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Message from the Chancellor on nondiscrimination

Jan. 20, 2012, 11:36 AM

Dear Members of the Vanderbilt Community,

As we settle into the spring semester, which will conclude with many of our students taking on new roles – as alumni – in our Vanderbilt community, it is a good time to reflect on the core principles and values of our university.

Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos

As an institution of higher education, Vanderbilt values above all intellectual freedom that supports open inquiry, equal opportunity, compassion and excellence in all endeavors. We are committed to making our campus a welcoming environment for all, and we are dedicated to encouraging and supporting diversity of thought and opinion among our students, faculty and staff.

We believe this sense of inclusiveness, of everyone being able to take part fully in the Vanderbilt experience, is essential to our being able to give students the most enriching educational experience we can provide, both inside and outside the classroom. We believe we all have the opportunity to learn greatly when we are exposed to new people, and to ideas and beliefs different from our own. Equally, we believe that in gaining exposure to the unfamiliar we may discover common ground.

Religious freedom is also a fundamental value of our university community.  Historically the intellectual freedom that is central to university life has its roots in respect for freedom of conscience.

We also believe that Vanderbilt registered student organizations are an important part of the overall Vanderbilt educational experience.  That is why we invest university funds in them and afford them the privilege of using the Vanderbilt name. We want to be certain that all of our students have an opportunity to join and fully participate in the registered student organizations that interest them.

Questions have recently been raised about how our nondiscrimination policy applies to our registered student organizations. At Vanderbilt, we firmly believe that discrimination is wrong. Individuals must be judged as individuals, not as members of groups. This foundational belief is codified in our nondiscrimination policy, which covers all Vanderbilt students and all registered student organizations. Discussion concerning Vanderbilt’s application of our policy, like discussion about other matters of communal concern, is healthy and welcome.

What the discussion suggests to me is that, while there is widespread agreement with the principle of nondiscrimination, application of this principle to student religious organizations has prompted concern from some quarters.

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. We have great trust in our students to select their own leaders of these organizations.

In an effort to ensure the content and purpose of our nondiscrimination policy are more fully understood and to continue to discuss any concerns, we will host a town hall meeting later this month. University leaders will explain and take questions about our position regarding registered student organizations and our nondiscrimination policy. We hope this forum will provide an opportunity for the intelligent, dedicated and compassionate members of the Vanderbilt community to make themselves heard, and we want to emphasize that all views are welcome. While the meeting is principally for our students, faculty and staff are welcome to attend and express themselves as well. Details of the town hall meeting will be announced soon.

Meanwhile, thank you for all you do every day to advance the mission of Vanderbilt. As always, I am honored and privileged to serve as your Chancellor.


Nicholas S. Zeppos

  • FIRE

    Dear Chancellor Zeppos:
    The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, was disappointed to learn via your January 20 statement that Vanderbilt is abandoning America’s pluralistic tradition by banning religious and political student groups from making leadership decisions based on their religious or political beliefs. You state that “membership in registered student organizations is open to everyone and that everyone, if desired, has the opportunity to seek leadership positions.”
    We understand that you are holding a “town hall” meeting to discuss Vanderbilt’s decision. At this event, students will likely wish to hear answers to questions such as these about the ramifications of the university’s policy: 
    If one of the leaders of Vanderbilt’s Muslim Students Association were to convert to Christianity, is the group required to maintain that person in his or her leadership role despite the fact that he or she is no longer Muslim?Vanderbilt informed the Christian Legal Society that its requirement that student leaders “lead Bible studies, prayer, and worship” was against the policy because it implied that these leaders must hold certain religious beliefs. How do you suggest religious groups at Vanderbilt fulfill their purposes without leaders who can accomplish such core tasks of religious leadership?While this dispute was originally confined to religious organizations, your statement of January 20 states that all student organizations must accept any student as a member or a leader. If a group of straight students—the majority at Vanderbilt—were to join the Vanderbilt Lambda Association, vote themselves into office, and disband the group or alter the group’s mission, what recourse would LGBT members of the Lambda Association have?If a member of the College Republicans joins the College Democrats to discover their plans for political activism and report those plans back to the College Republicans in order to thwart them, do the College Democrats have any way to stop him or her?Under this policy, must an ideological student journal like Vanderbilt’s Orbis accept editors or publish columnists who disagree with, mock, or denigrate its progressive political views?Many groups in the Occupy movement choose to make decisions by consensus. How could a Vanderbilt-based Occupy group operate if a small group of students joined specifically to prevent the group from acting in any way by constantly preventing a consensus from forming?If a student were to join an environmentalist group like Vanderbilt SPEAR and then use his membership in that group to increase his or her credibility when publicly criticizing the group’s positions in the Nashville or Vanderbilt newspapers, what could the group do to prevent this? 
    FIRE, which wrote you regarding these concerns last September but received no response, is not alone in its concern. Twenty-three members of the United States Congress, the national Christian Legal Society, Vanderbilt law professor Carol Swain, Roman Catholic Bishop David Choby of Nashville, and many others have warned Vanderbilt that a decision to deny religious or political groups the right to require that their leaders believe in the group’s mission would severely impair the rights of Vanderbilt students. 
    Indeed, Vanderbilt promises that students “are entitled to exercise the rights of citizens,” yet the university’s decision now forbids them from doing so. Vanderbilt students now have fewer rights than their counterparts at the University of Tennessee—or their friends from high school who chose not to attend college at all.
    We hope that you will provide honest and thoughtful answers to these important questions.
    Sincerely,The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

    • Computernerd225

      Your hypothetical situations are extreme, at best, and downright ridiculous at face value.  Universities all over the country have similar non-discrimination policies – how many coup d’états have you read about?

    • American1st

      Wow, that was an awesome post, and you are right on target.  Thanks for standing up for student rights at Vanderbilt.

    • American1st – we have not received any other comments from you on this story. We received a comment from you on this story:, which we approved yesterday.

      • American1st

        Thank you Melanie.  I see that it now appears in the message thread.

  • Chris

    Dear Mr. Zeppos,

    Change the policy to prevent student organizations from making membership or leadership decisions based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. In particular, state affirmatively that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not acceptable. To enforce this rule, allow students to bring claims of rule violation before the university. Give religious organization an exemption on religious affiliation, as long as they do not discriminate based on other categories.I applaud you for going out of your way to support gay rights. But the way you are going about it has made many people believe that it is the university, not the discriminating religious organizations, that is intolerant. Maintaining this step-on-no-toes course degrades the public discourse and damages the very cause you are trying to promote. Additionally, it will do nothing to promote tolerance, as religious organizations now have a morally plausible reason to move off-campus and continue their discriminatory practices.Take a firm, narrow stance against discrimination. The Vanderbilt community, both on-campus and off, will be the better for it.


    Chris, Vandy ’09

  • Chris

    P.S. I forgot to mention that a narrowly tailored anti-discrimination rule would have to protect beliefs and expressions of belief consistent with anti-discrimination, so that an organization could not kick out a non-minority for voicing support for a protected minority. But this is still a far more narrow restriction than the blanket rule currently in place. 

  • Anonymous

    As an alumnus I once spoke with pride the name of my University … longer.  It is muddled-thinking policies such as this that make the University a laughing stock. Learned academics are not immune from foolishness.  

  • Your ANTI-CHRISTIAN bias reeks to high heaven. You can hide behind all your language of equality and non-descrimination you want, but your bias is self evident to everyone in this country. Your militant, if passive aggressive atheism will no longer be tolerated in this country and people of faith will stand up against your disgusting attacks on our values and our culture. Who do you think you are Mr. Zeppos to deny the right of Christians to assemble in our country? I have made it a point to tell everyone I know what you have done and I don’t even live in Tennessee. Why don’t you abandon the farce of relativism that has corrupted your mind and the collective mind of academia and come back to your senses. 

    Atheists cannot lead christian groups. Just like anti-semites or nazis cannot lead jewish student groups. How hard is that to comprehend? Change the policy now!

  • Marypatterson

    Chancellor Zeppos,
    Christian groups are open to and welcome people of all faith, including those who have faith only in themselves. However, without a leader there is no group. It seems the real reason for your policy is to remove Christianity from your institution. Secular humanism is the religion of academic intellectuals (yes, the Supreme Court ruled in 1961 that it is a religion), and I fear you are trying to please those in that arena by forcing that religion on Vanderbilt students. Secular humanism is always extremely intolerant of Christianity. Research, however, has proven the price Vanderbilt students will pay if you succeed in removing prayer from Vanderbilt. Prayer was removed from public schools in 1962 with the following consequences:
    -SAT scores which had been high, plummeted
    -Alcohol abuse and drug abuse sky-rocketed
    -Teen-age premarital sex and pregnancies sky-rocketed
    -Violent crime sky-rocketed
    As an alumnae and a parent of an existing student, may I suggest you work with the current Christian leadership to solve the real problems you have at your University? I suggest you put what is best for your students ahead of what is best for your reputation with the intellecual secular elites.
    “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1; 53:1).
    We are praying for you to have real wisdom and courage to do what is right.
    Mary  ’80














  • CL

    If an organization doesn’t want to elect someone to leadership for whatever reason, the members casting their votes are not required to state publicly why they voted for whomever or didn’t vote for whomever. If an officer of a society doesn’t meet the expectations of the society members during his or her tenure in office, the society members will find among themselves another candidate to nominate for the office when it again becomes available.