Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Vanderbilt all-comers rule

I recently saw a video that pulled the classic dishonest straw man trick.  The video discusses a policy at Vanderbilt university called an "all-comers" policy. This policy is a non-discrimination policy and applies equally to all university student groups (but not fraternities and sororities).  The policy has sparked a debate by christian student groups who dishonestly claim that the policy prevents them from choosing their members based on religious belief.  But, before we get into the debate lets look at the policy itself.

The policy itself is simplestudent groups must allow any student to join and also "must permit all members in good standing to seek leadership posts." (emphasis added)  Overall, this policy prevents groups from discriminating based on race, political views, or sexual orientation. This is a longstanding policy at the University but has now become an issue as it is starting to be enforced.

It is important to remember that this policy only applies to official student groups that are sponsored by the university.  If student groups wish to discriminate, they can simply stop being sponsored by the University. Thus, this rule is designed to prevent the University form sponsoring student groups that choose to discriminate. So this rule does not impinge on the right of students to choose who they will associate with. But it does prevent them from discriminating if they want to use university resources and claim affiliation with the university.

The other important thing to remember is that this rule only requires student groups to accept members and allow any member to seek office. The word "seek" is important here.  The individual members of these groups are still free to vote based on their beliefs when choosing officers. They are only required to allow any member to seek office, they aren't required to vote for them.

However, despite the obvious non-discrimination nature of the policy a number of christian groups are protesting this policy by claiming that it is religious discrimination.  The perfect example of this is the video that I linked to at the beginning of this post titled Exiled from Vanderbilt: How colleges are Driving Religious Groups off Campus.  This video uses a straw man argument to make the policy look worse than it really is.

This video argues that religious groups have been "forced off campus" and implies that the policy will prevent them from voting for group officials based on belief.  If you watch the video you will notice that they repeatedly state that the christian groups specifically have been forced off campus while failing to point out that every group must comply with the same policy so the policy in no way singles out Christians.

The straw man argument put forward by this video is that the University is discriminating specifically against Christians with this policy. It's not.  All groups must obey this policy. In fact this rule prevents discrimination so the complaints by Christians are rather ironic. They are claiming that the University is discriminating against them when in fact the University is simply preventing them from discriminating.

This is related to one I have discussed before here and here. It is an argument that individuals should have a right to discriminate if they wish to. The problem in this case Christians are being asked for the right to discriminate but at the same time requesting that the University sponsor their groups. The argument put forward by these religious groups is a bit harder to swallow when presented in a more accurate light. These groups have willingly chosen to become unregistered student organizations in order to protect their right to discriminate. That's a perfectly fine choice for these groups to make. But if they want to claim they have been kicked off campus they need to be more honest and explain that the reason is that they want the right to discriminate and that the policy applies to all.

Now, I must agree with one point made by the video.  This policy does create the possibility of a hostile takeover of an organization. If a group must accept any student as a member and allow any student to apply for office then it would be possible for a large number of students to seek membership and then vote their members into office.  But again, this could happen to any group.  So to frame this policy as discrimination against Christians is simply dishonest. The university should seek to find some way to prevent hostile take overs while at the same time promoting non-discrimination.

This debate is a perfect example of framing an issue to make it look worse than it is by creating a false picture of your opponents argument. The Vanderbilt christian groups have attempted to make it look like they are being persecuted when in fact everyone is subject to the same rule.  Not only that, these Christian groups are seeking to gain recognition from the University while at the same time retain their right to discriminate. Also, it appears that some students think the real issue is that these christian groups may be trying to discriminate against gay individuals.  However, it is hard to know if this truly is a primary factor in the dispute over this rule.

The Christian groups have done a good job of making this issue look worse than it is by claiming they are being discriminated against. Its time the University took its own stand and pointed out that these groups are fighting for their right to have the school sponsor their discrimination.


  1. This anti-discrimination rule called the "all comers" rule at Vanderbilt and several other high profile schools is actually discriminatory in my opinion. By saying that every club on campus must admit anyone to the club or to leadership, they are actually saying that groups who have any particular policy of admittance are an unwanted minority. The university is discriminating through the rule.

    Interestingly, the Greek clubs (fraternities and sororities) are exempt. Aren't those the most discriminatory and selective groups on campus? So why the double standard?

    Now Vanderbilt is a private university, so I certainly respect their right to put in place such a discriminatory practice - but if I was a student there, I might try to show the administration the absurdity of such a notion.

    I mean the university system itself is a hierarchical, merit based, selective system. By the logic of the university system itself, clubs should be able to have “admissions” policies. Um, doesn’t the school have an entire department devoted to selectivity and, under such an absurd notion as an “all-comers” rule, discrimination based on arbitrary criteria?

    Should the university allow “all comers” to come into the classrooms? Should a freshman be able to say “I am an all comer to this year’s graduation”? Should the swim team allow all comers to participate on the swim team? Should the glee club admit people who can't sing? Should an all comer walk in and be able to teach?

    Even though they don't realize it, in setting up such a rule the university contradicts the basic underlying structure of well, the university system itself. Such foolish anti-discrimination rules are well intentioned I’m sure, but not well thought out.

  2. I agree mfinch2012 that these "all comers" rules discriminate against groups who wish to discriminate. However, the point I was trying to make is that these rules do not specifically discriminate against religious groups because the rules apply equally to all student groups. I was trying to point out that the claim that religious groups had been driven off campus was misleading because all groups must follow the same rules.

    We could apply your argument to federal employment laws that forbid racial discrimination in employment. Such laws are discriminatory against employers who wish to discriminate based on race. Do you disagree with our federal anti-discrimination laws because they discriminate against those who are racist?

    It would clearly be impossible for Vanderbilt to accept all students. However, once the University has accepted students the University has the choice whether or not to allow those students to create groups sponsored by the University. In this case the University has chosen to allow students to organize into groups under with the Universities blessing.

    Student Groups are vastly different from things like fraternities, sports, graduation, and class rooms. It makes sense for Fraternities and Sororities to discriminate in membership because they will live together under the same roof. Sports should be able to discriminate because the whole point is competition. And clearly the University has limited resources to teach students thus limiting class size. However, student groups are different in nature. In addition, the University itself specifically states that it does not discriminate based race, sex, religion, etc... when accepting students so it makes sense to prevent student groups from discriminating on these grounds.

    The University can choose whether or not to allow students to organize under the official sponsorship of the University. Although, I could see good arguments for allowing student groups to require members to hold certain beliefs there are also good arguments for forcing groups to take all comers. If the purpose of on campus groups is to foster learning, understanding, and acceptance then it is rational to force groups to accept all students.

    As I stated in my post, Students are free to create whatever groups they want and discriminate so long as they do not seek official status with the University. The University has simply chosen to sponsor only those groups who are open to all students.