Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Pity the School: Vanderbilt and the Cultivation of the Indifferent Pluralist

Bryan T. McGraw


May 18, 2012

By Bryan T. McGraw

Many have no doubt already heard about how Vanderbilt University, one of our nation’s finest private universities and my alma mater, has decided that most of its official student organizations are now required to abide what is called an “all-comers” policy in regard to participation and leadership. Any student organization seeking the university’s formal recognition—which gives an organization access to some funds, the right to advertise and so on—must allow anyone to participate in their meetings and seek leadership positions, even if those individuals believe things that are directly at odds with the organization’s express purposes.  Religious groups have been especially concerned about this, since it seems clear that the university’s policy change is directed at them and especially at a number of Christian groups’ insistence that their student leadership affirm the core of what the group believes and tries to practice. 

So how should we respond, especially since it seems plausible that this is but the leading edge of a much broader effort within American higher education to reconstruct their religious organizations in their own image?  One important way to respond would be to emphasize the ways Vanderbilt’s policy treads on its students’ moral rights—specifically their religious freedom—and look for ways to put pressure on the administration so that it might recognize the injustice it is committing and withdraw the policy change. In the end, “pressure” means withholding the lifeblood of any university: money.  Students, alumni and other potential donors should make it clear that they will not contribute one dime so long as the school continues to oppress its religious groups.  But it’s not enough to talk about students’ moral rights in the abstract, especially since the university (and the policy’s supporters) can also talk rights; the upshot for the ambivalent (or mostly uninformed) observer will be that this is another unfortunate clash of rights, and the easiest response is a quiet shrug of the shoulders and reluctant acquiescence. 

Key to getting beyond that indifference is to frame our discussion of rights in the context of what is truly at the core of the university’s mission: its students’ moral formation.  Secular universities like Vanderbilt often eschew much explicit language about moral formation, recognizing their own community’s pluralism.  But given that most students will spend four years living, eating, studying, playing in a relatively intense community, it is well-nigh inevitable that the institution’s rules will go some distance toward forming students’ inclinations. 

So what does Vanderbilt’s “all-comers” policy reveal to us about the school’s moral formation project?  Consider the administration’s fumbling defense of its policy at a town-hall meeting.  When pressed as to why fraternities and sororities were exempt, the university argued that federal law gives them the right to exempt single-sex organizations.  This is, in one light, a rather silly non sequitur, since whatever federal law might allow Vanderbilt to do, it most assuredly does not require this policy vis-à-vis other groups on campus.  But if we see the exemption in light of the moral formation project, things begin to look a little less silly and a bit more pitiable.   

The policy as it stands suggests to students that they should regard as untouchable the character and ends of what are fundamentally social organizations (and rather hedonistic ones at that) while at the same time holding the claims of their various moral, religious, and political organizations as fundamentally open to revision.  The inevitable result is a subtle but persistent push toward students becoming the sorts of people who cannot be counted on to believe much of anything very deeply, except perhaps that the only distinctions worth making are the ones that determine whether you are accepted into one fraternity or sorority as opposed to another. 

Vanderbilt is violating the moral rights of its students by striking at the heart their organizations’ freedom to express their convictions.  We should press the school (and others that will no doubt follow its lead) to recognize what its policy communicates—especially how it aims to form individuals who think it more important to be able to determine who their fellow partygoers are than their partners in prayer and worship.  Seen clearly, such a policy is not just immoral, it is pathetic. It deserves not just our anger, but perhaps more importantly our pity.

—Bryan T. McGraw is an Assistant Professor of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College.  He participated in the Civitas program at the Center for Public Justice in 2001.


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