The Vanderbilt Decision
Across the United States and around the world, few ministries are more urgently needed than campus ministries. According to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, many students said that they enrolled in college to find their life purpose, and that they expected their college education to help them not only with their intellectual development, but their emotional and spiritual development as well. Little wonder that the college years have been called the last best time to reach someone for Christ.
Yet now, on a growing number of campuses, there are stiff challenges regarding campus access for Christian organizations.
At least if they want to stay distinctly Christian.
In a test that may reverberate through private educational institutions around the nation, Vanderbilt University has placed InterVarsity’s Graduate Christian Fellowship and several other Christian organizations on provisional status until the issue of compliance with the university’s nondiscrimination policy is resolved. In essence, Vanderbilt does not want organizations like InterVarsity to use religious criteria for the leadership or character of its organization. There must be an “all comers” policy that requires completely equal access to all organizations for every student.
Vanderbilt Chancellor, Nicholas Zeppos, has said: "I want to assure you the university does not seek to limit anyone's freedom to practice his or her religion. We do, however, require all Vanderbilt registered student organizations to observe our nondiscrimination policy. That means membership in registered student organizations is open to everyone and that everyone, if desired, has the opportunity to seek leadership positions."
Many students from all kinds of organizations disagree with the implementation of the policy.
So do I.
And not because I studied at Vanderbilt as a visiting student during my Ph.D. years (I did), or because I was challenged to have Christ as my Leader through InterVarsity (I was).
But because it is deeply flawed.
Though far from original with me, the following points must be championed:
1. Being a Christian should not make you a second-class citizen on any college campus.
2. This isn't about discrimination; it's about common sense. Leaders must believe in the purpose and goals of their organization. It makes no sense for a Catholic to lead a Muslim organization. A football quarterback must ascribe to the rules of football to lead a team.
3. The standards for Christian leadership were established 2,000 years ago. Christians cannot dismiss them or substitute popularity without ceasing to be Christian. Vanderbilt is requesting that InterVarsity change its core beliefs in order to remain on campus.
4. InterVarsity loves the university and wants the university to be a place of open exploration of different viewpoints. Selective exclusion of some groups by the university diminishes the quality of a university and denies free speech.
5. InterVarsity welcomes all students to participate in its programs and has a long track record of embracing all kinds of diversity.
6. InterVarsity students are the kind of students the university wants to have on campus. They take their studies seriously, they respect others, they are trained as leaders, they contribute back to the community, and they are committed to high moral standards.
7. If Vanderbilt does not change its policy, or make an exception for religious groups, InterVarsity will be forced to move its Vanderbilt student ministry off campus. This means losing access to the campus that makes room for all manner of student groups, as long as they are not Christian.
As Vanderbilt goes, so may many other private schools. Let’s pray it goes with common sense. I can only imagine what my life would be like without InterVarsity.
You certainly wouldn’t be reading this blog.
James Emery White
For more information on campus access issues, and InterVarsity in particular, go to http://www.intervarsity.org/about/our/campus-access-concerns.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.