Sex, Facebook and the campus covenant

On one level, it’s easy to say that private colleges and universities are voluntary associations and, thus, can limit the freedoms of their students, faculty and staff in a wide variety of ways. After all, students do not have to study there, teachers do not have to teach there and staff members do not have to work there.

Participation is voluntary. This applies to liberal private schools as well as to conservative ones.

However, there is a catch and there is a good chance that this catch is playing a key role in a gay-rights drama that is unfolding in Rochester Hills, Mich., about halfway between Flint and Detroit. Here’s the top of the MLive.com (a multi-newsroom site in Michigan) report:

Kiah Zabel, an openly-gay student at Rochester College, says an official at the Christian-based school insisted she stop promoting her sexual orientation or jeopardize her ability to live on campus.

Zabel tells Fox 2 she recently came out of the closet on Facebook, posting a banner photo with a caption reading “Out … Proud … Lesbian.” But in a letter obtained by the television station, Dean of Students Brian Cole insisted Zabel change her banner photo even as he praised her honest intentions.

“‘Out … Proud … Lesbian’ is not really consistent with the heritage of Rochester College and has proven to already be disruptive among fellow students who are really bothered by it,” he wrote.

Regular readers of academic dramas here at GetReligion will probably be able to anticipate the “catch” in this story. Most Christian institutions are shaped by doctrinal and lifestyle covenants that forbid sex outside of marriage. However, I do not think I have ever seen one that attempts to address issues of sexual orientation — alone.

Thus, readers need to know whether or not Rochester College — known as Michigan Christian College until the late ’90s — asks students to sign a covenant document that, literally, would forbid them from making public statements of this kind proclaiming that they are gay.

Luckily, the story addresses this issue — sort of. This is what readers are told:

The Rochester College student handbook does not directly address social media or sexual orientation, but it does specify that “sexual relationships are designed by God and to be expressed solely within a marriage between husband and wife.”

President Rubel Shelly, in a statement sent to MLive.com, explained that “the college affirms the right of all its students to make educational, values, and lifestyle identifications consistent with their personal life goals. At the same time, the college affirms its right as an educational institution to maintain its standards and values with consistency over time.”

The problem, of course, is that private colleges and universities are supposed to be very clear about these kinds of issues. Think of this as a truth-in-advertising issue. If students are surrendering key rights — in order to join a voluntary association — they need to know the details.

A Facebook declaration, in and of itself, does not mean that a student has violated any kind of code of sexual conduct. Right? And what does it mean that students can “make educational, values, and lifestyle identifications consistent with their personal life goals”? I understand that a Christian college needs to “maintain its standards and values with consistency over time.” But did this student sign a legal covenant that affirmed this loss of her right to make this kind of public statement of identity?

In this case, the handbook seems to be totally vague (as best I can establish). Hey lawyers, check this out:

Rochester College is a private college and enrollment is a privilege. The college’s policies and regulations reflect the values and mission upon which the college was established. Students are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that reflects these ideals, values, academic aims, and Christian standards. Failure to meet these expectations will be considered a violation of the student guidelines to which students have voluntarily chosen to adhere. When student actions do not reflect these expectations, the college will take disciplinary measures that may include suspension, dismissal, or criminal prosecution.

Where are these specific “student guidelines”? That is the next question reporters in Michigan must ask.

After all, we are way, way, way past the innocent legal age in which private educational institutions — left, right and center — can afford to be vague. There should be a candid piece of Rochester College paper somewhere containing this young woman’s signature and reporters need to look for it. Otherwise, what did this student do wrong? What rule did she violate?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mike O.

    I’m not a lawyer so I can’t speak to things like legality of contracts, protected classes, etc. But to look at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (aka FIRE) site it’s clear that vague student speech codes are more the rule than the exception.

  • Richard Mounts

    As a former admistration official at a small, Catholic college I was involved in a similar kind of incident in the late ’90s. As I recall, the kind of “covenant” document you mention was part of the application packet. The act of applying, signing and submitting the application, is agreeing to the college’s rules.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    MIKE:

    Yes, but the trend is in the other direction — toward specific and more protective language.

    RICHARD:

    Yes, but those rules need to be spelled out somewhere. One cannot agree in general terms, then be nailed on specifics.

  • Jerry

    Dean of Students Brian Cole insisted Zabel change her banner photo even as he praised her honest intentions.

    “Don’t ask, don’t tell publicaly” strikes me as a bit odd from a theological perspective. But part of my question was answered by part of the story you did not mention here but which I think is critical and which underlines their action. Without the following, at least part of the story would be utterly obscure:

    Rochester College has not threatened Zabel with expulsion or dismissal, Shelly said, suggesting such action would be inconsistent with the school’s principles.

    “We do not bully or coerce. To the contrary, we are a community that values all its members and affirms the Golden Rule of treating others as we would wish to be treated.”

  • sari

    I saw no problem with the article, despite its brevity.

    The code is deliberately vague about behavior, which leaves the school a great deal of latitude. Some things, like dress, alcohol/drug/tobacco use, and sex are very clearly defined, but it’s up to the school to define Christian behavior. Homosexuality is probably left unaddressed because sex is forbidden, period. By her own account (Facebook), Ziah Kabel is celibate and uninvolved. This is a case of a person declaring an orientation without acting on those inclinations. While her Facebook declaration may be an embarrassment to the school, she has transgressed no rules. The school, in keeping with its stated policy to respect different points of view (though this might not be what they envisioned), has levied no disciplinary action.

    tmatt, writing very specific standards can backfire on institutions, even private ones. Loopholes can be good things. A quick look at Rochester College’s financial aid page suggests that it receives at least some federal funding in the form of Pell and SEO Grants as well as different federally insured loans. Expelling a student for engaging in a forbidden behavior is understandable. Expelling a student for sexual orientation boils to down to discrimination, especially in the absence of behavioral transgressions. That’s a no no and can result in loss of state and federal funding.

    Can you give an example of a private institution that explicitly bars homosexuals? Do you believe such standards to be appropriate? You seem to be more bothered by the school than by the journalism.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Sari:

    No, private schools get to write their rules — but they must declare them openly.

    In this case, journalists reported that she violated school rules — when it appears she didn’t.

    When in doubt, report the facts. But first you have to find them.

    PS: Courts are growing hostile to vague religiion. Many schools are going to have to put things in writing.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Fox News Detroit included a bit more of Shelly’s statement:

    The essential values of the college are well-known and widely published, and students tend to choose Rochester College based on their sympathy with these values. Students who find themselves uncomfortable with these standards always have options at other schools in the area.

    Rochester College expects its faculty, employees, and students to honor the commitments all of us make upon employment or enrollment to support the values of the institution.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    This is from Rochester’s academic catalog:

    SOCIAL REGULATIONS
    Rochester College is committed to building a campus culture that harmonizes with Christian values. Students are personally responsible for campus and community conduct. Rochester College encourages good character; therefore, immodest or inappropriate attire, dishonesty, profanity, sexual promiscuity, gambling, property abuse, on-campus or underage use or possession of alcoholic beverages, illegal drugs, or tobacco is not permitted. The Student Handbook, available at student orientation, from the Student Development Office, or on the student portal at my.rc.edu describes additional policies. Violation of college regulations or civil law may lead to dismissal. Enrollment at Rochester College serves as the student’s agreement to abide by the college’s standards of conduct. Students may not agree with all college standards but are nonetheless expected to demonstrate responsibility as well as character through honorable adherence to the policies. All students are expected to observe common courtesy and cooperation with others in the Rochester College student body.

  • Spencerian

    It’s curious that this school may not have their covenant widely available. One school in Indiana, Taylor University, has such a document that is publicly available on their web site. A similar document noted in the article would clearly support the university. Otherwise, yes, it’s a he-said-she-said thing.

    A quick scan on Rochester College’s web site shows no similar public document, so the reporter might had done their job if sources weren’t not otherwise available. But a clear phone call for a copy of the covenant shouldn’t have been a big thing. That said, it seems Rochester’s past apparently secularization history, from its name change to the present, has not caught up or stayed consistent with its students or its public appearance. Not only are their religion ghosts, but they are actively haunting all involved.