University non-discrimination policies governing student organizations are hardly ‘neutral’

21 Jul

Recently, Bowdoin College joined other colleges and universities around the country by imposing a “non-discrimination” policy over all official student organizations regarding their membership and leadership requirements.  In essence, the policy is an “all-comers” policy barring student groups from setting or enforcing membership & leadership requirements that discriminate on the basis of gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation.  But as Sociologist George Yancey (and the nation’s leading expert on anti-Christian bias in higher education) points out, the policy is precisely NOT what it says it is: neutral.


To those of you who have not heard of this controversy here is a quick recap. As seen in a New York Times article, the college recently decided to enforce a rule stating that student organizations must make all leadership roles open to any student regardless of sex, religion, sexual preference or race. The Intervarsity organization insists that it is a Christian organization and only wants Christians in leadership positions. As such, they have refused to sign a statement indicating that their leadership positions are open to non-Christians. One could argue that they should have signed the document and then do what they wanted with their leadership, but evidently they had too much integrity to engage in such dishonesty. Nevertheless, I am not sure such a strategy would work long-term as a non-Christian may challenge for leadership and then claim discrimination if he or she does not gain a leader’s role. As a result of Intervarsity’s refusal to make their leadership open to those who do not share the beliefs of the group, they are no longer a recognized student organization.


The supporters of the policy argue that leadership of all groups should be open to anybody regardless of their religious beliefs. This does not mean that anyone will become a leader but that they can run for the office of leader in the group. Right from the start we have an attitude supporting a certain perspective which makes this policy non-neutral: the idea that democracy, or a vote in the group, is the acceptable way to choose a leader. Many religious groups believe that leadership should be selected by an elite group rather than from the masses. Others may simply look for a sign from God as to who their leader should be. I may agree or disagree with non-democratic methods but if I impose an idea of democracy into how a religious group chooses its leader, then I am no longer using a non-neutral policy.
But this incongruity is only the start of an obvious imposition of the college in the affairs of IVP’s religious ideas. The college suggests that the group can fulfill its goals even without a leader who is committed to Christianity. There is a religious tradition that transcends the one’s actual religious faith. This tradition is that the same God in Christianity is the same one in Judaism, Islam, Eastern religion etc. In this sort of religious tradition, it really would not matter if a Christian runs a Christian organization. In fact, an agnostic humanist could technically run the organization as long as they promote beneficial values. I am not going to comment on the theological soundness of this perspective. I respect the right of individuals to hold to this perspective. However, many Christian groups do not share such a perspective. They believe that the different religious traditions are incompatible and that they have chosen the proper path. For them, it is unthinkable to seek religious enlightenment from a non-Christian, even one with solid values. College administrators, in their role of administrators, should not choose sides in this theological debate. But when they imply that a Christian group should accept a non-Christian leader, then they have entered that debate. That Christian group has decided that leadership must be with their same religious tradition and does not accept the premise that all religions led to the same God. The college has no business dictating otherwise.
Certain arguments have been used to support the Bowdoin’s policy. One is that it is not a policy that requires leaders who are not Christian but merely states that they should be allowed to apply for leadership. However, as I noted above, the college should not dictate to organizations how their leadership is picked. But some will say there is no way that a non-Christian will be voted into power of a Christian organization. If that organization does not want a non-Christian then they only have to make sure that one is not voted into office. If we are talking about a large well-established organization, then this is true. But some Christian groups are rather small and a mischievous atheist may get a kick out of bringing some of his/her friends and getting voted as president of the local Christian student group. That atheist might think it would be cool for that Christian group to sponsor an “Emperor has no pants” program. “Nonsense” some will say. No one will take the time to infiltrate a religious group they do not believe in. (According to what I have heard the Intervarsity group has about 25 people. If only about half show up during a meeting then a dozen non-Christians is all that is needed to elect a non-Christian leader – not necessarily a very difficult task.) I have seen non-Christians flood a Christian website. I have seen speakers on college campuses shouted down. Is it really hard to believe that some students will believe that it is their right and duty to take over a Christian group and shut down that religious voice? Why would we provide such individuals with such an opportunity with the foolish Bowdoin policy?
Ironically, the Bowdoin policy is more likely to have an opposite effect than promoting a diversity of ideological and religious opinions that many of the supporters of this policy will profess to support. Small groups who have beliefs that contrast with popular views are the ones that can be taken over by a larger group of dissenters. If that becomes a common pattern, because believe it or not fads do happen on college campuses, then a vibrant group of diverse groups can become a homogenous set of groups based on the same progressive humanist values. Do I know that this will occur in time? No, but neither can those supporting the policy offer any real assurances that such a process will not occur. It is even possible that some may hope that such a process occurs so that those “intolerant” Christians will be unable to spread their “bigoted” beliefs. Policies likely to discriminate against minor groups should require powerful justification to be accepted and such justification is lacking for the Bowdoin policy.
The last sentence leads to another defense offered for this policy. That defense is that a college or university should not support a group that promotes discrimination. Individuals who offer this defense tend to speak of Christians as bigots and thus are not sorry to see them lose their recognition. Of course bigotry is in the eyes of the beholder. If bigotry is, as George Haggerty suggests, the opposite of respect and tolerance, then the support of policies out of a lack of respect and tolerance towards conservative Christian groups can be an anti-Christian bigotry. Indeed, Haggerty argues that bigotry is a problem on college campuses since it prevents the free exchange of ideas. It is ironic that some use claims of bigotry to support a policy that likely will inhibit a diversity of ideas on college campuses. The bottom line is that some individuals exhibit little concern about pushing policies that negatively impact groups they do not like, which is the opposite of the tolerance they profess to admire.
Finally, some argue that losing recognition is not a big deal. The de-recognized groups are free to meet off campus to their heart’s desire. But the college should not have to support the ideals of their group. However, the college should not support the ideals of any student group. Remember that college administrators are not supposed to take sides. They are supposed to allow students to associate, and form groups with whom they choose. Treating groups differently because they insist on leaders who actually believe in the mission of the group is choosing sides. It really does not matter what issues of recognition are at stake. If some groups get to use the college’s name, have access to student funding, use campus rooms or whatever while others do not get the same treatment based on their belief about group leadership, then the college is taking sides. They are giving some groups advantages over other groups. These are not the actions of those who support religious neutrality.
This is a policy with a disparate impact on conservative Christian groups. I have little doubt that if it has such an impact on other groups, that the administrators would be more sensitive to the concerns of the group. If this policy threatened a women’s rights organization since it made it possible for a bunch of men to take the organization over, I am certain that Bowdoin would think more than twice about the policy.

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