Campus Scenes

The New Animal House

The communities university administrators now fear.

By 4.12.12

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National Lampoon's Animal House, a well-known 1978 movie celebrating college hedonism appears quite ancient these days. For instance, the idea of a Dean of Students attempting to control the exploits of the "animals" when it comes to sexual activity remains a historical artifact now found only on certain religious campuses. Today, rampant sexual activity makes no difference to college administrators as long as it does not create some sort of public relations or legal challenge for the university. 

Ironically, administrators are now concerned about a whole new group with the exact opposite "problem." There still exist on college campuses some student groups that believe the outlandish and old-fashioned idea that students should be held to theologically informed standards, including sexual standards. Instead of relying upon administrators, these students think their group should supervise itself when it comes to these standards and elect only leaders who share their views. Of course, they also recognize they could and should not expect the rest of the university to have those same moral and theological scruples.

Increasingly, though, administrators at universities such as Vanderbilt and various branches of the University of North Carolina system find the idea of student groups with theological standards, especially those related to moral standards about sexual behavior, repugnant. As a result, they're exerting control over these groups by mandating that they loosen up and experience a bit more sexual freedom. In other words, instead of trying to reform the old hedonistic animal house, university administrators now want to force every student group to join the "fun."

To achieve this end, administrators are requiring or considering "all comers policies." These policies require student groups to get rid of any theological or moral membership standards they may have for officers or students who belong to the group. In other words, they want to force Christian religious groups to quit requiring any theological and moral beliefs for members or officers. Instead, as the Vanderbilt University provost declared to a group of concerned religious students, "What I'm going to challenge you to do [is] to be open to a member that doesn't share your faith beliefs who could be a wonderful member… maybe even a leader." In his view, we need to have Christian student groups be open to having atheist leaders with different moral standards.

One could think of this approach as an odd twist on what the Puritans tried when they caught someone in adultery. Instead of giving the offending woman a scarlet A for punishment, administrators may now give every student group a scarlet A (for All comers policy] to make sure they do not have any religiously based sexual or theological boundaries. Failing to abide by the policy means the offending groups will be alienated and isolated from the community. Nathaniel Hawthorne would have been impressed. 

The fact that these student groups' standards are rooted in sacred beliefs proves little more than a nuisance for these administrators. As the same Vanderbilt administrator told a group of students concerned about the administration's policy, "We don't want to have personal religious views intrude on good decision-making on this campus." 

The administrators apparently don't believe democratic ideals such as freedom of religion, speech, or assembly apply to this case either. These minority groups, administrators believe, need to be forced to embrace the administration's view of diversity and sexual freedom. Moreover, the good chance that this policy will reduce the actual diversity and freedom of student groups as a whole appears not to be a problem. For example, at Vanderbilt groups such as Vanderbilt Catholic, the Graduate Christian Fellowship, and Intervarsity will all likely leave campus this coming year due to the university's discriminatory non-discrimination policy. Apparently, these administrators really do not want diversity if it includes religious groups with theological standards.

The famous educational philosopher, John Dewey used to say, "Education is not preparation for life, it is life itself." For Dewey the best education initiates students into the same practices we use in our common life together. In this respect these universities are initiating students into a political life similar to that of a communist state like China, where religious groups in society are denied the freedom to choose their own leaders and the beliefs of those leaders. As in China, covert dorm churches and secret religious fellowships will probably spring up on these campuses. Of course, members will be forced to hide from the prying eyes of administrators bent on sniffing out unsanctioned university activities. Welcome to the contemporary university where the old "animals" control the campus and religious groups are the new disruptive beasts.

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About the Author

Perry L. Glanzer teaches in the School of Education and the Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University.