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Carry out simple fact-checking

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, February 14, 2006

My friend and colleague in philosophy, Fritz Warfield, wrote a piece (“Contesting academic equivalence”) in the Feb. 10 Viewpoint section of The Observer critical of a comment made by University President Father John Jenkins in a Catholic News Service (CNS) release of Feb. 3. Warfield quoted Jenkins as having said that academic freedom at Notre Dame “is the same academic freedom that is enjoyed elsewhere.” He then challenged Jenkins and his minions to investigate this claim by asking “presidents and department chairs at major universities whether academic freedom at their institutions permits academic departments to sponsor events as they see fit. The answer one can expect to get is an unambiguous yes.” Warfield pointed his readers to the University of Michigan as a particular example.

Unfortunately, Warfield’s letter fails to provide a context for Jenkins’ remark and appears to perpetuate the myth that secular universities are in every respect freer than Catholic universities. He would have readers believe Jenkins was making a broad generalization about every facet of academic life at major universities, or at least that Jenkins was making a claim about academic departments. Otherwise what academic departments at other universities do would not pose the counterexample that Warfield would like.

And yet the actual context of Jenkins’ remarks reported in the CNS story makes it clear that he was not making any such broad claim. He was simply describing the academic freedom enjoyed by students and scholars to think as they please, publish the results of their research and speak about their respective specialties. CNS paraphrased Jenkins as holding that “At Notre Dame, scholars and students – including non-Catholics – have the right to think what they like, publish their research and speak about their field of expertise.” The story then immediately quoted him as saying “It is the same academic freedom that is enjoyed anywhere else.” The pronoun “it” in the direct quotation from Jenkins clearly refers to the preceding claim about the freedom of students and scholars to publish and speak about fields of expertise. It makes no reference to departments and other academic units within universities, or to the issue of their capacity to sponsor events.

However, the story then immediately reports that Jenkins himself raised the question of the role of academic departments and their sponsorship of events in his examination of questions of academic freedom. Thus the story describes him as suggesting that “a university may want to look critically at what events are being sponsored and seemingly endorsed by its academic departments” in light of the mission and character of the university. Anyone who listened to Jenkins’ talk with the faculty knows that he highlighted this as a central issue for the academic community to think through. As Jean Porter pointed out in her comments at the talk, it is perhaps the most challenging issue we confront, a point that Jenkins readily conceded. For my colleague to insist that the behavior of departments at other institutions settles the case against Jenkins’ quotation in the CNS is both selectively to quote Jenkins out of context and to beg the very question that he has raised and that everyone attentive to his discussion knows that he has raised.

Warfield suggests that it is a simple “fact-checking exercise” to determine that at other major universities, the University of Michigan being his chosen example, “academic departments [are free] to sponsor events as they see fit.” The University of Michigan is an ironic choice. In the late 1980s, it tried to impose a speech code upon the university community so broad that not only was it thought by many to be in conflict with academic freedom, but was struck down by the courts as violating the Constitution of the United States in Doe v. University of Michigan (1989).

Irony aside, on Jan. 27 of this year, the departments of philosophy and theology at the University of Notre Dame sponsored an event, a Roman Catholic Mass to celebrate the vigil feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. Given that St. Thomas is the patron saint of universities and students, this was not only a liturgical event but also an academic event, including an erudite homily about the nature of Catholic intellectual life and universities, as well as prayer for the University, its students, faculty and staff. Several hundred students, faculty, staff and community members filled the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Such an event perfectly exemplifies the Catholic refusal to segregate the worship of God from the intellectual life, or to divorce faith from reason in academics, in contrast to prevailing secular norms like those at the University of Michigan and elsewhere. Or does my colleague really believe that the department of philosophy at the University of Michigan is free to sponsor this type of event “as it sees fit?”

This past autumn, the department of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame sponsored the annual meeting of the American Catholic Philosophical Association. At the request of the leadership of the department, the College of Arts and Letters provided several thousand dollars to underwrite the activities of the Association. In order to bring this association to Notre Dame, the department had to commit itself to official sponsorship so that the Association’s regular daily Masses could take place on campus. This commitment was required by the Association in order to meet here. Again, does my colleague believe that if we asked the chair of the department of philosophy at the University of Michigan, he would claim that his department is free to sponsor this professional gathering of philosophers, as part of its freedom to sponsor events “as it sees fit?” The University of Michigan and its department of philosophy could sponsor Roman Catholic Masses “as [they] see fit?” I doubt that a claim that they do not endorse what they would be sponsoring would cut it in this case.

Of course, the same is true of all secular universities. Their norms and values, including assumptions that religious worship and academic life be rigorously divorced, constrain their freedom to host events such as the annual meeting of the American Catholic Philosophical Association. So much for the myth that secular universities ipso facto have greater academic freedom than Catholic universities.

Notre Dame is free to draw within itself that which is best in the secular academy, particularly the gifts and talents of those who may not share the animating religious faith of its mission. But it is also free to go beyond and above that secular freedom to place what it does at the service and in the hands of the Sacred. As with any freedom, there are particular responsibilities that attend the greater freedom present at a Catholic university, and particular difficulties that will arise because of it, as the community tries to protect and promote that freedom. But in our discussion of those problems, it is worthwhile remembering that they are difficulties that arise and can be considered here precisely because of our greater freedom.

Jenkins described academic freedom as “sacred.” But it is difficult to see how it can be genuinely so in communities that positively exclude any hint of the genuinely sacred from entering into their midst. If academic units such as the department of philosophy at the University of Michigan are unable to sponsor a meeting of a professional association of philosophers, their academic freedom could hardly be described as “sacred,” and Warfield’s claim that they are able to sponsor “events as they see fit” is false. It would appear that he has failed to carry out the simple fact-checking he urges upon Jenkins and his minions.

John O’Callaghanassociate professor of philosophyFeb. 13