McINNIS: Why citing “the law” won’t do: A response to Chancellor Zeppos

A letter about the decision not to label Vanderbilt a sanctuary campus

Chancellor Zeppos,

I am a signee of the petitions and letters you have read advocating for Vanderbilt’s designation as a sanctuary campus. I will attend the sit-in on December 1st with the now added objective of protesting the Vanderbilt administration’s facile response– including your (non) reiteration of university policy and refusal to name Vanderbilt a sanctuary campus– to an issue that has threatened members of the allegedly-valued Vanderbilt community. I have several responses to your letter, but I feel the need to preface these responses with this observation, cemented through my experiences on this campus as both student and instructor: your celebration of Vanderbilt’s global and diverse community in your “University Policies regarding Sanctuary” address is ironic. First, because, as many before me have noted, there is ample work to be done to make Vanderbilt inclusive. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, in cultivating this diverse community (however superficially), you have fostered an environment that will challenge your response to recent petitions and protests. Indeed, your letter will inspire members of this community to interrogate bureaucratic rhetoric, to be suspicious when you cite laws and policy as justification for doing nothing.

Laws are created and enforced by social institutions, which are controlled by those with the most political, economic, and cultural power. Laws are thus not the end of any conversations or political resistance, but often the first site of interrogation in instances of legalized persecution—as they must be. History demonstrates that laws have been and are used to deprive humans of personhood, of allegedly inalienable rights, of life, and soon, they may be used to disrupt the global community you spoke of so highly in your letter; the community you are willing to celebrate, but only selectively protect. You wrote that VUPD is not permitted to inquire about students’ citizenship or immigration status; what if prospective laws demand the collusion of local authorities, including VUPD, with ICE/CBP? You wrote that “Vanderbilt does not routinely release to the public or to public officials any citizenship or immigration information that may be in our possession, unless compelled to do so by law.” And if the law should compel it en masse? Will Vanderbilt also release the religious affiliations of your students for a national registry, should the law demand it?  Since your letter suggests that you hold “the law” above any ethical or moral underpinning, perhaps we should consider that fealty to the rule of law also demands that we exercise our conscience in refusing to be complicit in violations of human rights. Perhaps we should think critically about the lawbreakers who have contributed to Vanderbilt’s still-developing legacy of inclusion.

You cannot deem a campus “sacred ground” (a frankly offensive moniker given recent, public conversations about indigenous land rights with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests) with no “embargoes, boycotts, tariffs…[or] foreign policy,” while simultaneously asserting that Vanderbilt will stand idly by should the law rob students of the opportunities to “seek education and discovery.”  A sacred ground’s inhabitants should not be disproportionately “buffeted by the ‘real world’” because of their skin color, their nation of origin, their citizenship status, their religion, their sexuality, their gender identity. You cannot assert that you wish to protect this (un)safe space, and in the same keystroke, name the conditions of that protection.

As Andrew Free outlined earlier this week, there are options in making Vanderbilt a sanctuary campus– an amorphous term other universities are adopting to varying degrees to address our contemporary cultural and political moment. In other words, there are options available to stand with vulnerable students; your appeal to unjust laws that do not yet exist signals your refusal to do so.  

I have had the privilege of learning with, teaching, and marching with Vanderbilt’s undergraduate and graduate students, and in spite of much uncertainty for the future, I know this: you will hear our response to your letter for far longer than the next four years.

We’ll see you on Thursday, Chancellor Zeppos.


Tatiana McInnis

Tatiana Mcinnes is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English. She can be reached at


  1. “[Y]our appeal to unjust laws that do not yet exist signals your refusal to do so…”

    The laws exist; it is just their enforcement, if it comes, that is uncertain. Chancellor Zeppos is a lawyer–of course he is not going to say that Vanderbilt will violate federal law. I have no doubt that the Chancellor and Vanderbilt will take basically the same steps every other prominent private university takes if the federal government comes to deport Vanderbilt students. Maybe his letter should not have sounded so lawyerly, but he is a just and compassionate person and when the time comes he will do all in his power to protect Vanderbilt students. Don’t, however, think that will include Vanderbilt police confronting ICE. That is pure fantasy.