The fact that this is restricting who is able to be a leader completely undermines the mission, our vision, and the direction of every single one of these organizations,” Rodgers said. “If someone that doesn’t share the faith is teaching, then what’s the point of even having these organizations?”

Vanderbilt’s all-comers policy (see below), which requires student organizations to allow any member of the student body to join the group and run for leadership, has faced heavy criticism from some Christian groups on campus. They say the policy discriminates against religious groups by allowing nonbelievers to run for leadership positions.

Rodgers, who was representing the campus chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, made his speech more than two hours into the meeting. When Rodgers wasn’t afforded a response to a statement, roughly 20 students exited the meeting in a huff.

Despite some campus opposition, an attempt by conservative state legislators to strong-arm the school, and a letter from the Congressional Prayer Caucus in Washington, Vanderbilt has held fast to the conviction that student organizations can’t discriminate in any way.

Rodgers’ outspokenness during the town hall meeting provided a glimpse of discord within one of the school’s most public departments: athletics. The all-comers debate has created friction between some Christian athletes and administrators, due to Vanderbilt’s insistence that FCA change its charter — to permit non-Christians to run for leadership — or move off campus.

The national attention to a hotly debated religious and social issue arose just as the school renewed its commitment to becoming competitive in Southeastern Conference football and signed head football coach James Franklin to an extension. And while the school’s top athletic administrator maintains that the policy hasn’t hurt the school’s ability to raise funds, conflict and tension still remains.



The April issue of Commodore Nation magazine, distributed to supporters of Vanderbilt athletics, features a cover story titled “The Rising Cost of Success.” The issue is replete with renderings and fundraising pitches.

Vice Chancellor of University Affairs and Athletics David Williams readily admits that Vanderbilt is far behind in the arms race that is SEC athletics.

In a Q&A with Williams, the magazine asks how another million dollars in annual donations would affect the athletic budget.

“To be truthful, we are so behind our competitors here that while a $1 million would help, we actually need much more!” Williams responds in the article.

According to the magazine, Vanderbilt has the second-largest athletic endowment in the SEC with $45 million. But annual giving is dead last, with only $2.9 million.

And the magazine quotes several “big ticket items” that require an “urgency to identify major gifts”: a new Jumbotron, lights and turf for Vanderbilt Stadium, new turf for Hawkins Field, a new Jumbotron for Memorial Gym and renovations to the McGugin Center, which houses athletic operations. The total need is around $35 million, the magazine said.

Vanderbilt is also in the process of fundraising for a new multipurpose facility that will include a full-length practice field for football. Williams said the school is between $4 million and $6 million away from raising enough to cover the facility, which will include an expansion to the Student Recreation Center.

But when the Vanderbilt Board of Trust met on campus in April, a group called Restore Religious Freedom at Vanderbilt ran roughly 40 attack ads on local cable channels, urging donors to stop contributing to the university. The message: “Not another dime until Vanderbilt respects religious freedom.”

Williams said he, personally, hasn’t witnessed any athletic fundraising blowback from the all-comers discussion.

“I’m not saying that there may not be people who are out there, but we haven’t encountered anybody who has made [all-comers] an issue at all,” Williams said.

At least one donor says that’s just not true.

The City Paper spoke with a longtime supporter, who asked to remain anonymous, who said his family was prepared to make a six-figure donation toward the new multipurpose facility — if Vanderbilt made an exception for religious groups in the nondiscrimination policy. The donor said he met with Franklin and Williams outside of Nashville.

“We expressed ... that we would like to be able to give, we believe in what Coach Franklin’s doing, but we just can’t do that knowing what we know about what’s happening to the religious groups there,” he said.

Similarly, longtime Commodore Club member Tom Singleton has been outspoken about his disdain for the Vanderbilt policy and the school’s enforcement of it. He appears in a video, along with Brentwood’s vice mayor (and a VU alum) Rod Freeman, that denounces the policy’s nondiscrimination mandate for leadership positions.

“The reason this is so objectionable to me is that they are [opening up leadership positions in Christian groups] for non-Christians. But they are allowing fraternities and sororities to discriminate based on gender,” Singleton said. “I can’t, in good conscience, continue to be associated with them.”

Singleton said he didn’t renew his football and basketball season tickets — and that he was cutting all ties with the school.

The City Paper attempted to contact other athletic donors who declined comment or didn’t return phone calls.



When Vanderbilt’s chapter of the FCA submitted an application in April to be an approved campus organization without making any changes to their charter, they were denied, as expected. FCA will have the opportunity to make revisions and reapply, but officials from the national organization told The City Paper they would not be making any changes in their “faith-based” leadership model.

“We will remain steadfast in welcoming everyone to participate in our ministry activities ... and that those desiring a leadership role in FCA ministries be required to complete a Student Leader Application,” FCA spokeswoman Amy Elrod wrote in a statement. The application requires the student to profess their Christian faith. “The purpose of this is to ensure the leadership’s unity with FCA’s faith-based vision, mission and values.”

Williams acknowledged that the excluded organizations all comply with the first mandate that allows anyone, regardless of beliefs, to attend meetings. However, the sticking point has been the requirement that nonbelievers are allowed to run for leadership positions.

“We feel the leaders of FCA should uphold the values of the organization,” said Andrew Harris, vice president of the Vanderbilt FCA. “It is not an issue of allowing somebody to come to FCA, because we allow anybody to come, regardless of their religion.”

The administration’s position has been that FCA and other groups have the freedom to elect or reject their leaders, regardless of who runs. For instance, if an atheist ran for FCA president, the members of the group could simply decide not to vote for him or her.

“But basically what they’re asking us to do is sign this thing which says anybody can lead regardless of your beliefs and if you uphold the standards of an FCA leader,” Harris, an infielder on the baseball team, said. “They’re asking us to sign that and look the other way. We just don’t feel comfortable signing something that we don’t believe in.”

Williams said that even if FCA won’t comply with the all-comers policy, he’d still encourage them to have a presence on campus.

“I think they will still have a presence on campus if they choose to, it will just be something a little different from a registered student organization,” Williams said.

Benefits for registered student organizations include dedicated meeting space and funding from the university.

Head baseball coach Tim Corbin said he, too, hopes FCA can work something out.

“Personally, I just don’t want to see it get broken up. I think it brings a very healthy situation to kids who want that and crave that,” Corbin said. “It’s helped a lot of kids in our program pull themselves out of some personal issues.”



T.J. Greenstone had just lost his best friend to cancer when SEC football programs started knocking on the door during his junior year of high school. The all-district defensive lineman from Lawrenceville, Ga., eventually chose Vanderbilt.

“Coming to college I was still dealing with that a lot. I needed guidance, I needed help, I needed someone to mentor me through the grieving process of that,” said Greenstone, who tried out for the Chicago Bears two weeks ago. “And FCA and the people at FCA were huge for me.”

If Vanderbilt denies FCA student organization status, Greenstone said that could effect recruiting for athletics.

“I would struggle to send my child to a university that doesn’t support the beliefs I have or at least give my child the opportunity to practice those beliefs,” Greenstone said.

Barton Simmons, a football recruiting analyst, said other SEC coaches could use the all-comers controversy against the school.

“Every school is going to be looking for an angle and looking for ways they can out-recruit, negatively recruit,” Simmons said. “I think it could certainly be something that is brought up by opposing coaches or other SEC coaches attempting to find an edge with a prospect.”  

However, prospects typically care more about the coaching staff and other circumstances, according to Simmons.

“Ultimately what it boils down to for these kids is, ‘Can you get me to the NFL and help me be successful on the field, and is this a coaching staff that I feel comfortable with?’ ” Simmons said. “I think that can override something like [the all-comers controversy].”

While the all-comers issue continues to attract attention — Forbes and The Wall Street Journal reported on it in the past few weeks — Williams said he doesn’t expect recruiting to be affected, and he hopes the school and its athletics can adapt and move on.

“We want to do what we can to meet all the spiritual needs of all of our student-athletes,” Williams said. “I would look forward to us moving forward.”




The policy at a glance

The “all comers” policy on Vanderbilt’s campus became a public controversy in January at a town hall meeting with three of the school’s top administrators. The nondiscrimination policy was clarified by the university after a Christian fraternity asked a gay male student to leave the group last fall.

According to the 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.”

Critics of the policy, including a group of conservative state legislators, point out that the policy doesn’t apply to fraternities and sororities, which openly discriminate based on gender. But the university maintains that those groups are protected under Title IX, a federal law.

At the town hall meeting in January, several students also spoke out in favor of the all-comers policy. One gay student said that Vanderbilt’s “dark days” of discrimination were not yet in the past.

More than 400 student groups, including 27 religious groups, were approved for official recognition in April. However, more than a dozen groups “said they are unwilling or unable to comply with the nondiscrimination policy,” according to a university press release.

14 Comments on this post:

By: JayBee56 on 5/20/12 at 10:30

Everyone sees the problem but those in charge at Vanderbilt. Their actions speak louder than their denials. “Critics of the policy, including a group of conservative state legislators, point out that the policy doesn’t apply to fraternities and sororities, which openly discriminate based on gender. But the university maintains that those groups are protected under Title IX, a federal law.” --- And the religious organizations are protected under the FIRST AMENDMENT. The Methodist founders of the university would be appalled at what is happening. Give it up already. Let them continue to feel the pain of withheld donations. The chickens have come home to roost.

By: Rasputin72 on 5/21/12 at 6:22

This is a sign of things to come not only at Vanderbilt and Academia in general but throughout the country.

This has become a country without a soul! Get ready for something that will not be caled a transition in this country. I will be putting my money on those whose mantra is physical violence. They usually are not very smart. They do however have a major role in shaping a revolution.

By: spooky24 on 5/21/12 at 6:36

I simply can't understand Vanderbilt motivation that has obviously gone past political correctness and even reeks of some form of payback or some individuals vision of grandeur.
You read the (allowed) charter of some of the national sororities that Vanderbilt wants no part of dissing and this whole thing stinks to high heaven.

It's like a policy born out of boredom. What did Milton say?

"“Hell is more like boredom, or not having enough to do, and too much time to contemplate one's deficiencies”

If the shoe fits..


By: kenstegall on 5/21/12 at 6:39

FIrst I am a Christian. In fact I am a church elder and I have been an FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes Huddle Coach). With that said, what risk is there of someone overtly outside the community of Christians at Vanderbilt seeking and then being elected to a leadership position in the FCA? Is there some kind of real threat here of the FCA being over run by unbelievers seeking "leadership" positions? It seems to me (based on my experience) that that would be unlikely. I think the the Christians should welcome the interest of all to be part of the FCA and trust that God will provide the leadership they need. This is a tempest in teapot and muchado about nothing, unless I am missing the larger issue. I am trying to imagine the supposed worst case scenario...someone overtly outside the Christian faith attaining office in the FCA. First, this really might indict the constituents of the organization as much as the University. If a university policy and some conspiratorial faction manage to attain office and usurp control of the FCA, then they would really have an issue worth protesting about. Second, such a "leadership" position would hopefully (one would think) bring the "leader" into constant contact with a group of committed Christians who might actually accomplish the Lord's commission of bearing witness to the lost.
The FCA is a great organization and I am glad they continue to influence young people. I think its principals and its Protector are greater than this threat... Fear Not...this may be more of an opportunity than a threat . That's all I am saying...
Jesus is Lord, God bless you,

By: govskeptic on 5/21/12 at 6:41

The fallout will continue and the Athletic teams will be seriously challenged
by other SEC teams when talking to prospects parents. You can bet the
schools policy on this and other secular policies will be pointed out to
the prospect and parents. The National organization of FCA is correct in
refusing to change their charter and should look for off campus accommodations!
The values they seek to provide far exceed those of Vanderbilt!

By: pswindle on 5/21/12 at 7:03

Leave religion to the churches.

By: jsabrown on 5/21/12 at 8:11

I love how the fundies squawk "free speech" when they have so often worked to suppress it. One more time, children: the First Amendment applies to public speech. Since Vanderbilt is a private institution, they are free to restrict speech. You know, like Liberty University is free to disband its Democratic Students Club because being a Democrat goes against God.

Yeah, I know, that's different.

If the FCA feels the required changes to their charter go beyond the pale, good for them. They should take a stand and have nothing to do with this godless university. I look forward to them taking their little club and leaving campus and it's godless recognition. Why should they crave Caesar's coin? They have God, and God should be enough.

At least, that's what it says in that book they're always waving around.

By: Radix on 5/21/12 at 10:02

We know that your version of free speech only applies to speech you agree with but members of FCA are also students and Vanderbilt, and are entitled to an opinion on how things are run. Especially on a new policy that was not in place when the chose Vandy.

And PSWindle wants to outlaw religion on campus... nice.

The Chess Club can require that their president knows how to play chess.

The Christian Club can require that their president is a Christian.


By: jonw on 5/21/12 at 11:32

"- - - open to every student on campus regardless of “race, sex, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, MILITARY SERVICE - - - "
I assume there is not a VETERAN’S CLUB on Candy's campus.
Maybe they are not welcome either.

By: "Vader" on 5/22/12 at 5:41

Perhaps, if Federal budget crunch occurs and the Navy has to make some hard choices, perhaps then the NROTC needs to be removed from this campus, given Vanderbilt's obviously anti-Christian stance. United States military officers simply cannot be effective if they view that religion with similiar contempt.

The left has too many times demonstrated it will try to take over organizations from the inside to not think this is a root motivation behind Vanderbilt's move---that, or just a general contempt for Christanity in general, coming from "genuises" who think that because three guys on a dissertation committee passed their work thirty years ago and gave them a PhD., that the rest of society has somehow now had a saddle mounted on its back for them, booted and spurred, to ride.

By: Loner on 5/22/12 at 5:53

I love the headline...especially the "butt heads" part...that's my kind of stealth editorializing......I'm thinking "Cornholio".....great headline....I know a lot of athletic butt heads....they are all big Vandy fans.

By: rldavenport@com... on 5/22/12 at 7:28

Sorry, jsabrown, it's not Christians who seek to suppress free speech; it's liberals who do that...who constantly tell Christians to keep their mouths shut or express their beliefs only within the confines of their places of worship. Look at yourself in the mirror.

By: fiaos8 on 5/22/12 at 5:11

The argument implicit in this article (I guess the reporters were trying to make it, or maybe their editors) is this: "Vanderbilt, you had better let the FCA get campus funding, if you want to win football games." I don't know what the PhDs who run universities dislike more: the more literal forms of religion, or football. They'd probably be happier without either on campus. If a basically secular (now) place like Vanderbilt has to fund religion for the sake of its football team, wouldn't this suggest, to the intellectual sophisticates that run the school, that Vanderbilt should de-emphasize football, in order to avoid getting drawn into funding a group that proselytizes? I mean the article makes that point just as well as the point it seems to want to make. No one should have any problem with students using their own money, or the money of outside groups, to operate any group they please, outside the bounds of the university. Many who dislike what Vanderbilt has done are good conservatives who, among other things, like charter schools. They actually should be for reducing the student activity fee (or tuition) and letting students use the money they save to form their own groups, under their own control, off campus.

By: RoundI285 on 5/22/12 at 8:50

@kenstegall - while I greatly respect your comments, I couldn't disagree more. I agree that anyone should be able to be an active part of FCA. I don't agree that someone who doesn't agree with the principles of the organization should be a leader. I don't stop at this being a Christian organization rule, but a rule of thumb for any group. The people who lead the group should be largely in agreement with or have experience with the core of the group or organization. You can't be a leader unless you are in line and on board with the "mission statement" of that group. You can't be a leader other wise. That would be like saying that the football coach should be able to be hired to lead the marching band. You can't be a leader of FCA if you can't be an example of what the group stands for. This is practiced in all parts of our society. This isn't a foreign or biased practice. This comes from the "everyone gets a trophy" mentality. In life you can't be the president unless you follow certain rules and meet certain standards - like being born in American. Wait, wrong thread. Seriously, you can't be a professor at Vanderbilt unless you meet certain criteria and have certain degrees. This goes far beyond Christian groups on campus, it goes to all groups. You should be able to hold certain rules for leadership positions in these groups. Would it be right to have an atheist as president of the Jewish group. It would really make sense to have a man be in charge of a women's group, it wouldn't really be sensible to have a person who wasn't gay in charge of the gay group. I don't have a problem with their being a NAACP group on campus, but should they be forced to have someone as a leader who isn't black or for civil rights?