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Questions remain on sponsorship, image

Maddie Hanna | Thursday, January 26, 2006

University President Father John Jenkins spoke with conviction and clarity in his addresses on academic freedom and Catholic character this week, but professors and administrators say the future implications for individual departments and the broader image of the University are still murky.

“This is a situation where the very best features of Notre Dame can emerge,” Provost Thomas Burish said. “Father has asked not simply for people to endorse one action or another regarding ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and the Queer Film Festival, but he’s asked them to help him with a more difficult challenge – how does one integrate principles such as academic freedom and the commitment to the Catholic identity of Notre Dame?”

But this sense of openness – a newly revealed quality of Jenkins’ presidency – also creates a less certain outlook.

“I think it’s too early in the conversation to be making judgments about whether our autonomy as a department will be threatened,” said Peter Holland, chair of the Film, Television and Theatre Department that has sponsored the Queer Film Festival in the past. “I think the thing that needs [to be] clarified is the difference between sponsorship and endorsement.”

For Holland, who sent a detailed letter to Jenkins Wednesday, there’s a schism between the two. He believes Jenkins does not draw the same distinction.

“We sponsor talks and events and such as a department, but it doesn’t mean we endorse any particular view. When we sponsor anything we try to have different points of view represented,” he said. “Generally, at least in our department, we don’t view sponsorship as endorsement. That allows for academic discourse.”

Many of the questions Jenkins fielded from faculty and students after his Monday and Tuesday addresses hinged on his frequent mention of sponsorship and its relationship to public image. His critics in both audiences accused Jenkins of being overly preoccupied with image and projecting an appearance of Catholic character rather than cultivating its reality.

But associate professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Ethics and Culture W. David Solomon said Jenkins is not a man to worry about perception.

“I don’t think he’s overly concerned with that at all,” Solomon said. “Jenkins was concerned with substance. His concern is not what the wider world thinks about Notre Dame. We’re not trying to please everybody – what he’s concerned about are the sacred truths at the heart of the Catholic tradition.

“I think the stuff about perception is a red herring brought forward by Father Jenkins’ critics who don’t realize how serious he is. We’re concerned about what kind of University we should be.”

Jenkins established that serious tone even before he spoke a single word, Solomon said.

“The tension in the room [Monday] before the speech was quite remarkable,” Solomon said. “I don’t recall when a president at Notre Dame has commanded the attention of the faculty quite the way Father Jenkins did. In the importance of the community, I don’t think we’ve had anything quite like it since [University President Emeritus] Father [Theodore] Hesburgh announced the ‘Fifteen Minute Rule’ [placing restrictions on student protest in 1969] so many years ago.”

The “Fifteen Minute Rule” drew a flood of national attention and sparked a slew of national imitators as panicking universities across the country looked to Notre Dame’s example of where to draw the line on campus unrest. And now the University’s national reputation hinges in part on Jenkins’ eventual decision.

“I think that the opportunity for Notre Dame to deal constructively and respectfully with this issue in a straightforward fashion, respecting the views of all members of the community … would reflect very well on the community,” Burish said.

But when the discussion ends, possibly somewhere between six and eight weeks from now, Jenkins will be forced to make a decision that will undoubtedly provoke both satisfaction and dismay.

The less obvious answer is what effect a decision – should Jenkins decide that certain events could not take place on campus – would have on the type and caliber of students and faculty Notre Dame attracts.

English Department chair Stephen Fredman said he interviewed several candidates at a national convention in December looking for teaching jobs at Notre Dame who asked him directly about the campus climate toward gay and lesbian students and faculty. He mentioned the presence of “The Vagina Monologues” and Queer Film Festival on campus.

“If word gets out that these artistic events are forbidden in the future, it will be much harder to recruit high-quality candidates – both Catholic and non-Catholic – to our faculty,” Fredman said.

He said he has also seen a letter from a distressed mother concerned that her freshman daughter might not be able to perform in “The Vagina Monologues.”

“She was trying to encourage her daughter to stay at Notre Dame and not transfer, but felt it would be hard to continue doing so if her daughter were denied the educational opportunity that performing in ‘The Vagina Monologues’ would afford her,” Fredman said. “I can’t imagine that this reaction by a student and her parent would not be repeated many times over, should be seen as a school that restricts academic freedom in such ways.”

No matter what course Jenkins pursues, he currently sees the impact of his decision on Notre Dame’s reputation in a somewhat hazy light.

“We’re at an early stage and I haven’t looked down that road, but I think what we have to do first is declare who we are and be true to that, and I think that is what will attract students, not any manufactured presentation,” Jenkins said.

Amanda Michaels contributed to this report.