The Society of Freethinkers was an idea born out of the longing for a community of secular students who happened to attend the University of Dayton, a Catholic institution. If you happened to be one of these students, the campus could be a lonely place, where those who admitted they had a secular worldview were often met with fear and distrust. In addition to building this community, the second goal of the group was to reduce the stigma between religious and secular students by creating a forum for discussion among the two groups.
When SOFT was first proposed to the university, we were immediately denied recognition with the option to appeal the decision the following semester. We were told that our use of the term “freethinker” was offensive as it implied those of faith were “incapable of thinking freely.”
Furthermore, we were told another reason we wouldn’t be recognized is that they were unsure of the interest, even though the organization met every requirement laid out by the student handbook. Our denial of recognition meant that we could not post flyers on campus and could not set up tables to let other secular students know that a community of people like them does exist on this campus.
Our inability to advertise on campus led us to using social media and the student newspaper to get our message out. Flyer News embraced us, and weekly articles on our group’s meetings and struggle for recognition turned SOFT into the most discussed group at the university. My inbox swelled with messages from current students interested in the group, alumni who were happy to see that this niche was finally being filled, tenured professors supporting us over the administration’s decision and untenured professors who appreciated what we were doing, but couldn’t openly support it for fear of their jobs.
SOFT started as an idea among five students and became one of the university’s most active groups. We had more than 50 members, about half of whom were religious, and our discussions during this time elicited a diverse array of opinions, all of which were respected. SOFT became the only student-led forum for discussion among religious and secular students.
In the midst of this growth, our articles in the student newspaper caught the attention of local newspapers, online blogs and even some national media outlets. UD’s administration was not very pleased with this publicity, in which they were rightfully being identified as bigots, and they said that the later decisions to deny us recognition were, in part, because of this media attention.
We stood accused by Dr. Daniel Curran, university president, of going public in a “bad way” even though the media sought us out, and not the other way around. The university’s fear of atheism, however, was the root of all the unwanted press. All this media attention would have been avoided if we were simply allowed to advertise on campus.
In May 2012, we had been denied recognition again, but we were told that we could appeal it for the following semester. When school began in the fall semester, we were eager to let everyone know we were still here, as many of our members had graduated. Still unable to advertise with flyers and tables, some students hung up posters on their houses that announced our first meeting. When the university caught wind of this, they demanded the posters be taken down, and told us we were not allowed to have the meeting at the planned location, a student member’s house. This occurred less than 24 hours before the meeting, and many students who had planned on showing up interpreted this as the university shutting down our group.
As of February, we have been denied recognition again, this time without appeal. All we ever sought was equal recognition for a marginalized group on campus and to bridge the gap between religious and secular students. We played by the university’s rules every step of the way, and every time we met their requirements, they’d set out another arbitrary hoop for us to jump through.
We will only ever be seen by the administration as a group of students who don’t believe in God, and that is how they justify their decision to refuse us the same resources offered to other student groups, which include LGBTQ, Islamic, Jewish and campus democrat groups who contradict the Catholic dogma, too.
The University of Dayton feels that a group such as ours is unfit to be recognized by the university; as such, we find company with the likes of the Sigma Chi fraternity. This fraternity had their recognition revoked because a bus full of its drunken members left bodily fluids all over a gas station on the way back to UD from Columbus, and allegedly some of these individuals conducted a sex act on the premises. Meanwhile, as a graduate student, I teach introductory biology courses to UD students, and have mentored some in my lab to prepare them for graduate school or medical school.
I’m writing this letter from San Francisco, as I represent the school at an international, scientific conference. In spite of all of this, the university feels justified in treating our group as they would a group of underage kids who can’t hold their liquor.
UD’s website page on diversity initiatives states the following:
“At the University of Dayton, diversity isn’t a buzzword. It has been a vital part of our identity for more than 160 years. Inclusiveness of all peoples, cultures and religions is what defines the core of our Marianist tradition. Thousands of our students study abroad or participate in immersion retreats. As a result, you’ll find a university zealously committed to creating an open, respectful and inclusive campus.”
Quite a bold claim. US News gives UD a diversity index of 0.17, ranking 250 out of the 260 national universities that are ranked, lower than Brigham Young University and Miami University. If you happen to have a worldview that is not consistent with theirs, don’t expect the administration to value that view in the slightest. Having spent seven years at the university, I can say that the only culture that permeates the entire campus is the drinking culture. A very bright student of mine whom I mentored in lab transferred out of the university due to verbal and physical abuse that she received from her constantly drunk roommates. It is infuriating to lose a talented scientist because of the community at this school, and then to find out that the existence of SOFT is the “problem” that the administration decides to focus on.
Though we were promised by Dr. Curran that he would reopen the discussion for our group, I strongly question whether an honest debate actually took place. The committee that decided our group’s fate was composed of the provost, Joseph Saliba, the head of campus ministry, Crystal Sullivan, and the rector and vice president for mission, the Rev. Jim Fitz, S.M.; these three bigots feared our every move since they first heard about us, and since they made up over half of the committee, we never stood a chance.
In order to save face, they will say that they’ve offered us resources, but these resources come with the caveat that we can’t use our group’s name on campus. We attempted to put together a speaker series for this school year, but it was to be advertised as a program organized by campus ministry, the very people who are responsible for our suppression. It is absolutely unacceptable for us, and quite a slap in the face, to be expected to do all the legwork while giving the credit to the hypocrites who are trying to silence us.
It is with a heavy heart that I write this letter, and it does hurt to know that our efforts amounted to nothing in the eyes of the University of Dayton. I’ve been at this school for seven years, and for the last two, I’ve been trying my best to make this campus a better place for its students, especially a minority group that is being suppressed by the administration.
I want to apologize to all the students, both secular and religious, who gave our club the most fascinating conversations on campus. I am sorry for my inability to do more. We only want to be treated equally, to be afforded the same resources as all the other student organizations, nothing more. It is a shame that their fear of us is causing them to make decisions that are inconsistent with their mission statement and the values they claim to espouse.
Editor’s note: Flyer News does not advocate or uphold the views or opinions expressed in letters to the editor.