It’s now been over a week since the town hall meeting of Tuesday, January 31. You and I are ready to stop hearing, talking, or thinking about it and the controversy that inspired it. But the conversation is still going, no matter where we turn.
This Thursday and Friday the Board of Trust will be convening for their first meeting of this calendar year. At the town hall, Vice Chancellor Williams explained that it’s the Board who will ultimately decide what happens with this situation, which will determine how much longer we have to talk about it.
I hope the Board realizes the significance of what was said last week when Provost McCarty and Vice Chancellor Williams introduced not a nondiscrimination policy, but an “all-comers” policy à la CLS v. Martinez.
CLS v. Martinez was a Supreme Court case decided in June 2010. The circumstances surrounding it were hauntingly similar to what’s happening here at Vanderbilt. The Christian Legal Society at University of California, Hastings College of the Law, was found to be in violation of the school’s Nondiscrimination Policy because CLS Hastings required “members and officers to sign a ‘Statement of Faith’ and to conduct their lives in accord with prescribed principles. . . . Hastings rejected CLS’s application for RSO [registered student organization] status on the ground that the group’s bylaws did not comply with Hastings’ open-access policy.”
CLS Hastings decried the rejection, claiming the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Supreme Court, nevertheless, decided that “Hastings’ all-comers policy is reasonable” given the function and context of student organizations.
Hastings College expects its RSOs to “allow any student to participate, become a member, or seek leadership positions in the organization, regardless of [her] status or beliefs.”
But Vanderbilt University does not have an “all-comers” policy for organizations. Check the student handbook. What we do have is a pretty standard nondiscrimination policy. All that is said is that as part of the registration application process, “an organization must affirm that it does not discriminate unlawfully or in violation of University policy, on the basis of race, sex, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, military status, sexual orientation . . . , gender identity or gender expression.”
Hastings College’s “all-comers” policy sounds familiar, because what it states is how the administration would like to interpret our current nondiscrimination policy written in the handbook.
An “all-comers” policy, like the one at Hastings, sounds glorious. It sounds like it would be a true leveling of the playing field for all minorities—whether they are identified as such based on race, gender, sexuality, political views, religious beliefs, and countless more qualifiers. But it was revealed at last Tuesday’s meeting, however, that a true “all-comers” policy may have graver and greater implications than we anticipated.
A true “all-comers” policy means that every group is required to accept—for participation, membership, and leadership—any student who shows up and wants to join the group. If the policy were actually enforced as it was articulated, it would have a serious effect on every selective group on campus.
The most selective of all RSOs being Greek fraternities and sororities.
Greek life is an integral part of the Vanderbilt fabric. Love it or hate it, it’s Vanderbilt. The Greek community has shaped our culture in an ineffable number of ways. It has provided the lifelong friends and memories of the college experience for 40 percent of our peers.
Embracing a true “all-comers policy” would destroy Greek life, with ramifications beyond just our short time here. Do you think Greek alumni would be disposed to give to the school once their house has been kicked off campus?
But Vanderbilt would never do that to Greek Life. Would they?
At the town hall meeting, Provost McCarty emphasized that Vanderbilt would not back down. According to him, this is a matter of principle. So which is it? Do we have an “all-comers” policy? Or are we making an exception for Greek life?
And Vice Chancellor Williams admitted that “If, in fact, we take the choice as a university to create that exception, we are duty-bound to look at other exceptions as well.”
Not granting exceptions to the policy would hurt other organizations. How can our Mock Trial team compete against schools like Harvard if they really have to take everyone who wants to be on the team? We love our wildly-successful Melodores. We are proud of the networking opportunities available through our honors societies. And we value the myriad of cogent opinions and well-stated facts presented in our student publications.
The success of these groups—groups that represent Vanderbilt in various niches worldwide—will be hindered by the implementation of a true “all-comers” policy.
The opposition to the university’s current stance should no longer belong to religious students wearing white. The issue is now much larger than that. This policy affects us all. We are Vanderbilt, and we want to protect our identity of excellence.