When Vanderbilt found itself on the Princeton Review ranking as number 16 on the list of the least gay-friendly of “The 361 Best Colleges,” students and leaders of GLBT organizations looked at each other in amazement. After all, Vanderbilt has been perceived as being on the cutting edge of equality issues: offering domestic partner benefits, conducting diversity training, creating “Safe Zones,” and openly sponsoring a variety of GLBT support groups for students, faculty and staff.
The ranking was based on one question out of 73 that was asked in an annual poll. “The Princeton Review” annually polls students to compile data for ranking “The Best 361 Schools” by soliciting information through an Internet survey and on-campus questionnaires.
Robert Franek, editor of the publication, said that in addition to a two-page narrative profile of each school, the book lists best and worst rankings on a variety of campus-related issues in four major areas.
Of the 73 questions, several dealt with diversity issues, but only one dealt directly with GLBT issues: “Do students, faculty and administrators at your college treat all persons equally regardless of their sexual orientations?”
Vanderbilt’s appearance on the list “Alternate Lifestyle Not an Alternative” was based on students’ responses to this one question.
The dean of students at another Tennessee university said the metholodogy used by “The Princeton Review” wasn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of the social issues it portrayed.
Eric Hartman, dean of Students at the University of the South (Sewanee), cautioned that the Review should not be regarded as an accurate reflection of social issues, saying the compilers do “not use the most accurate methodology.”
Even though Vanderbilt is one of a handful of employers in the “buckle of the Bible belt” with policies to ensure work environment equality, evidently policies do not automatically create an accepting environment for undergraduates.
According to David, a senior engineering student, “It is not unusual to hear homosexual epithets in the dorms. The word ‘gay’ is used freely as a pejorative term.”
Comparing the climate at Vanderbilt with that of his high school in the Washington , D.C. , area, David adds, “It seems like more students are concerned with religion.”
The subject of the acceptance of GLBT students at Vanderbilt was discussed on the library lawn on National Coming Out Day, October 11, by a group of 57 people including community leaders, campus faculty, staff and administration, as well as a handful of students.
Linda, a doctoral candidate in education, who self-identifies as heterosexual, was one of the discussion leaders for the event.
“It’s a challenge to counteract the prevailing culture,” she said. “Coming here from California , I feel like I stepped back 15 years. There is a strong religious bias and a disgust of people with different sexual orientations.”
Mark Bandas, assistant vice chancellor of Housing and Residential Education, told one of the discussion groups that “we make every effort to make the residence halls inclusive and accepting by conducting education in the residence halls and by moving students if needed. But with a new crop of students every year, that education is a constant process.”
Four other middle Tennessee institutions appeared in the listing of “The 361 Best Colleges”: Rhodes College ( Memphis ), Fisk University ( Nashville ), The University of the South (Sewanee), and UT Knoxville. Surprisingly, only UT Knoxville (ranked number 6) appeared with Vanderbilt on the list “Alternative Lifestyle Not an Alternative,” causing campus organizations to wonder how students at other area schools perceive their campus cultures.
Trixie Smith, professor and GLBT advisor at Middle Tennessee State University ( Murfreesboro ), says that while most students at MTSU “feel free” on campus, some still come to her with concerns about “homophobic comments in classes.”
“One of the problems our students face is that so many of them are from the middle Tennessee area and their parents and relatives are in the area,” says Smith who is openly out on campus, “Their families, more than their peers, keep them from being completely open.”
MTSU does offer diversity training, but, oddly, it does not acknowledge sexual orientation as a diversity issue. Smith adds, “As a state institution, we do not offer domestic partner benefits, and probably never will.”
Sweannee’s Dean Hartman acknowledges that inclusion of GLBT students at Sewanee “has been a challenge for a number of years, largely due to being embedded in the South.”
Although, according to Hartman, the demographics of the student bodies at Sewanee and Vanderbilt are very similar, he believes the smallness of Sewanee (1,300 students) works to their advantage.
“Students at Sewanee have a name and an identity, not just an identity with no name,” he said.
The dean adds, “We do all we can to provide engaged support, so everyone knows it’s OK to be out.”
Although Sewanee has for some time sponsored a Gay-Straight Alliance, this year, the Episcopal-affiliated institution may face its greatest challenge, as administrators try to determine how to respond to their first request for domestic partner benefits.
According to Trish Halstead, the majority of the members of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Austin Peay State University (Clarksville) believe their school is accepting, at least when compared to their high schools and some other area institutions with which they have had contact.
“I have seen a large swing in acceptance just in the last year,” says Halstead, advisor to the group. But when the students were asked if they feel comfortable being out in the Clarksville community, the answer was a resounding “no.”
Two church-related universities in Nashville declined to respond to the question of acceptance of GLBT persons. A Belmont University professor, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of employment reprisals, said “It’s a highly-sensitive issue.” The Baptist-affiliated institution is “in the throes of being disassociated from its denominational relationships.”
Not surprisingly, this writer’s inquiry to Vicki Gaw, administrative assistant in the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Lipscomb University (a Church of Christ school), was promptly forwarded to Phil Ellenburg, general legal counsel for the school. As of time of publication, there has been no reply.