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Commodores or Con artists?

Vanderbilt University has certainly been in the spotlight in the last few weeks over its new policy prohibiting student religious groups from requiring, in their by-laws, that an elected student leader believe in the tenets of that group’s religion.

But its Board of Trust that is meeting today may still be in the dark.  And they are in the dark if what they are being told is as misleading as what the Administration is telling concerned state legislators.  The misrepresentations and deceit are astounding.  With all due respect to Vanderbilt’s alumni, many of whom support our efforts, if things don’t change the Commodores may need to change their mascot.

Misrepresentation No. 1

Last week the House Education Committee considered legislation dealing with the kind of policy Vanderbilt has adopted and applied to the recognition of student organizations, an “all comers” policy.  That is the policy that has caused the problems because requiring an officer in a student religious organization to hold to a certain religious belief doesn’t allow “all” students to have a chance to be an officer.

In trying to convince the Committee not to take any action against Vanderbilt that would prohibit such a policy, the University’s lobbyist told the legislators, “The Board of Trustees of Vanderbilt University is the ultimate governing authority for Vanderbilt University, Mr. Chairman. There has been no appeal in writing to the Board of Trustees to govern this matter.

Well, that’s just not true. And knowing the integrity of Vanderbilt’s lobbyist, there could only be one explanation to my mind – what he said was what he was told by the Administration.

Prior to the November 11, 2011, Board of Trust meeting, students presented a petition to the Young Alumni Trustees, who are charged with bringing to the Board the voice of the students, that called on the Board to change the policy.  The petition was signed by over 500 students.  The Dean of Students has confirmed to the religious student leaders that he knows of no other mechanism to appeal to the Board of Trust.

Second, a group of concerned alumni sent a letter to the Board of Trust on November 9, 2011, requesting that the Board change the policy.  It was delivered directly to the Board of Trust’s office in Kirkland Hall. But whether it got from that office to the Board room, who knows?

Third, the Christian Legal Society has sent no less than three letters to the Board of Trust requesting, on behalf of their Vanderbilt chapter, that Vanderbilt change the policy.

There’s more, but you get the picture.

But, you say, “If the Board got these communications, then they aren’t in the dark.” Well, that assumes that they did get them.  And it assumes that the communications weren’t dismissed because of …

Misrepresentation No. 2

The Administration has said it is applying the policy equally to all student organizations. But, in fact, it is not applying the policy to Greek organizations on campus; they can still do anything they want.

But if what the Board is being told on this issue is the same misinformation the Administration is giving students and legislators, then shame on the Administration.

The Administration points to Title IX of the U.S. Code that says that the federal law against sex discrimination “shall not” apply to Greek organizations.  That sounds compelling. Sounds like maybe even a requirement that the University not treat Greek organizations like other student organizations.  But it’s a sham argument if you know the law.  And Vanderbilt not only has legal counsel that should tell them it’s a sham, but it has a whole building full of law professors who could advise them.

Even Fraternal Law, a legal periodical for Greek organizations, says:

While the Greek world has long benefitted from federal law that recognizes that college social fraternities and sororities may discriminate in their membership policies on the basis of sex, that exemption applies only to federal anti-discrimination law. It does not prevent even a public university from imposing its own anti-discrimination policies to deny recognition to a Greek group that discriminates in membership on the basis of gender.

If the federal law doesn’t prevent even a public university from requiring Greek organizations to accept all students regardless of sex, then there for sure isn’t anything requiring Vanderbilt to have to keep Greek organizations sex-segregated.

And besides, the University says it’s against sex and gender discrimination anyway.  Oh, I forgot.  It is against such discrimination unless a bunch of wealthy fraternity and sorority alumni don’t want their pet organization messed up.

Misrepresentation No. 3

But the foregoing misrepresentation isn’t the worst one.  The really big one is that there is no state or federal law that prohibits Vanderbilt from telling a fraternity that it has to accept any male student who wants to join and the same with sororities and women. Vanderbilt has nothing to hide behind on this one, but it wants you to think it, too, is somehow required by Title IX. For sure it is not required!

I don’t know what the Board will do or whether they will even be told that the legislators they appeal to on numerous subjects for favorable laws were lied to.

But having been a legislator, I can tell you that lying to a legislator is a big no-no.  They will never trust you again. And while Vanderbilt’s lobbyist is an honest man, every legislator will now have to question whether his employer has been honest with him.  It’s just not a pretty picture.

What a tangled web one weaves when one first practices deception.  But webs show up in the light.  Let’s just hope the Board sees the light.  If not, then maybe they can change their mascot from a Commodore to a con artist.

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