University of Rochester may subject single gender organizations to arbitrary waiver process

By April 11, 2018

UPDATE: The amendment passed and is now officially part of the Students’ Association constitution. FIRE will continue to watch the situation and encourages any students negatively affected by this policy to submit a case.

Starting this Thursday and Friday, University of Rochester students will be voting on an amendment to the Students’ Association Government constitution that would force single-gender organizations such as sports clubs, a cappella groups, sororities, and fraternities to file a waiver annually to keep their single-gender status. This amendment was ratified by the Students’ Association Senate with fifteen voting in its favor and two abstaining. This amendment would affect 55 of the university’s 250 student organizations, and subjects their freedom of association to the arbitrary whim of those in power.

This constitutional amendment follows a decision last year from the judicial branch of the Students’ Association Government finding that the existence of such groups violated the school’s constitution by allowing gender discrimination. A task force of students was convened to decide how to address the issue, and released several pages of recommendations on April 1.

The task force recommended that in order to maintain recognized status and funding, single gender groups would have to demonstrate that they are unable to become coed due to a policy of the parent organization (as is common with fraternities and sororities) or, in the case of sports clubs, prove that there is no coed league within reasonable distance from the school. A cappella groups were recommended to “consider revising their membership policies to focus on vocal range rather than gender.”

Subjecting single gender organizations to a burdensome waiver process every year based on those with whom they associate undermines students’ freedom of association.  

In addition, under the set of recommendations, all groups applying for the waiver must demonstrate evidence of “education of members about the transgender, non-binary, and gender variant communities, and about the LGBTQ+ community more broadly” and “actions or policies that the organization has implemented to provide a more welcoming and inclusive environment for transgender, non-binary, and gender variant students and for LGBTQ+ students more broadly.”

The amendment itself breaks from the recommendations by keeping the waivers, but lightening the requirements for receiving one.

Under the amendment, single gender groups must “demonstrate that their membership policy and selection processes are integral to the mission of the organization, are openly advertised, and are non-discriminatory on all other grounds” to receive a waiver. If they fail to request a waiver, or if their waiver is denied, they will lose their formal recognition and presumably their funding from the University of Rochester Students’ Association.

While this is less restrictive than what the task force recommended, it still has significant problems. Subjecting single gender organizations to a burdensome waiver process every year based on those with whom they associate undermines students’ freedom of association. Secondly, the wording of the amendment is extremely vague, and it is entirely unclear how one could effectively argue that single gender membership policy is integral to the “mission” of an a cappella group or sports team.

Without any clear standards, this ambiguity opens the policy to arbitrary enforcement, based primarily on the whims and biases of whoever is making the decision. FIRE hopes that University of Rochester students refuse to hang the fate of these groups by such a thin thread as this burdensome and arbitrary process. The students at the University of Rochester deserve to have their extracurricular opportunities protected better than this policy provides, and we hope that they will vote down the amendment.

We reached out to the University of Rochester for comment and after several days received no response.

Schools: University of Rochester