On Wednesday, November 30th, the Vanderbilt Student Government Senate voted overwhelmingly to recommend that Vanderbilt become a sanctuary campus. The resolution is a reaction to fears that many students, especially those who are undocumented or of Muslim faith, have about President-Elect Donald Trump, who has advocated for mass deportations and a national registry of Muslims. The Senate meeting came on the heels of several student-led protests demanding that the administration declare Vanderbilt a sanctuary campus.
Senator Hamzah Raza, the author of the resolution and an organizer of the protests, issued the following statement:
“We want to follow in the path of other peer institutions such as Columbia, Swarthmore, the University of Pennsylvania, Wesleyan, and many others who have declared their schools to be sanctuary campuses. In no way are we asking the University to not follow the law, we are simply asking our University to not voluntarily contribute to deportations of students, or to putting Muslim students in a registry. Universities have an enormous amount of discretion when it comes to voluntarily contributing to law enforcement agencies. This bill is not about non-compliance but about non-complicity. We do not want Vanderbilt to be complicit in Orwellian Muslim registries or in mass deportations. Declaring Vanderbilt a sanctuary campus is common sense issue. The student body understands this, as exemplified by our near-unanimous vote. It is time for [the] administration to follow the will of the student body.”
All VSG Senate meetings are open to the public, but they seldom garner attendance as high as that of Wednesday’s meeting, where nearly 100 members of the community came to voice their opinion on the proposed resolution. While there was some opposition within the community, including by well-known student activist and conservative Matt Colleran, who urged the Senate to consider students with “more traditional views,” the majority voiced support for the resolution. Many spoke personally about the struggles of being a minority on campus and about the anxiety induced by Donald Trump’s racist statements. They made the point that, while the resolution will not affect most students, it would ease the worries of certain minority populations if indeed the administration adopts the recommendations. In a speech prior to the vote, Senator Raza called on Vanderbilt to be “on the right side of history” by not being complicit in the systematic targeting of minority populations.
Although the vote was nearly unanimous, several senators criticized the language of the bill. During debate, Senator Brent Begany questioned what he saw as explicit partisanship. He argued that the resolution, which originally included Donald Trump’s name, would be stronger without the clauses regarding the president-elect. Others countered that those clauses provided needed context for the resolution. A compromise was eventually reached, and every mention of “Donald Trump” was replaced with “an elected representative.” This change, however, was not sufficient for Senator Cameron Rohall, the lone dissenter. Senator Rohall sent this statement to VPR regarding his vote:
“The VSG Senate ought to be a nonpartisan organization; this is the only way that students with vastly differing backgrounds can feel that the body represents their interests. While the bill’s proponents touted it as a statement of values regarding inclusivity and safety at Vanderbilt, specific references to the President-elect made the bill outwardly political. Additionally, I felt that the decision by the bill’s authors not to define the term ‘sanctuary campus’ rendered the demand largely anodyne.”
The VSG Senate merely has the power to recommend action; the administration must now accept or reject the recommendation. In an interview, Vice Chancellor George Hill, the University’s Chief Diversity Officer, emphasized Vanderbilt’s commitment to its minority students. The Chancellor, he said, will issue a definitive statement regarding the sanctuary campus issue later this week.