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Allow ‘Vagina Monologues’ without endorsement

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, January 30, 2006

One concern of President John Jenkins about the “Vagina Monologues” at Notre Dame is, he tells us, the “appearance of endorsement” of some of the values he and others find in the play. As he said, “The repeated performance of the play and the publicity surrounding it suggest that the University endorses certain themes in the play, or at least finds them compatible with its values.” As Jenkins clarified in his talk, the University does endorse some values he finds in the play but does not endorse others. This seems to be moving Jenkins toward the conclusion that he must not allow the event on campus in any way that permits heavy advertising.

I offer the following alternative. If there is indeed confusion about what values from the play the University does and does not endorse, Jenkins and others authorized to speak officially for the University can speak out forcefully about these issues. Jenkins did this in his talk when pledging that the University stands against, for example, violence against women but also stands against views of sexual freedom divorced from Catholic moral teaching. Surely high profile statements from the president such as these, reported widely in both campus and South Bend media, can combat the mistaken “appearance of endorsement.” If needed, reminders of what values the University officially endorses and rejects can be provided, for example, during the week of the play. This educational step would contribute to a healthy dialogue about Catholic values, alternative perspectives, and the role of Notre Dame in a pluralistic society. Adding the voice of Notre Dame to these discussions seems preferable to both the limitations on academic freedom hinted at by Jenkins and the silence on these matters from Father Edward Malloy (which apparently Jenkins believes allowed the mistaken “appearance of endorsement” to continue).

I fear, however, that other remarks from Jenkins show that he has broader objections to the understanding of academic freedom at the heart of higher education today. These deeper misunderstandings of Academic Freedom displayed by Jenkins are, I predict, what will eventually lead to serious conflict on campus. I offer two examples of what appear to be these deeper misunderstandings.

The first emerges most clearly in his distinction between academic freedom for individual faculty and academic freedom for departments. In addition to displaying an apparent lack of familiarity with the centrality of collaborative work in many academic disciplines, Jenkins apparently fails to realize that exactly the same principles of dissociation are in play in both of these cases. Neither individual faculty nor individual departments are generally authorized to speak on behalf of the University. Departments, just like individual faculty, cannot and therefore do not speak for the University in, e.g., hosting speakers, workshops or other activities unless explicitly granted permission to do so. Where there is a lack of clarity, involved parties have a duty to explicitly note that they do not speak on behalf of the University. And if in some cases there is any improper “appearance of endorsement” that Jenkins believes damages the University in any way, clarifying statements of the kind suggested above are entirely appropriate. It is amazing to me that Jenkins showed no familiarity with these central components of academic freedom in his talk.

The second, deeper misunderstanding is this. Jenkins seems to think that the view that his judgment as president ultimately grounds proper inquiry by groups of faculty on campus is compatible with the recognition of the need for “vigorous defense” and recognition of the “sacred value” of academic freedom. These views are not compatible. Within the well defined limits of mutual dissociation, it is individual faculty and groups of faculty who are trusted to pursue and disseminate knowledge as we see fit, subject only to dismissal on grounds specified in our contracts. These principles are clearly articulated in foundational higher educational documents and endorsed almost unanimously in American higher education. If in the end Jenkins abandons these commitments, he is not vigorously defending academic freedom, he is abandoning it.

Fritz WarfieldAssociate Professor department of philosophyJan. 25