Stop the Hostage Crisis in Campus Culture Wars

It can be difficult to know what to do on America’s college campuses. Recent cases from Baylor and Duke lead to some difficult questions: Do conservative Christian colleges have a right to discriminate against LGBTQ students? Do liberal schools have a right to discriminate against conservative Christian ones? In all these culture-war tiffs, one fact tends to get lost. Namely, students should not be the ones paying the price for culture-war hostilities.

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Even if we agree with them, should we be making students fight our battles?

First, a little background: At the recent Rice/Baylor football game, Rice’s band put on a gay-stravaganza to protest Baylor’s anti-LGBTQ student policies. Baylor had recently refused to recognize a campus LGBTQ student group.

Meanwhile, Duke’s student government voted to de-recognize Young Life, an evangelical Christian group. Why? Because Young Life will not allow LGBTQ students to be leaders or volunteers.

We can agree or disagree with the pro- or anti-LGBTQ policies at play. Me, I side with the LGBTQ students—I support efforts to eliminate anti-LGBTQ discrimination. But it’s not really as cut-and-dried a debate as some of my progressive friends seem to think. For example, I also think religious colleges should be free to set policies that accord with their religious views. And I think religious students should have maximum freedom to do the same, wherever they go to college.

While we try to figure out a way to square this circle—a way to allow religious students to express their religion without hurting the right of LGBTQ students to feel included and welcomed—why don’t we consider a tweak of our campus culture-war playbook? Consider a plea for something that should be obvious but seems to get lost in the shuffle?

Here it is: When colleges fight about these issues, why don’t we all agree to keep students out of the firing line? Why don’t we agree to give students maximum ability to experiment with different ideas and identities, instead of punishing them for advocating ideas that are near and dear to them?

Here’s what it could look like in practice: Instead of focusing on kicking off this student group or that student group, ALL student groups could be required to have a faculty advisor. The advisor could represent the student-group’s interests with the school administration. In principle, ALL student groups would be recognized, even if the school did not endorse their ideologies or theologies. It would take a lot to have a student-group de-recognized. The faculty senate—or whatever body represented faculty interests—would have to be agree that the group represented a harm to the university community, not just a disagreement with prevailing policy.

In this set-up, Duke’s student government could not simply vote out a Christian group it didn’t like. Baylor’s administration would be prodded to allow LGBTQ students to organize. It wouldn’t stop the arguments about student groups, but it would make it less likely for students to be penalized for caring about the world around them. It would turn faculty members and administrators into the ones doing the fighting and make it less likely for students to be directly embroiled in bruising culture-war battles.

It would encourage—not discourage—smart, engaged students to get together to make their school and world a better place. And isn’t that what college is supposed to do?

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6 Comments

  1. Agellius

     /  September 24, 2019

    If all you’re saying is let the faculty fight it out instead of the students, the question in my mind is how hard are faculty at Duke or Stanford going to fight on behalf of a Christian student group? This reminds me of California voters passing Prop 8, yet the attorney general refusing to defend it in court.

    Reply
    • Fair point. In fact, I was counting on that to respond to the objection that allowing ANY group would mean opening doors to criminal gangs and violent racist thugs. If no faculty member will support it, a group can’t “invade” campus.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  September 24, 2019

        Right. I think we just need to drop the charade of college being an open marketplace of ideas. It’s not. Every college is open to the ideas it favors and closed to the ones it doesn’t. Can’t we just admit that and start labeling them accurately for what they are? That way everyone knows what he’s getting going in and has no ground for complaint. Any college that labels itself a “free marketplace” should be at risk of being sued for misrepresentation if it turns out that they’re not open to traditional Christian ideas, Trumpian ideas, or any other ideas. Whereas admitting their intolerance from the start avoids liability.

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