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Group dissects academic freedom

Maddie Hanna | Thursday, February 9, 2006

Presenting their constituents’ views while articulating their own, senators grappled with the complex topic of academic freedom and Catholic character at Wednesday’s Student Senate meeting – a discussion meant to prepare the group for an upcoming visit from University President Father John Jenkins.

A variety of opinions and concerns surfaced in their dorm communities, senators said.

“The goal of a Catholic university should be to include all students,” Cavanaugh senator Liz Brown said.

Cavanaugh residents worried that a University decision to ban certain events – like “The Vagina Monologues” – could alienate members of the Notre Dame community, Brown said.

Other dorms approached the debate from a charity angle. Zahm senator Pat Knapp said many students told him they were especially concerned about charities that would not receive the expected funds raised in the past by “The Vagina Monologues.”

“We want to know where that money is going to come from, if not ‘The Vagina Monologues,'” Knapp said.

He said his constituents decided the presence of the “Monologues” on campus had no deteriorating effect on their own Catholic character.

“We’re all just as Catholic as we were before knew about [the ‘Monologues’],” Knapp said. “It’s art, before anything else … it’s subjective … meant to evoke emotion, responses.”

Lewis senator Katie McHugh, Siegfried senator Ben Gunty and St. Ed’s senator Fred Thwaites all built on the idea of how a person’s Catholic faith can be strengthened in the presence of opposing views.

Noting Jenkins’ extensive study of the works of Thomas Aquinas, Gunty paraphrased one of Aquinas’ ideas.

“With true knowledge of [your] Catholic faith, you should have no fear of opposition,” Gunty said.

Censoring productions that present non-Catholic values, he said, is “indirectly implying we as students don’t have knowledge of our faith.”

Thwaites said while many times students are raised Catholic, it’s by birth, not choice. Confrontation with a different belief system can help students realize the true nature of their faith, he said.

“When you come to a university like Notre Dame, it’s a very new experience. I think the Catholicism, in a way, should fit that mold,” Thwaites said. “When you come to a university, you’re not forced into the path, you have options. Ultimately, hopefully [questioning students] will choose Catholicism, not [have it] chosen for them.”

And despite Jenkins’ attempts to open the dialogue to the entire campus community – delivering three addresses, putting the speech’s transcript and feed on the Internet and setting up an e-mail address for feedback – there are still plenty of unanswered questions and widespread misunderstanding, senators said.

The boundaries of potential University policies need clarification, Siegfried senator Ben Gunty said.

“I think what some people are concerned about is, ‘where do we draw the line?'” Gunty said.

Both Brown and Walsh senator Erin Hankins said there was confusion regarding the different guidelines for department-sponsored and dorm-run events, citing an apparent double standard.

Hankins read the Open Speaker Policy outlined in duLac – a University statement she said seems to protect the presence of controversial events on campus.

“Notre Dame students and student organizations are free to examine and to discuss all questions of interest to them and to express opinions publicly and privately … [They] may invite and hear any person of their own choosing,” DuLac reads. “Sponsorship of guest speakers does not imply approval or endorsement of the views expressed either by the sponsoring group or the University.”

Physics professor Philippe Collon, Faculty Senate liaison, also drew from duLac.

He quoted the University’s mission statement: “The intellectual exchange essential to a university requires, and is enriched by, the presence and views of diverse scholars and students … Therefore, the University insists upon academic freedom which makes open discussion and inquiry possible.”

Collon testified to the confusion surrounding the University’s guidelines, a haze he said clouds both current debate and “many difficult discussions” to be discovered in the future.

“I think what Notre Dame lacks at the moment is a transparent policy,” Collon said. “I would strongly encourage you to work in that direction.”

Fisher senator Chris Garibaldi said if the University continues to allow “morally questionable” productions and offers them a “place of prominence enjoyed by no other events,” he did not see how Notre Dame could “stop [its] Catholic identify from eroding any further.”

He believed the University’s decision to present “The Vagina Monologues” in a DeBartolo Hall classroom with free admission was a good solution.

“I think that helps academic freedom more than anything else,” said Garibaldi, who thought the free admission could encourage more students to attend the production.

Several senators said the most important avenue to pursue is compromise regardless of the side students take in the debate.

Welsh Family senator Brenna Doyle emphasized the idea of a “common goal” that could satisfy multiple groups and suggested that “Catholic character be infused into [current] events to set standards.”

While some people may see academic freedom and Catholic character as opposing forces, Keough senator Rob Lindley said the two are meant to coexist at Notre Dame.

“Notre Dame should not have to sacrifice its academic character or its Catholic values,” Lindley said. “However, it shouldn’t have to sacrifice its academic values for its Catholic character as well.”

In other Senate news:

Representatives from the College Readership Program addressed senators at the beginning of the meeting to discuss the next step in implementing the program at Notre Dame this fall – a timely discussion, since student body vice president Lizzi Shappell said the Board of Trustees recently approved the $15 student activity fee increase passed by Senate in October.

USA Today account manager Megan O’Connell presented options regarding distribution locations – or “touchpoints” – and distribution receptacles.

“The goal of this program is easy access, convenient and accessible for students,” O’Connell said.

Approximately 2,000 newspapers will be available to students daily next fall. The types and locations of papers have not been determined at this point, but Academic Affairs committee chair Chris Harris will work on these details with Readership Program representatives during the next few weeks.

The Oversight committee presented two resolutions to the Senate modifying the Student Union constitution. Both passed without opposition.

The first resolution grants Senate committees the ability to program events – a power already used by many committees but technically unconstitutional – while the second clarifies certain aspects of the annual transition process.