Whatever Vandy wants, Vandy gets

When the experts start talking about elite private universities — non-Atlantic Coast division — Vanderbilt is always near the top of the list. The school is so prominent, especially as a member of a major sports conference, that people often forget that it is, in fact, a private school.

This can affect news coverage.

As we have discussed a few times here at GetReligion, when it comes to making rules and enforcing them, private schools are literally in a different legal league than state schools. Private schools are voluntary associations and students choose to attend them, often signing lifestyle covenants or doctrinal statements that commit them to uphold certain beliefs and/or to abstain from certain activities. This is perfectly legal.

Now, whenever I bring this up, there will always be a reader or two who say that I am merely serving as an apologist for conservative Christians schools, in part because I am a faculty member with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU.org). Someone always misses the fact that what I am saying applies to liberal private colleges and universities, as well as to conservative schools.

This brings me to the latest twist in the plot of a major religion-news story unfolding at Vanderbilt, which long ago severed any of the ties that really matter to its Methodist heritage. People keep writing me expecting me to be upset about the fact that conservative religious groups are being driven off this liberal private campus and that newspapers are covering this story without screaming bloody murder about the injustice of all of this.

What’s going on? Here is the latest, as written by Godbeat veteran Bob Smietana of The Nashville Tennessean.

One of the largest student religious groups at Vanderbilt will be leaving campus at the end of the year in a dispute over the university’s nondiscrimination policy.

That policy bars student groups from requiring their leaders to hold specific religious beliefs. Leaders of Vanderbilt Catholic said that rule makes no sense. They won’t comply and instead will become an independent, off-campus ministry.

“The discriminatory non-discrimination policy at Vanderbilt University has forced our hand,” said Rev. John Sims Baker, chaplain of Vanderbilt Catholic, in a statement Tuesday. “… Our purpose has always been to share the Gospel and proudly to proclaim our Catholic faith. What other reason could there be for a Catholic organization at Vanderbilt? How can we say it is not important that a Catholic lead a Catholic organization?”

A school official then notes that most of the school’s 400 registered student organizations will attempt to comply with the law.

Presumably, this means that it will soon be possible for a Zionist to apply to lead the Muslim student union and, if denied a leadership slot, he or she will might even be able to charge the club with discrimination. You could, one must assume, end up with a right-wing, anti-Barack Obama Birther seeking a top post in the leadership of the campus Democrats.

Sound ridiculous? Well, that is the same line of thinking as saying that the Vanderbilt Catholic organization needs to be open to embracing as leaders those who actively and publicly oppose the teachings of the Catholic faith.

Here’s a bit more background that hints at what is going on:

The dispute between Vanderbilt and religious groups began after a Christian fraternity expelled a gay member. That led the school to review the constitutions of all registered student groups to make sure they comply with the nondiscrimination policy.

Last fall, four religious groups at Vanderbilt were put on provisional status for violating the policy. Over the past year, the school and the groups have been trying to work out a compromise.

The university published a written version of their policy as well as new guidelines for registered student groups in early March.

The sticking point is over student leaders. The university says it has an “all-comers” policy — meaning that groups must be open to all students and that every student should be allowed to run for office. Religious groups like Vanderbilt Catholic say any student can be a member. But leaders, they say, must uphold certain religious beliefs.

Tish Harrison, campus minister for the Graduate Christian Fellowship, said her group wants to apply for registered status. To do so, she said, the group’s leaders would have to affirm the non-discrimination in writing, and that’s a problem. “We can’t in good conscience sign the nondiscrimination policy,” she said.

This raises an obvious question: Is the lack of discrimination determined by rebels being allowed to SEEK leadership posts or to actually be SELECTED as leaders? I am sure the lawyers on both sides are looking into that. So a gay-rights group on the Vandy campus must be “open” to having an ex-lesbian as a member, and allowing her to seek office, but this does not mean that she needs to selected to serve on the leadership team. This is all about appearances, not reality. Right?

That’s an interesting angle for questions, but, in the end, questions of this sort are beside the point. The key is that Vanderbilt leaders have every right — as a private institution — to make this kind of law and to enforce it, so long as this limitation on the freedom of association is clearly communicated to prospective and incoming students.

Journalists and other critics can ask if this kind of anti-discrimination discrimination is being done openly and honestly — right out in the open. If not, students may have a right to feel offended. You see, students who head to Vanderbilt need to know that their freedom of association rights will be limited, just as students who advocate the moral acceptability of sex outside of marriage need to know that they will lose some rights if they attend a school that defends traditional beliefs among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.

Vanderbilt may face some fallout from parents, donors, local churches, whatever. But private schools — liberal or conservative — are allowed to discriminate. That’s a key piece in this news puzzle.

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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.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The Vanderbilt situation just shows how liberals and secularists use the banner of diversity and tolerance to be anti-diverse and intolerant toward those who won’t jump on their bandwagon.
    But try to find any widespread serious news coverage of secular intolerance of genuine diversity–which has always in the past has meant that organizations can independently and freely set their own membership and leadership rules.
    It would be interesting if some media outlet did a national survey to seek out how many institutions of higher learning have developed their own version of intolerance and how widespread intolerance is toward religious groups on campuses.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    DEACON:

    “The Vanderbilt situation just shows how liberals and secularists use the banner of diversity and tolerance to be anti-diverse and intolerant toward those who won’t jump on their bandwagon.”

    No journalism content there whatsoever.

    “But try to find any widespread serious news coverage of secular intolerance of genuine diversity—which has always in the past has meant that organizations can independently and freely set their own membership and leadership rules.”

    Not much journalism content. You do realize that liberal schools have the same rights as conservative schools? The point is that journalists don’t seem to know that, either.

    “It would be interesting if some media outlet did a national survey to seek out how many institutions of higher learning have developed their own version of intolerance and how widespread intolerance is toward religious groups on campuses.”

    While that is worded in a straw man fashion, that would be a valid and interesting subject — so long as people know that private and public schools have different rights in this area.

  • Mike O.

    Presumably, this means that it will soon be possible for a Zionist to apply to lead the Muslim student union and, if denied a leadership slot, he or she will might even be able to charge the club with discrimination. You could, one must assume, end up with a right-wing, anti-Barack Obama Birther seeking a top post in the leadership of the campus Democrats.

    I am not a lawyer, so take what I write for what it’s (not) worth. I believe that at least with regards to the political example you gave, that it’s not the same. The reason is that political positions don’t fall under the same “protected classes” that sex, race, and religion fall under.

    It seems Vanderbilt is applying the same reasoning that prevents businesses from offering a job only to one sex and apartments owners from keeping away certain specific ethnicities. Whether that’s acceptable is up to the students, parents, school, and public to decide. I do think from a jornalistic perspective the writer did a fairly good job of detailing both sides of this issue.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    MIKE O:

    Focus on the key point, which is religious doctrine. I was saying that all kinds of student groups have DOCTRINES and their missions are linked to that doctrine.

    It is fine for the private school to say that some religious doctrines are acceptable and some are not. But they have to say that openly, on the record.

    Vandy has limited freedom of association and freedom of religion. That’s cool — for lots of people and not cool for others.

  • sari

    tmatt,

    I am puzzled by the contradiction between the inclusion of members and the expulsion of a gay member, not leader, from the Christian fraternity. Was he also a leader? In addition, as a reader, I’d like to have known the names and religious affiliations of those organizations which have chosen not to comply with university guidelines. The article listed two and one which has said that it will comply, for now.

    I think it’s entirely appropriate for the reporter to ask how the organization can retain its mission and flavor if those who lead do not subscribe to the same beliefs. The situation is reminiscent of R. Shmuley Boteach’s experience, though in reverse. If you recall, Chabad relieved him of his position after it was discovered that over half the members of the L’Chaim Society at Oxford were non-Jews and that Cory Booker, also not Jewish, was a co-president. Vanderbilt might have applauded Boteach for his policy of inclusion, but without a strong sponsor to keep direction, it would be easy for the organization to founder and lose its way.

  • R9

    So, hang on, if a club or society doesn’t want to abide by the anti-discrimination policy… what happens?

    When I was a student (Durham, a decade or so ago) we had a big christian society of some sort that didn’t play along with Students Union rules. All that really meant was they didn’t get any DSU money or other perks (cheap use of meeting rooms or something. I don’t recall exactly.) They still met on campus, held presentations, had big campaigns every year. The university didn’t have any sort of power to make them stop existing.

    So that’s the first thing I’d like to see clarified. Also

    “Is the lack of discrimination determined by rebels being allowed to SEEK leadership posts or to actually be SELECTED as leaders? ”

    Would be good to clarify how society leaders are chosen. I guess if they’re run democratically (as was in my experience) anyone must be allowed to stand for a position. Of course, an atheist (say) is unlikely to get far standing in a catholic society!

  • Jerry

    There’s something really incoherent about what is going on there if I understand it. So if, say, people who hate chess take over the chess club and vote in leaders who hate chess and instead decide to hold tiddlywinks tournaments, that’s perfectly OK? Because that is what the rule appears to say when translated out of the religious sphere.

  • sari

    Jerry,
    It might’ve helped to include the relevant passages from the Vanderbilt guidelines. Is this about anything, like chess, or is it about groups protected from hate crimes: race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation?

  • Bob Smietana

    There’s more information about the Vanderbilt policy in our previous coverage here and here and here.
    The official policy is here.
    The issue has been playing out over the past year and as it stands, registered student groups have to allow any student to be a member and to run for office.
    Money has not been an issue. But only registered groups can take part in the new student orientation, a prime time for attracting new members and registered groups have more access to the campus.

  • Bob Smietana

    Deacon:

    Very few schools, public or private, have the kind of all-comers policy that Vanderbilt does.

  • Martha

    It’s a tricky question; the university policy says that “Our policy requires that all students are presumed to be eligible for membership in registered student organizations and that all organization members in good standing are eligible to compete for leadership positions, though it is up to each organization to select its own leaders”, which is fair enough.

    I had a very brief look at the list of student organisations and one of them is the Society of Women Engineers. I am assuming, going by the name, that this is for women only or predominantly? Could a male student apply for membership and run for a leadership position, and if so, why then have a separate women’s engineering society, why not simply the Engineering Society (or Association of Chemical Engineers, etc.)?

    I can understand historically why women’s organisations were set up, but if it is still necessary even today to have societies aimed at specific groups to counter prejudice or imbalance, why then are religious groups asked to permit non-religious members to join and/or run for leadership? If the Neuroscience Group is restricted to neuroscientists, is it really so different to restrict the Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Buddhist/Other groups likewise?

  • Martha

    Just sticking to the engineers, here are three groups which, on the face of it, are discriminatory:

    “Vanderbilt engineering professional societies include:

    National Society for Black Engineers (N.S.B.E.)
    Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (S.H.P.E.)
    Society of Women Engineers (S.W.E.)”

    Can or do non-black or non-Hispanic or non-female engineering students join the respective societies? Is there any information on this? Has there been any questions raised about discrimination either overt or implicit (after all, there may not be an actual rule saying you have to be Hispanic to join, but if you’re a blond Norwegian-descended Lutheran from Minnesota, maybe you might just feel out of place?)

  • MikeD

    tmatt,
    The US Supreme Court has held that a similar policy is acceptable at a public university, so the public/private distinction does not really matter in this context. Here is a link to the opinon:
    http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-1371.pdf

    Here is an article about a more recent case regarding the non-discrimination policy at San Diego State University, which the US Supreme Court decide not to hear (meaning the lower courts decision stands for the states in the 9th circuit). http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/03/19/BALN1NN25N.DTL

    Whatever “State U” wants, “State U” gets, at least as far as it applies to religious student groups.

  • R9

    “why then have a separate women’s engineering society”

    For encouraging wider participation by women in this field, I guess. (I work in mechanical engineering and encounter lady engineers only slightly more often than I do unicorns.) That’s not a cause you need to be a woman yourself to support.

    And a Neuroscience club would have to be open to anyone, yeah. Some students might have an amateur interest.

    I’m not finding any of this particularly controversial, maybe just cos it was the norm when I was at uni. You want to take advantage of the resources and perks provided by being ratified by the students union (or whoever ovesees this), you have to be open to all members.

    Americans in the crowd, does it tend to work differently over there?

  • Alice

    Vanderbilt has been selective about which clubs are affected by this policy, as sororities and fraternities are exempt. So you won’t be seeing any male president of Delta Delta Delta. Apparently Vanderbilt administration desires the good will of the Greeks over Christians.

  • sari

    Alice,
    Either Bob Smietana misrepresented the situation (unlikely) or fraternities are affected, just not by gender.

    The dispute between Vanderbilt and religious groups began after a Christian fraternity expelled a gay member.

    I’d also point out that the school my child will, G-d willing, attend next fall has placed far more restrictions on frats than they have on sororities. Sorority members may continue to live in sorority houses, whereas fraternity members must live in student housing. The decision was based on student behavior. We could argue gender discrimination, but there’s quantifiable evidence to suggest that those who lived in the frat house accounted for a disproportionate percentage of disciplinary incidents. One thing that was not discussed in any of the linked articles (thank you, Bob!), is the method by which the Christian frat determined that the student was gay and the means by which they chose to expel him.

  • Alice

    Sari,
    I have spoken with Vanderbilt officials, sororities and fraternities are exempt from this policy. They had no adequate explanation for why, something about being ‘grandfathered’ in.It made no sense to me.

  • MikeD

    Sari & Alice,
    Sororities & Fraternities are only exempt from the “gender” portion of the non-discrimination policy, as provided for under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. You really should read the policy linked to by Bob Smietana, it does a good job of explaining what is and isn’t covered and even cited to the US Supreme Court case I linked to earlier to justify it. Although I think these types of policies may be misguided, they are certainly allowed under current law (as determined by 5 of the 9 justices) at either public or private universities.

  • sari

    MikeD,
    Alice posits that Vanderbilt exempted Greeks from the all-comers policy as it pertains to religion and gender issues, not gender per se, but sexual orientation and gender self-identification.

    I did read the policy prior to posting. No mention is made to exempting Greeks from the above, only that they may discriminate on the basis of gender, alone.

  • Bob Smietana

    Sari:

    This whole issue of the nondiscrimination policy started after a gay student complained that he was expelled from a Christian fraternity. The exact circumstances have not be made public. That incident led to a review of all registered student groups to see if they complied with the nondiscrimination policy.

    The frats and sororities are allowed an exemption to discriminate on the basis of gender. That’s one reason that religious groups asked for an exemption as well.

    One complicating factors is that Vanderbilt classifies different groups in different ways. Fraternities and sororities are put in a different category — they are not registered student organizations. Vandy Catholic and about 400 other groups are classified as RSOs and have no exemptions.

  • Craig

    MikeD’s post early about the Hastings Law School case is on point. The Supreme Court has upheld the “all comers” policy in a public institution. As to why it may or may not matter, it does act as a means of stifling speech. For instance, if I’m a campus Republican seeking to hurt the cause of the campus Democrats, I can get all my fellow Republicans to join with me the campus Democrat group, run for office and use our numbers to secure Republicans students to run the Democratic student club. Then we decide to “hold no rallies for fundraisers this year.” Mission accomplished. It’s a dumb policy and a dumber decision by the Supremes.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Note: Vanderbilt University’s discrminating anti-discrimination policy driving Catholic organizations off campus is now making headlines (or major stories) in some of the Catholic Press and media.

  • Maureen

    Re: ringer member takeovers, this is actually a pretty common stunt pulled against both political and religious clubs on campuses. Occasionally such takeovers are done in order to seize more university money from a club that’s currently not very active and has few members. (All of a sudden, the tiddlywinks club has a total membership overlap with the chess club, and has donated all its money and office space to the chess club as “co-sponsors” of the annual chess tournament.)

    In general, there is supposed to be oversight from Student Government, the Student Union management, and so on. In many schools, clubs are conducted entirely honorably, even when club goals differ widely. But when one club or group is allowed to ride roughshod over another club’s reason for being, the university should be stepping in to stop it, not encouraging it. State university money is state money.

  • R9

    I’m curious – can you cite examples of these hostile takeovers happening to political and religious clubs?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Bob Smetiana’s article is one of those circulating on Catholic sites. The article I read seemed very fair and balanced.

  • http://www.kamirice.com Kami Rice

    I work part-time as a campus minister with InterVarsity’s Graduate Christian Fellowship, one of the groups given probationary status at Vanderbilt this past year. Tish Harrison Warren, who is quoted in Bob’s article, is my coworker. I also work nearly full-time as a freelance writer. Thus, it has been a fascinating year as a journalist to be living on the inside of this story and watching how it is covered, while clearly not being able to cover it myself.

    As of today, our InterVarsity team has launched a blog to help explain our position more fully: http://intervarsityatvanderbilt.wordpress.com/. Some of you may find helpful information here.

    As a private institution, Vanderbilt absolutely has the right to make such rules regarding how their registered student organizations operate. Our view is that this new policy just isn’t the best policy for students or for supporting a pluralistic academic environment. We don’t think it’s a policy that is in the best interests of the university or its students.

    As always in such matters, it’s been a difficult dance regarding the media: initially, in particular, the InterVarsity staff team wanted to work this out with the university rather than going public. As media coverage has escalated, I’ve tried to encourage coworkers hesitant to talk to the media by explaining that good journalists can’t tell a story or present a position unless the sources give them that story or position to print.

    Overall, most media coverage has fairly adequately covered the story, though its complexity makes it hard to cover succinctly.

    This month student organizations are submitting their constitutions to the university, seeking to be approved for the next academic year. While only a handful of groups have officially been impacted thus far, now that the ramifications of the policy are more clear the number of affected groups will likely rise fairly substantially.

    Student organizations at Vanderbilt select leaders in a variety of ways. Graduate Christian Fellowship’s outgoing leadership team is tasked with selecting the new leadership team. We do not hold open elections. Other groups do.

  • http://www.kamirice.com Kami Rice

    Journalists and other critics can ask if this kind of anti-discrimination discrimination is being done openly and honestly — right out in the open. If not, students may have a right to feel offended. You see, students who head to Vanderbilt need to know that their freedom of association rights will be limited, just as students who advocate the moral acceptability of sex outside of marriage need to know that they will lose some rights if they attend a school that defends traditional beliefs among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.

    p.s. Well said, Terry.

  • Asshur

    There is a couple of things I can not get …
    A student complains he has been expelled from a Catholic group. The university reviews the policies an comes with a ruling which forces open membership AND leadership on (almost) all clubs there. There is an extremely obvious logical gap between cause and ruling, and I yet have to find a clue in the reportings.

    The ruling might be legit, but reads so against common sense and with such obvious selfcontradictory (paradoxical) potential side-efects, specially from an Academic Institution, that one has to wonder how the level of the Law School (if existant) or Logic 101 courses there are ;-) I wish I had more info on the legislative process there …

  • Asshur

    Re comment 24, R9.
    In Spain, in the late 60′ and early 70′s many catholic social organizations were in various degrees hijacked as fronts for the then illegal political opposition. I can witness for it (was in the Catholic Action Youth then)
    This and other factors made that by 1980, and even today, in my country there exists basically zero social catholic associationism, from a rather vibrant past (as late as 1965), although cultic lay brotherhoods and “lay movements” are relatively blooming again

  • Craig

    Re: comment 24. I’m not sure if you are being serious or if you are attempting to make a point in a snide manner. First, when discussing the occurence or non-occurence of an event in the past, one must look at the context. In the past, no or certainly very few, colleges had an “all comers” policy. Therefore, groups could exclude those not sharing the core beliefs of the group. With schools like U. Cal. or Vanderbilt adopting these policies going forward, this could occur. That’s the point of policy discussion: to develop a systematic approach that addresses both prior concerns without creating new ones. This new approach could bring new problems because, now, groups are subject to take-over from people hostile to the core mission of the group.

  • R9

    I was series. Here in the UK these open membership policies are quite common, I think. And I’ve never heard of atheists taking over methodist societies or tories hijacking the lib dems. I went to two different unis and there wasn’t some kind of shadow war between societies with opposed ideologies.

    Even if something can theoretically happen, is it actually going to? Seems like you need a lot of students motivated to be jerks!

  • Julia

    College students who support Ron Paul have been taking over Republican caucuses all over the U.S. There were cops and arrests at a St Louis County caucus recently. Democrats are showing up at primaries and voting on the Republican ballot. Some Republicans did that in the Democratic priories in 2008 – it was called Operation Chaos.

    Probably doesn’t happen often, but I’m sure it occurs on university campuses, too.

  • Gail Finke

    A friend of mine says there is no problem with this policy — anyone can run for office, but no one has to vote for anyone who doesn’t hold the beliefs of the organization. But this seems to me to be splitting hairs so fine that you don’t see the hair anymore. This policy, it seems to me, negates the whole purpose of having such a club in the first place. A “non-discrimination policy” like that does indeed discriminate against anyone who is not a relativist.

  • Bern

    Reality check: students’ rights will be limited wherever they choose to go. The key is choice: if the idiot university has an idiotic policy that offends your deeply held non-relativistic beliefs then you take your tuition money elsewhere.

  • sari

    Agreed, Bern. Covering the story does a service to readers, all readers, by bringing the facts (good or bad, depending on the readers’ viewpoint) to the public’s view. Prospective students and their parents can use the information to make informed decisions.


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