Non-Discrimination in the Campus Club

March 24, 2012

Vanderbilt University, a large private school in Tennessee, is enforcing rules that require all student groups receiving on campus funds to open up membership to anyone - including officer positions (story on NPR). Naturally, this is of great concern to Faith-based organizations in particular: one can easily imagine a group of atheists gate-crashing a meeting and electing their own leader to be the President/Chair/Grand Poobah of the <insert religion> Association.

Now, the aim of these rules is to prevent wholesale exclusion of a classification of people from an organization, to whit a gay White man has been elected to an officer position in an Asian association. If he is helping support the continued existence and flourishing of elements of the many Asian cultures, then who can find fault with that? But, with the right trolling, another individual could turn such a group into, say, an anti-immigrant political activist club - just by showing up in sufficient numbers. So the original members would quit, move on, and take their cause up under another name.

The notion of judging and discriminating based on beliefs then, be they religious, political, or whatever, becomes problematic. That is the inherent nature of a club. The inability to do so calls into question the very notion of having an organization of like-minded individuals, such as a religious organization, working together on campus. And yet, practically speaking, what prevents this from being a problem anywhere else? Is it really all that bad?

Let's take the Baháí Association at the University of Texas (UT). Now, UT does not allow religious groups to have official sponsorship. We were allowed to use campus facilities, but not any of the UT trademarks. We were not allowed to have official sponsors. And if someone showed up presenting viewpoints that were plainly antithetical to the Baha'i Faith, we would have simply discussed the matter with the individual and reconvened for formal business at another time and place, possibly off-campus.

In my five years at UT, there were individuals out on the West Mall who could grow quite tiresome in their preaching (be they religious or not), but no one was ever such a troll that they repeatedly learned about our meetings, showed up, and dominated them. We really were not all that different than a group at Vanderbilt today, and the problem took care of itself.

It is troublesome to think that the Baháís at that University, or Christians, or Republicans, could be taken over and their good name subverted. One might be able to argue that these rules impinge somehow on our rights of speech, religion, and assembly (though the Bill of Rights does not govern a private University's policies, as far as I know). But let us not rush to judgment. The problem of discrimination is real and we must try out different ways to counter it. And even if the trolls win: is it really so bad if an exclusivist club is not allowed to receive on-campus support? Just take the meeting elsewhere. better yet, find some real world affliction to address rather than spending your energy complaining about your inability to divide one group from another on campus.