This op-ed is written by Philip Starks and Rebecca Spiewak, the current chairs of the Committee on Student Life (CSL). Read the news article about the recent decision regarding Tufts Christian Fellowship and nondiscrimination here.
As the current chairs of the Committee on Student Life (CSL), it is our responsibility to expand upon the Tufts Christian Fellowship (TCF) appeal of their de-recognition by the Tufts Community Union Judiciary (TCUJ), and the resulting policy changes pertaining to leadership criteria in student religious groups (SRGs) that were adopted by the CSL. At the outset, we must mention that as members of the CSL, we are privileged to serve the Arts, Sciences and Engineering (AS&E) student community at Tufts, and we view safeguarding a welcoming environment on campus to be our primary mission.
We often examine AS&E policy and evaluate what can be done to better reflect the diverse needs of our community. Some issues that the CSL has addressed in the past, such as determining how long Disciplinary Probation II (Pro II) remains on a transcript, are less challenging than others. Upon receiving the TCF’s de-recognition appeal, we understood that our decision would be immensely impactful. As part of our review process, CSL engaged stakeholders, read submitted documents, scanned national solutions to similar issues and framed a result honoring Tufts’ integrity. This has taken time, but anything less would be disrespectful.
Upon reviewing the TCF’s constitution, the TCUJ determined that the Basis of Faith clause, to which all leaders of TCF must adhere, violated Tufts nondiscrimination
policies. The TCUJ subsequently de-recognized the TCF. This decision triggered an essential debate regarding leadership criteria in SRGs. As our community is intimately aware, Tufts has the dual mission of protecting both a diverse student body and a dynamic spiritual life on campus. Tufts students are known for fostering a rich spiritual community, where anyone is welcome to join any SRG they choose. This will never change.
The same degree of openness has not always been present regarding SRG leadership, and it was this reality that influenced the TCUJ to de-recognize the TCF. The CSL, in reviewing the TCF appeal, has found that the TCUJ acted appropriately in their de-recognition decision given that Tufts University policy was silent on leadership criteria for SRGs. This case, however, alerted the CSL that this silence created a policy void. In response, the CSL has crafted a new policy that fills this void. We understand the importance of explaining the logic behind the SRG leadership policy change, and gladly share our reasoning with you now.
Religious faith is fundamental to the identity of some, much like gender or sexual orientation. In fact, these characteristics are so fundamental that all three are protected under Tufts nondiscrimination policy. The leaders of SRGs are considered the exemplars of the core religious beliefs of that group’s particular religion. Their job is to not only guide the SRG itself, but also to teach and model their faith for others within it. As such, we viewed this case not as an issue of freedom of religion but rather one of finding a balance among various protected aspects of one’s identity.
Following this perspective, the basis for the new SRG leadership policy is two-fold, focusing on transparency and justification. Under the new policy, SRGs must be open and explicit about their religious beliefs and practices. The Tufts community is particularly interested in transparency in relation to the nondiscrimination policy. Specifically, if a religious doctrine requires departure from Tufts nondiscrimination policy, then it is incumbent on the SRG to highlight the conflict between the two and show how it affects the group’s choice of leaders.
This transparency will be beneficial to everyone, especially to potential SRG members. Each year, dozens of newcomers join SRGs without knowledge of the groups’ official beliefs and practices. With the appropriate descriptors and the explicit nature in which each SRG must now lay out its leadership requirements, we hope to avoid the confusion and frustration sometimes experienced by those working their way up their SRG hierarchies.
However, even if departure from Tufts nondiscrimination policy is transparent, not all deviations may be acceptable. SRGs will need to justify, on religious doctrinal grounds, any departures from Tufts nondiscrimination policy required for their leadership. The University Chaplain will now be charged with the responsibility of evaluating the legitimacy of the justification, and the TCUJ will be charged with the responsibility of ensuring plainspoken transparency. Placing the power of approval for religious justification with a central university-wide religious authority at Tufts provides an added dimension of knowledge, legitimacy and fairness to this new policy.
We feel that doctrinally justified, transparent, and explicitly stated differences between SRG leadership policy and Tufts policy provide the “truth in advertising” necessary to simultaneously protect a diverse student body and all religious organizations on campus. We recognize that this is undoubtedly a controversial issue at Tufts that has substantial implications on an individual, organizational, and campus-wide level. Whether or not you agree with the decision of the CSL, we hope you understand our reasoning and intent. Our goal is to foster and protect cherished diversity here at Tufts, and we believe this new policy helps meet this goal.