Back in 2012, Vanderbilt University decided to interpret its non-discrimination policy in a new way that resulted in several Christian student organizations being effectively “kicked off” campus. Now, as a result of recent actions by other so-called elite universities, Vanderbilt’s apparent duplicity and the real purpose behind its policy are becoming clearer.
To understand the present, one must understand the past. And the past is that in 2012 Vanderbilt “clarified” its existing non-discrimination policy, saying it was an “all comers” policy. This meant “all students are presumed to be eligible for membership in registered student organizations (RSO) and all members of RSOs in good standing are eligible to compete for leadership positions.”
The context for the “clarification” was the audacity of a Christian RSO to require that its officers profess a belief in sexual intimacy within the confines of a marriage and comport themselves accordingly. That, of course, meant that students who engaged in sex outside of marriage, including those who engaged in homosexual acts, could not be officers.
For Vanderbilt, this was not the simple act of a religious organization upholding its religious doctrines, as historically orthodox as they were, but it was an act of discrimination.
However, the targeted Christian groups pointed out that Vanderbilt was engaged in its own discriminatory practice—it was not applying its policy consistently to all types of student organizations. They pointed out that if Vanderbilt was really serious about eliminating all discrimination, including the sex and gender discrimination mentioned in its policy, then it would apply the non-discrimination policy to fraternal organizations, some of the most notorious discriminators in membership of any type of campus organization.
Vanderbilt dismissed the claim, saying that federal law allowed fraternal organizations to be segregated by sex. And that was true, but it was pointed out that federal law only allowed the discrimination; it didn’t require the discrimination.
Fraternal organizations did not have to continue to be sex-segregated. Vanderbilt ignored the legal point and just continued to cite the federal law. However, the intentionality of Vanderbilt’s disregard for what the law would have allowed it to do has now become clear.
Last month Wesleyan University in Connecticut, along with Dartmouth, began changing Greek life on campus. A spokesperson for Wesleyan University said, “With equity and inclusion in mind, we have decided that residential fraternities must become fully co-educational over the next three years.”
In 2012, Vanderbilt wanted to show leadership in non-discrimination and inclusivity among private colleges by its then rather novel interpretation of its non-discrimination policy. For all its insistence back then that it was against all forms of discrimination and was in favor of every organization being open to every student, Vanderbilt has not done what these universities are now doing.
Having not done for two years what it could have done, is it possible that Vanderbilt really wasn’t for broad inclusion and against all forms of discrimination after all?
Could Vanderbilt really just have been hiding behind the high-sounding rhetoric of inclusion and non-discrimination in order to get rid of those conservative Christian student groups that didn’t share Vanderbilt’s progressive, liberal sexual ethic?
I have my own opinion, but let’s give the University the benefit of the doubt. Maybe Vanderbilt just forgot to get around to doing what it surely believes to be the next right thing, and now that they see other universities leading the way, they’ll follow suit.
I hope so. But if they do, I also hope the fraternal organizations on campus who sat by in 2012 while the conservative Christian groups were being targeted by the University won’t expect them to rally to their defense. They aren’t there any more.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.