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Contesting academic equivalence

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, February 10, 2006

As quoted in a Catholic News Service release of Feb. 3, Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins said that academic freedom at Notre Dame is “the same academic freedom that is enjoyed anywhere else.”

The article reports that in the reported interview, Jenkins also rehearsed reasons delivered in his address to the faculty for thinking that permitting academic departments to sponsor “The Vagina Monologues” may not be acceptable at Notre Dame.

I have previously discussed Jenkins’ reasoning about this issue. Now I call attention to Jenkins’ claim that academic freedom at Notre Dame is, on his understanding, “the same academic freedom that is enjoyed everywhere.”

Here’s a take home assignment for Jenkins, his staff and for any reporter interested in investigating his claims about academic freedom. Ask 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.”

Clearly some members of the University community believe that because of our Catholic character, academic freedom at Notre Dame should work differently than it does at major universities. I and others disagree and the debate continues.

Jenkins’ remarks indicate that he apparently wants to have it both ways: He wants to say that academic freedom at Notre Dame is the same as academic freedom at, for example, Michigan, but he wants the freedom that Michigan academic departments have to sponsor events as they see fit not to attach to Notre Dame academic departments.

Surely what Jenkins really means is that on his view academic freedom at Notre Dame protects some but not all of the same things protected at other universities. He mentions the right to publish research and the right to think what we want to think. But to leap from these facts to the claim that academic freedom at Notre Dame is the same as at other universities is a move that will not stand up to the truth, as the simple fact-checking exercise suggested above will reveal.

Fritz WarfieldAssociate Professordepartment of philosophyFeb. 8