Emotions ran high at Vanderbilt University on Tuesday evening as the school addressed its nondiscrimination policy regarding university-sponsored student organizations in a schoolwide town hall meeting.
It started as hundreds of students were left outside as Furman Hall quickly filled to capacity — and reached its tipping point when many students left after Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers wasn't afforded a response to a statement.
Under the "all-comers" nondiscrimination policy, Vanderbilt requires that all organizations' membership and leadership positions be open to every student on campus regardless of "race, sex, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, military service, or genetic information." Several student organizations, most of them religious, have been deemed as non-compliant because of religion-centric qualifications for leaders. All student organizations were subject to review after a gay male was allegedly forced to resign from a Christian fraternity last year.
"We feel very strongly about all-comers," Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor for University Affairs and Athletics David Williams said. "To us, membership and leadership are one in the same."
Things got off to a tense start when the first statement from the crowd of students proclaimed unity and asked opposers of the policy to stand up. A majority of the crowd, most of them wearing white shirts, stood and applauded. But Provost Richard McCarty quickly shot the group down, saying the roughly 200 students at the meeting were not a "random" sample. Williams took it a step further.
"When we integrated, [that question] might have gotten the same [kind of] response," Williams said.
Several leaders of Christian student groups like the Medical Christian Fellowship, Christian Legal Society, and the Navigators spoke out against the policy.
McCarty and Williams spent most of the meeting defending and clarifying the policy. According to them, a non-Christian should have the opportunity to be a member and be elected to lead a Christianity-based group.
"We believe in inspired leadership … I want that person to earn your vote," McCarty said. "We want you to be open to that rare individual."
For example, McCarty said, a white, Jewish female student ran an afternoon program at a predominantly black Baptist church in North Nashville — a healthy connection that wouldn't have been possible without an all-comers policy.
But some student organizations argued that allowing a person to run for leadership who doesn't share convictions and beliefs consistent with the group was counterproductive.
"If someone [running for leadership] doesn't share the faith that is being taught, what's the point of having these organizations?" asked Rodgers, an active member of the school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Williams responded by saying members of the FCA could collectively choose not to elect a non-Christian — but that person should at least have the opportunity to run for office. Rodgers conceded that a non-person-of-faith wouldn't be elected.
"If we're jumping through the hoops of your policy as a facade, what's the point?" Rodgers said. Williams acknowledged that the school wouldn't make exceptions to the policy for faith-based organizations and that he understood the opposition.
When Rodgers continued to push his point, Dean of the Divinity School and moderator James Hudnut-Buemler asked that others be given an opportunity to talk. Rodgers, along with almost 20 other students, stood up and left, after more than two hours into the meeting. One student yelled "Shame on you!" on his way out.
While out-numbered, several students supported the policy. A caucasian male, draped in a rainbow flag, said he was elected as vice president of the Asian American Student Association.
"This policy is really important to me," he said. "I have been able to take this position and grow as a person."
A gay undergraduate student took exception to a previous statement that Vanderbilt's "dark days" of discrimination were in the past.
"These are still the dark days," he said, referencing discrimination toward homosexuals on campus.
The university did acknowledge that there was a great deal of misunderstanding regarding the policy.
"Let me apologize on behalf of the university," Williams said. "We are trying to make sure everyone gets on the same page."
Brant Bonnett, a senior at Vanderbilt, was one of the hundreds of students turned away from the meeting. He watched it via an internet stream in a classroom — and said he was glad to see the school clarify their stand.
"The biggest thing is that the university finally owned its position in a public way and really defined the way they see the policy," Bonetti said. "I disagree with their value judgement, but at least I know the choices they are making."