Monologues or Dialogue: another perspective
Observer Viewpoint | Friday, February 3, 2006
I would like to ponder a number of issues relevant to the recent presidential address, “Academic Freedom and Catholic Character.” These are the topics of (1) doctrinal pluralism at a Catholic University, (2) the special status of various performing and visual arts (staged plays, film, art shows and the like), topics which I discussed Wednesday. The president of the University also discussed (3) the academic freedom of students, but I formulate a reasonable alternative to current and prospective policy in that area, as I discussed Thursday. As a University community we must also give more attention to (4) criteria for fair procedures of dispute resolution and adjudication, as well as the accountability required if executive power is not to be absolute, which I go into today.
4) Procedural guarantees of fairness and accountability. It is hard to describe Notre Dame’s history in this crucial sector as better than “poor” in its guarantees of fairness in the resolution of disputed disciplinary decisions while procedures ensuring the accountability of its leading executives and its Board of Trustees have been “abysmal.” The Board is clearly “accountable only to God.”
Jenkins’ presidential address laid the issue of executive privilege squarely on the table by its insistence on the prerogatives of presidential leadership to proceed unilaterally in the face of an opposed majority and even when facing an opposed faculty consensus. An academy governed by principles of political liberalism need not hamstring its executive by requiring that a president act only at the direction of a faculty consensus or a majority, although it is generally understood that freedom of executive action will be exercised less as faculty grow in professional competence and responsibility. However courageous Jenkins’ declaration of presidential privilege may have been, it is a little strange to hear it praised for its vigor in 2006, when so many resolutions so strongly supported by the Faculty Senate – inclusion of sexual orientation in the University’s non-discrimination clauses, entrance into the Big Ten – have been flatly rejected, without discussion or explanation, by Notre Dame’s executive, its Board of Fellows, and its Board of Trustees.
Just what can and should be done to insure presidential accountability to the faculty and the students of a major Catholic research University containing, as it were, a relatively small Catholic liberal arts college? What must be done in the extreme cases where a president sees himself or herself as an embattled defender of the religious identity of the institution?
The widest possible consultation, exactly of the sort welcomed by Jenkins’ presidential address, although not fully realized in the processes leading up to his address, is surely one essential step toward presidential accountability. But what of those, hopefully rare, circumstances, e.g., in matters having to do with protection of the civil liberties of homosexuals and affiliation with a strong academic consortium, in which the president finds that his duty lies in acting in opposition to a majority of, or a wide consensus among the faculty? In a word, in such circumstances the president owes the rest of the community an explanation of his actions. We all recognize the humor in the punch line “‘Shut up!’, he explained.” And correspondingly we know that the cogency of executive explanations must be subjected to continuing scrutiny and criticism, and that some serious efforts must be made on both sides to reduce the gap between leader and led through mutually respectful and intelligent dialogue.
In other words, the sort of collegial process in which the president, faculty and students of this University are currently engaged, must become a continuing part of ordinary life at Notre Dame. Hopefully, such dialogue will not, in the future, be as sterile and impotent in the transformation of the status quo as it has been in the past.
In conclusion, I am suggesting that the unquestioned doctrinal pluralism – in research, teaching and publication – evidently and steadily growing at Notre Dame for the past four decades has not been matched by any comparable development of procedures ensuring truly collegial participation – by an ever more highly qualified faculty and excellent study body – in the governance of the University. The absence of procedural guarantees of fairness in disciplinary hearings concerning students and faculty has caused unnecessary suffering, as has this same deficit in procedures granting recognition to student organizations. Finally, the members of this University must find ways to hold its top executives and its Board of Trustees accountable for measures which enhance Notre Dame’s religious identity by restricting the range of responsible activity rather than by exercising the many positive, constructive strategies available for that purpose.
Ed Manier is a professor in the department of philosophy. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.