At Samford, Another Party Heard From

Alumni group accuses the administration of discrimination after it refused to recognize a gay-student group.

August 7, 2017
Samford Together logo

As Samford University has refused to recognize a student group sympathetic to gay rights, its members have not materialized to discuss the issue publicly -- perhaps unsurprising, given the university's decision. But a queer activist group, led by a gay alumna, has come forward, alleging that the institution and its president are discriminating against the LGBTQ population there.

Andrew Westmoreland, president of the private religious institution in Alabama, announced last month that he did not intend to allow Samford Together, the student group, to be affiliated with the university.

In a video statement, Westmoreland called the organization’s goals “worthy” but said misinformation had muddled the group’s purpose to the point that many believed it to be a political advocacy group instead. Thus, he said, he felt Samford Together's mission could be better carried out without a direct link to the university.

“I respect and appreciate the students who sought to achieve recognition for Samford Together, and I will lead Samford in the years ahead to have exactly the conversations they’ve asked us to have,” Westmoreland said.

This promise has not soothed Brit Blalock, a Samford alumna and founder of SAFE Samford, which stands for Students, Alumni and Faculty for Equality and which has attracted more than 700 members on Facebook since it was created in 2011.

Blalock said she has organized a letter-writing campaign to the administration asking that Samford Together be reconsidered, and her group set up a website dedicated to that end, deardrwestmoreland.com. Up to this point, SAFE Samford has largely remained removed while the institution mulled the student group, because Blalock said she has challenged the administration in the past and can sometimes be seen as antagonistic.

Westmoreland said in his statement that he “suspected” some sort of entity would emerge to discuss issues similar to those that Samford Together would have.

In an interview, Blalock expression frustration that the multistep process to be approved by university seemed to be proceeding smoothly, with administrators appearing helpful and a near unanimous vote by the full Samford faculty in favor of affiliation.

Blalock questioned why Westmoreland appeared to block a vote by Samford’s Board of Trustees, the final hurdle for the group. She noted that a conservative-leaning student group, a chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, was recently approved by the trustees, a suggestion that the university was willing to recognize a controversial group.

The university declined to comment beyond a news release.

Westmoreland has previously professed to not believe in same-sex marriage, according to a transcript of remarks he gave to faculty prior to their vote on Samford Together. A university spokesman verified the accuracy of the transcript.

“Many of us who hold what are known as traditional views of marriage and human sexuality today are called haters. The term is intended to hurt, and it does. So volleys fly back and forth between camps while positions and hearts are hardened, and we run the risk, the very serious risk, that we will drive away from our churches and our universities and our families a generation that thinks about these questions in different ways than we have known,” Westmoreland said in his speech to professors.

Though Samford Together had earned the endorsement of students and faculty members, leaders of the Alabama Baptist State Convention -- which has maintained close ties to Samford and funded it for decades -- disparaged the university and called on the administration to shut down the group.

The state convention had never specified consequences for the trustees approving the group, only saying this would jeopardize the state convention’s relationship with the university.

Confusion abounded, because at the same time Westmoreland announced he would not consider the student group, he also declared the university would no longer accept money from the state convention beginning in 2018.

Some on and off campus, including at least one newspaper that published an inaccurate report, took the institution’s refusal of funding to mean it would reject the convention’s threats surrounding Samford Together.

But Samford has voluntarily reduced reliance on convention funding three times since 2008, and in his statement, Westmoreland said that the money coming from the convention is “limited.”

The saga with the student group has highlighted tensions between the university and the Alabama Baptists, who founded the institution, and to “preserve peace” Westmoreland requested the trustees cut off money from the convention, he said.

“I want to assure you that these changes related to our budget will not affect at all the expectations that we have for Samford to be a Christ-honoring, Christ-centered university. Our relationship with Alabama Baptists will remain strong,” he said.

Blalock said she has made no decisions about possible legal action against the university.

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Jeremy Bauer-Wolf

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