In order to enjoy the benefits of University recognition, student groups must declare that membership and leadership positions are open to any enrolled student. InterVarsity refused to file the declaration. The group requires students who hold leadership positions – positions that may involve teaching and ministering to members – to affirm its traditional views on Biblical Christianity.
The move to enforce this “all comers” policy harms meaningful freedom of association on CSU campuses. It means that College Democrats may not require members to maintain a commitment to progressive causes in order to be eligible for leadership positions. They must be open even to conservative NASCAR fans. College Republicans may not require a commitment to conservative principles of its leaders. An influx of evangelistic Nancy-Pelotheists could undermine its mission. Likewise, the new policy opens leadership positions in the Secular Student Alliance to faith healers, those in the Queer-Straight Alliance to homophobes and those in the Environmental Student Organization to climate change deniers.
These would be unwelcome developments. Universities advance their educational goals in part by promoting a diverse and vibrant intellectual community among students. Meaningfully free inquiry requires universities to afford its students wide-ranging opportunities to associate freely in their pursuit of academic and practical ideals and values. But such pursuit requires the ability of these associations to exclude others – yes, discriminate – on “doctrinal” grounds that are relevant to the group’s distinctive mission. When CSU forbids this, and when it derecognizes InterVarsity, it advertises the fact that its goal is not to foster an environment where all sorts of ideas can be investigated openly and fairly. It suggests its goal is to impose a specific idea about what falls within the bounds of legitimate investigation on campus.
Of course, the CSU doesn’t really forbid all discrimination on grounds that are relevant to a group’s mission. Sensibly enough, the policy already carves out exceptions for some student organizations. And, should students engage in the kind of shenanigans I speculate about above, university administrators would likely intervene to protect organizations with aims and values that they regard as legitimate. InterVarsity is not among those. Nor perhaps are other organizations, religious or otherwise, that are observant, unpopular or weird enough to make people uncomfortable.
Large or wildly popular groups will not be affected at all by the new policy. They have statements of purpose that the masses either resoundingly endorse or do not really care about one way or the other. So club sports and groups like the Anti-Cancer Society and the Society for the Appreciation of Beer Pong will do just fine in the new campus environment. Groups like these don’t need to require a set of specific affirmations from members or leaders in order to pursue their organizational missions.
Many other groups don’t have broad popular support on campus. They have distinctive aims and values, some of which are fairly controversial, which they seek to further through their organizational activities. Such groups – those with political affiliations, social justice concerns or ethnic identities – likely can reliably count on benevolent university administrators to protect their organizational missions, at least for now.
Disfavored organizations cannot, and so far we know this includes InterVarsity at CSU. But this is not true everywhere. For example, Ohio State University provides an exemption to accommodate religious organizations like InterVarsity so that “A student organization formed to foster or affirm the sincerely held religious beliefs of its members may adopt eligibility criteria for its Student Officers that are consistent with those beliefs.” CSU should do the same. The effect of this alternative way forward would be to treat religious groups the way CSU already treats other student groups that have a distinctive mission.
Protecting open inquiry only for those with officially sanctioned views runs counter to the traditionally recognized aims of a university. If students on CSU campuses have genuine freedom of association in order to promote intellectual inquiry, this entails that they can exclude others. When they do, their reasons may seem unfair, arbitrary or worse to at least some people. But when this is forbidden, freedom of association is meaningless and intellectual inquiry becomes a kind of ideological conformity-lite.