Introduction: Charge, Committee Composition, and Investigation
Dean Bandas charged the Committee with the following responsibilities:
- Assessing the cultural climate of Vanderbilt University as it pertains to the safety, acceptance, social integration, and celebration of LGBTQI students;
- Assessing how the current cultural climate impacts the recruitment, retention, and academic success of LGBTQI students; and
- Making recommendations to the Dean of Students for creating and/or enhancing a living and learning environment that values sexual orientation and gender diversity; develops and/or enhances support networks for LGBTQI students: and fosters their academic, social, and intellectual success at the University
In keeping with the University’s strong commitment to LGBTQI issues, Dean Bandas requested that the Committee undertake its work and issue its report as soon as possible.
In order to assess the University climate for LGBTQI students and to make the recommendations that appear below, the Committee investigated the current climate for LGBTQI students on campus in the following ways:
1. Anonymous individual discussions and interviews with LGBTQI students (current students and alumni), faculty, staff, and their allies (i.e., non-LGBTQI individuals who support LGBTQI concerns)
2. Meetings with victims of two separate homophobic attacks and harassment
4. Committee discussion of individual members’ experiences and observations of how LGBTQI issues are addressed on campus
5. A comparison of Vanderbilt University with other peer institutions regarding LGBTQI issues, provided by the GLBT Resource Center
6. The Advisory Board Company’s best-practices report on LGBTQI issues in higher education (pdf), commissioned by Dean Bandas
In total, approximately seventy (70) individuals provided feedback to Committee members. Based on the common themes emerging from this feedback and from our own experiences and research, we provide below a summary of our findings and recommendations. We divide the remainder of this memo into three sections that correspond to Dean Bandas’ charge: (1) Assessing Campus Climate, (2) Student Impact, and (3) Recommendations for Change.
Charge 1: Assessing Campus Climate
The overall campus climate for LGBTQI students provides little support or acceptance. Students, faculty, and staff interviewed spoke about the homophobia that they experience or observe on campus and the pressure to hide their LGBTQI status. Disparaging comments and hostility regarding LGBTQI individuals are common; acts of harassment, both verbal and physical, occur and often go unreported; and many LGBTQI students feel a strong pressure to remain invisible or risk ostracism from the campus mainstream. In the last few years, there has even been an orchestrated attempt (later quashed) by one group of students to “minister to” and “convert” openly homosexual students. Many undergraduate students, in particular, expressed concern about their safety, their treatment by other students, staff members (including residential life and health services, even though the latter provides LGBTQI-related training), and even faculty and graduate teaching assistants. Students (and some staff members) repeatedly expressed that becoming “known” as openly LGBTQI means that they lose access to former social groups. Along with this lack of acceptance and social integration, the experiences recounted strongly suggest that the campus climate does not welcome LGBTQI students, but rather marginalizes them. Many students even feel left out in the classroom, where both the way that subjects are taught and the students are treated often presume, both explicitly and implicitly, that all students have a heterosexual orientation.
Several students and faculty members stated that the climate at Vanderbilt felt more homophobic than they had expected at an institution of this ranking. Information drawn from the 2006 CIRP Peer Group Report corroborates these statements. According to this report, 22.3% of incoming students felt that states should prohibit homosexual relationships, a significantly higher percentage, for example, than students entering our peer competitors (14.4%) and Ivy League schools (11.7%). An equally significant difference exists regarding same-sex marriage, where only 60% of incoming Vanderbilt students support same-sex marriage, as opposed to 75.3% of students incoming to our peer competitors and 79.1% of incoming Ivy League students. Such data leaves little doubt that LGBTQI students live in a less accepting climate at Vanderbilt than they would at peer institutions.
While the University does support a small GLBT Resource Center and sponsors LGBTQI student, faculty, and staff groups and events, these resources and manifestations of support do not sufficiently meet the needs of most LGBTQI individuals on campus. Many of the groups have a relatively low attendance. This should not, however, be interpreted as reflecting a lack of need for LGBTQI support services. First, unlike most of our peer institutions, which employ full-time directors and staff for LGBTQI issues and run full-time programs, our Resource Center, staffed by a part-time coordinator and located in an unwelcoming spot, does not stay open enough hours to encourage students to take advantage of its offerings and to serve as a welcoming drop-by space for “hanging out.” Second, a few students who frequent the Resource Center expressed concern that it exists under the auspices of Religious Life. The main impediment to use and attendance, however, stems from the campus climate. Many students stated reluctance to even visit the GLBT Resource Center or participate in LGBTQI student groups because of the negative impact they feared it would have on their campus lives and interactions, a particularly distressing situation for students struggling with their sexuality or feeling that they cannot be an openly LGBTQI student.
In addition to this general campus climate assessment, several issues that arose in both individual and focus group discussions have elicited particular concern from the Committee:
Residential Life: Students and staff (including some involved in Residential Living) spoke of openly homophobic RAs and a dorm climate in which they felt uncomfortable or intimidated because of their LGBTQI status. Many students, however, mentioned McGill as an exception to this housing situation.
Reporting Mechanisms: Most LGBTQI students demonstrated unawareness of any reporting mechanisms to document the kinds of harassment or intimidation they have endured themselves or have observed. Closeted students, in particular, expressed reluctance to report homophobic incidents.
Perceived Administrative Apathy and Lack of Support: Whether LGBTQI or allies, students, faculty, and staff frequently expressed the opinion that the Vanderbilt administration does not provide sufficient vocal support to LGBTQI students and, as a result, tacitly and implicitly condones the campus climate of intolerance, homophobia, and repression. In addition, students perceive the University as treating infractions based on homophobia only reluctantly and much more lightly than those based on factors such as race, ethnicity, and gender. As we will note below, we believe that the University can begin to remedy these issues with a few key actions.
Finally, the Committee would like to make two observations regarding the above findings. First, the climate at individual schools varies. The Divinity School, for example, has created the most open and accepting atmosphere for LGBTQI students and their allies. On the other hand, undergraduates in the School of Arts and Sciences seem to experience the most homophobic climate. Second, the overall level of campus homophobia, however, does not mean that the majority of non-LGBTQI students are homophobic per se or that they are uncomfortable personally with LGBTQI issues. Rather, it seems that the general campus climate has effectively muted these voices.
This climate stems from the combination of many factors:
· A vocal homophobic minority of individuals, along with some Greek and other social organizations, in a student body where diverse groups do not interact sufficiently (a key to acceptance and understanding)
· A lack of education, support, and publicity of LGBTQI-friendly programs, services, and events
· LGBTQI students and their allies feeling uncomfortable speaking out because of their perception that the administration tacitly approves the silencing of LGBTQI issues
Taken together, these factors reinforce a heteronormative atmosphere that effectively encourages many LGBTQI students to remain invisible, silenced, and in some cases “un-identifying” with themselves and who they are.
Charge 2: Student Impact
Based on the investigations and research described above, the Committee concludes that the campus climate has an impact on current, past, and potential students. While comprehensive empirical data does not exist and would be difficult to gather, our investigations strongly suggests the following:
Current Students: One of the most disturbing items of information that the Committee discovered is that openly LGBTQI students who attend Vanderbilt University have expressed regret that they did. Equally striking are other students who stated that they do not recommend Vanderbilt to other LGBTQI students who are considering applying here. These students indicated that the climate has had an adverse impact on their learning, their ability to be themselves, and their emotional wellbeing. Ironically, students who were “out” in high school have commented on the strong pressure to be closeted here on campus. Certainly, openly LGBTQI students exist on campus, and they report having varied, rich, and open social lives. But these students do not appear to represent the majority of LGBTQI students on campus, who experience more difficulty negotiating the campus climate.
Past Students (transfers and alumni): Several Committee members spoke to alumni and other former students. While some alumni, particularly Divinity School graduates, had wonderful experiences and were openly LGBTQI on campus, many other LGBTQI alumni have expressed anger and resentment at the University. Such negative experiences may have an impact on alumni donations from LGBTQI individuals, even on the recently created LGBTQI alumni fund. Two other factors cause concern as well: faculty members and students have recounted that past LGBTQI students have transferred from Vanderbilt to other universities to escape the homophobic climate here, and alumni have told Committee members that they do not recommend the University to potential LGBTQI students (or to their parents).
Recruiting Potential Students: In addition to some current students and alumni discouraging LGBTQI students (or their parents) from considering Vanderbilt University as a first choice, the campus climate likely has an impact on applications from LGBTQI students. LGBTQI high school students and their parents increasingly shop for schools that have an open campus climate, as do other parents and students for whom LGBTQI issues may be proxies for a more progressive campus atmosphere. Websites such as the Campus Climate Index and books such as The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students help guide application choices. In addition, college fairs for prospective LGBTQI students now occur, and many colleges and universities (including most of our peer competitors) actively recruit LGBTQI students. Because the University does not appear in either the Campus Climate Index or the Advocate College Guide, does not actively recruit LGBTQI students, and does not have a LGBTQI-friendly reputation—in the past, the University has appeared in the Princeton Review as one of the most homophobic in the country—the Committee finds that the University may suffer from a negative self-selection effect which discourages LGBTQI and progressive students from applying and thus contributes to a less open campus climate.
Finally, the likely adverse impact on recruitment extends to faculty and staff. Faculty members have stated that the University’s reputation on LGBTQI issues—again serving as a proxy for other values and concerns—has made recruitment more difficult, notwithstanding the fact that Vanderbilt now offers domestic partner benefits.
Charge 3: Recommendations
Our findings reveal many challenges that the University faces as it creates a friendlier and more open atmosphere for LGBTQI students. But these challenges also represent opportunities—opportunities to change the campus climate and to fashion the University into a leading institution that celebrates LGBTQI students as part of a larger commitment to diversity and inclusion. The Committee wishes to emphasize this latter point. While this report focuses, as charged, on LGBTQI issues, we strongly feel that addressing LGBTQI concerns should also be part of a larger project that addresses diversity on campus in general and to a commitment, within the University and the region, to the values of tolerance and equality that are essential to any thriving university community.
Based on our findings and research, we have assembled below a list of recommendations intended to change the campus climate, promote inclusion, celebrate diversity, and promote our educational mission. The recommendations endorse (as well as draw from) the best practices report issued by The Advisory Board while including practices and procedures compiled from other universities and from suggestions by members of the Vanderbilt community.
A. Five Immediate Key Actions
Based on our investigation and research, Vanderbilt lags far behind our peer institutions in promoting an understanding and welcoming environment for LGBTQI students. Vanderbilt must undertake five key actions immediately. Our peer colleges and universities have adopted many of these actions, dramatically improving LGBTQI life on their campuses.
We have listed each action below, including an annotation to explain what this action involves:
1. Hire a full-time Director of LGBTQI Life. The University should begin a highly publicized national search for an experienced, full-time Director for LGBTQI Life who reports directly to the Office of the Dean of Students. The Director should head the Resource Center and should be responsible for LGBTQI programs, services, and campus issues. Once hired, the Director should also join the National Consortium of Directors of LGBT Resources in Higher Education, create an advisory board, meet regularly with representatives of all LGBTQI groups on campus, and be consulted in administrative issues and policy development that have an impact on LGBTQI students.
2. Expand staffing, funding, and programming capacity of a renamed LGBTQI Resource Center, including installing a highly publicized hotline to report LGBTQI harassment or intimidation. This action involves expanding the program coordinator position to full-time and offer a graduate assistanceship, and hire student workers to maintain the daily full-time function of the office, to heighten visibility of activities, and to expand programs and services.
3. Highly publicized statements supporting LGBTQI issues and students by the Chancellor, Provost, and Senior Administrators (such as Deans). The statement should embrace LGBTQI students as valued and important members of University community, should explicitly oppose heterosexism, homophobia , and transphobia as contravening values of campus diversity, and should encourage Safe Zone use and training. Senior administrators, faculty, and staff should reinforce their support by attending LGBTQI programs and events and by including LGBTQI students when discussing the diversity of the student body at public events and in the media.
4. Regarding LGBTQI and other diversity issues, University policies, penalties, expectations for conduct, and mechanisms for reporting violations should be widely publicized, distributed, and included explicitly in University trainings, orientations, and staff meetings. Immediate venues should include Freshman and Transfer Student Orientation, Vanderbilt Visions, New Faculty and Staff Orientations (particularly student health and campus security), Residential Living (particularly RA’s), Athletics, and the Greek System. Considering the CIRP data, it is particularly important that programming for freshmen should include these issues. In addition, all of those who work with students—faculty, staff, administrators, residence hall employees, VU police and security, and others—should be told that it is their obligation to enforce this policy and to identify those who disrespect the rights of others. If, in any part of the University, policies on these issues are unclear, non-existent, or non-uniform, they should be defined, modified, and made public immediately.
5. Along with sexual orientation, include gender identity and expression in the University’s non-discrimination policy, including in the catalogs of all schools and colleges. Until implementation policies for special needs based on gender identity and expression have been developed, any individual cases that arise can be accommodated on a case-by-case basis.
B. Additional Actions
Based on successful implementation at other universities, many additional actions, with consultation of Director of LGBTQI Life, should be made as well. For ease of implementation and consideration, we have divided these recommendations into eight categories: Resource Center Enhancement and Programming, Addressing Campus Climate, Policy Issues, Student Issues Recruitment, Training Programs, Academics, Further Research, and Alumni Development.
LGBTQI Resource Center Enhancement and Programming
Addressing Campus Climate and Perception
Student Recruitment by University and Admissions Office
We express great confidence in the high level of commitment that the Vanderbilt administration has demonstrated to improve LGBTQI quality of life by forming this Committee and soliciting our assessments and recommendations. We look forward to Vanderbilt taking a leadership position on these issues.
David Boyd, Associate Professor, Center for Medicine, Health & Society (Committee co-chair)
Shay Malone, Assistant Director, Leadership Development & Intercultural Affairs
Ellen Armour, Carpenter Associate Professor of Theology, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Carpenter Center
Edward Friedman, Chancellor’s Professor of Spanish, Spanish and Portuguese
Chalene Helmuth, Sr. Lecturer, Spanish & Portuguese
Jasmine Ma – Graduate Student, Peabody
Shubhra Sharma, Associate Director & Senior Lecturer, Women’s and Gender Studies
Dan Sullivan, Assistant Director, Psychological & Counseling Center
Cathy Wolfe, Vanderbilt Student Government, GPC