Darkness Flourishes at Vanderbilt University

In case you missed the hoopla, I was almost run off the Vanderbilt University campus in 2015 by student protesters and petitions denouncing me for bigotry and hatred. This was related to an opinion piece I wrote for The Tennessean about the Islamic faith and the need for Muslims to fully integrate themselves into our society. As a high profile, black, conservative woman on the Vanderbilt faculty, I was a conspicuous target.

During my sabbatical last year, I became the target of harassment and a petition demanding that I be suspended until I submitted to mandatory sensitivity training. That’s a rather odd request of a first-generation college graduate and a person who has overcome poverty, attained tenured positions at Princeton University and Vanderbilt, and had her research cited by the U.S. Supreme Court. My Christian faith, not my race and gender, defines me. It shapes the perspective I now share with you about Vanderbilt, where I have taught for the past 16 years.

Vanderbilt has excelled in many ways during my time here, but in other areas, such as those related to religious freedom and free speech, its policies have led to an unhealthy environment, making it more difficult for some students to thrive spiritually and mentally. On top of all that, there has been a series of unfortunate events that secular-minded people will dismiss as coincidental. The campus has been shaken by untimely deaths. So far in 2016 we have had one current student (Taylor Force) and two former students (Justin and Stephanie Shults) killed in separate terrorist attacks abroad just weeks apart. Force died March 8 in a terrorist attack during, of all things, a school trip to Israel. Two weeks later, the Shultses were victims of the Brussels airport bombing.

That must defy any reasonable actuarial tables for one university, especially one in denial about the threat of radical Islam. But there’s more. In the last three weeks, two undergraduate students have been found dead in their dorm rooms. One death occurred on April 22 (Cheryl Alexandra Morris). Another student (Elliot Meister) was found dead on April 27. We grieve the deaths of these young people and pray for their parents and loved ones. Nevertheless, we wonder if more could have done for Cheryl Alexandra and Elliot.

In a recent Tennessean cover story examining his now eight-year tenure as the school’s top administrator, Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos touched on the deaths, saying, “It’s one of those things where the loss is so heavy. For me as a chancellor to lose a child – it’s really the worst thing to happen.”

That’s not all that’s happened at Vanderbilt in recent times. Going back just a year or two, we can see where the University has witnessed more than its fair share of tragedy and mishaps, to include the rape case involving Vanderbilt football players. There’s even the quirky: last year, a tree fell and injured several people in a group of prospective students and their parents touring the campus. What are the odds of a tree falling on visiting parents and prospective students on an otherwise calm day? Note: it happened right outside the admissions office. Only God knows if this means anything.

In addition to the recent student deaths and the bizarre tree-falling incident, Vanderbilt’s run of bad luck over the years includes problems at its medical school and affiliated hospital as well as an embezzlement case involving an administrator who engaged in inappropriate behavior with a minor. Non-Christians can scoff at all this, ridiculing me for even broaching the possibility of a spiritual connection between the series of unfortunate incidents at Vanderbilt University and its hostility toward orthodox Christians, as evidenced by its 2011 adoption of a “non-discrimination” policy that has resulted in 14 Christian groups losing their recognition as student organizations. The groups no longer recognized on campus gave up their registered group status rather than compromise on Christian values and principles.

At Vanderbilt there apparently is “bad” spirituality (orthodox Christianity) and “good” spirituality (Wicca, Buddhism, and Islam). An example of “good” spirituality (by the University’s definition) is manifested in Vanderbilt’s embrace of Wicca in August 2011, several months after imposing its discriminatory policy toward Christian groups. I wonder if there is a spiritual connection between Vanderbilt’s treatment of the Christian groups and some of its recent tragedies. We will never know for sure. Nevertheless, I would like to see Vanderbilt University reconsider the policy that deprives its campus of the vibrant Christian influence that existed before the University adopted its 2011 “policy. Darkness flourishes where there is no light.

Dr. Carol M. Swain is professor of political science and professor of law at Vanderbilt University. Her most recent book is Be the People: A Call to Reclaim America’s Faith and Promise.