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Group enters freedom debate

Amanda Michaels | Thursday, February 2, 2006

Focusing on what several members called the most important issue they will face during their time on campus, the Student Senate heard feedback from three committees about the current debate on academic freedom at its meeting Wednesday night.

The discussion, which involved the Committees on Gender Issues, Academic Affairs and University Affairs, is part of a three-week process to articulate student government’s position in regards to academic freedom at Notre Dame, said student body vice president Lizzi Shappell.

Last week, the committee chairs were asked to gather insight from their committees and report back the major concerns and thoughts at Wednesday’s meeting. All representatives are to spend the next week gathering the positions of their constituents on the issue, in hopes that they will help craft a resolution by Feb. 15.

“It is very important, now more than ever, for you to go back and be a representative for your dorm. [Senate] is the group most often looked to as a gauge of student opinion, so we want to be as informed as possible before we take any kind of stance,” Shappell said.

Ali Wishon, chair of the Committee on Gender Issues, voiced the concerns of her committee members with the possible repercussions of any policy decisions based on the Jan. 23 and 24 speeches delivered by University President Father John Jenkins.

Among those listed were the fears of a less academically diverse environment leading to a decline in top faculty recruitment, which would threaten both Notre Dame’s status as a top 20 university and the value of a University diploma.

“We’d also like to look beyond, and know how far the reach of any policy changes will extend,” Wishon said. “Will events like the Keenan Revue or the Dillon Pep Rally be threatened?”

The committee also questioned why discussion was limited to notions of sexual morality, when “there is so much more to Catholicism than that,” Wishon said.

It was recommended that student government’s position encompass students’ opinions on academic freedom at Notre Dame as a whole, rather than focus directly on the hot-button topics of “The Vagina Monologues” and the former Queer Film Festival.

Chris Harris, chair of the Committee on Academic Affairs, said his committee reflected more on the question of what position student government should have.

“The overwhelming response was one of questioning,” Harris said. “One [committee member] was unsure if we should take a stance at all since we represent the entire student body, one [committee member] thought neutrality was the best stance and someone else said students we be upset if [Senate] didn’t take a stance.”

The Committee on University Affairs, according to committee chair Matt Walsh, suggested that student government should set up meetings within dorms as well as larger format debates to encourage discussion among students.

“[Senate] needs to explore both sides of the argument and see how students really feel, because it is important to represent the views of the entire student body,” Walsh said.

At the end of the discussion, Walsh noted the greater importance of the academic freedom debate.

“We need to remind ourselves that not only are we a Catholic university,” he said, “but that we are considered by many as ‘the’ Catholic university.”