Vanderbilt University: A Call for Wisdom, Humility, and Compassion
“Come down, come down from your ivory tower
Let love come into your heart
Don’t lock yourself in an ivory tower
Don’t keep us so far apart. . .It’s cold, so cold, in your ivory tower”
Ivory Tower is a love song written by Jack Fulton and Lois Steele popularized in 1956. Many of its lyrics remind me of the battle that some of us are engaged at Vanderbilt University where we confront what often feels like a cold and indifferent administration. Last Friday, Chancellor Zeppos sent out an e-mail defending a policy that many of us have decried. It concluded with a call for town hall meetings and conversation. Conversation is good. But it is suspect when it is issued by an Administration that started the last conversation by having officials state that it had no intention of reinstating the protections that were stripped from religious organizations when the University decided to re-examine its anti-discrimination policy.
To refresh your minds, last September after months of behind the scene maneuvering by groups trying to negotiate an acceptable arrangement with the University, I wrote an op-ed informing alumni, students, and trustees of a new policy that stipulated that student organizations could no longer require their leaders to share their beliefs or in the case of Christian groups lead Bible study and worship services. In reaction to the shocking new development, the Christian Legal Society and some of the other Christian groups on campus engaged in a futile attempt to negotiate a satisfactory resolution and each organization attempted to revise its constitution while adhering to its core beliefs. Unfortunately, our good faith effort was not enough for the University. Therefore, the Christian Legal Society is one of a few remaining groups who remain on provisional status and will lose their rights and privileges at the end of the academic year; unless, the University reinstates its previous policy which protected religious organizations from situations like the one that has arisen on our campus.
Although we are disappointed with the University’s example to the world, we are heartened by the fact that on January 11, 2012, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court issued an in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C. that recognizes the “ministerial exception” and upholds the right of religious organizations to select and dismiss their leaders. One would hope that this decision would make a positive difference when it comes to Vanderbilt University’s stance on religious freedom. We would hope that Vanderbilt’s leaders would have the wisdom to see the relevance of Hosanna-Tabor to the situation it has created on campus. We would hope that an institution that prides itself in training the leaders of tomorrow would show enormous respect for our Constitution, by embracing and defending the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, as well as the statutory law that protects the religious freedom of Americans from non-discrimination.
The Chancellor will hold his town hall meetings where he will eloquently defend his anti-discrimination policy. Those of us who understand what is at stake can only wish that the Administration would come down, come down from the ivory tower. It’s cold, so cold, in the ivory tower.