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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 amanier@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Monologues’ or dialogue: another perspective

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, February 2, 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). 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 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.

These issues were split up into three parts. Yesterday I discussed doctrinal pluralism and special status of various performing and visual arts. Today I will continue with academic freedom of students and tomorrow I will handle criteria for fair procedures of dispute resolution and adjudication.

3) Student Rights and Freedoms. It is hard to understand the level of passion associated with the current controversy over public presentations of The Queer Film Festival and “The Vagina Monologues” apart from the marked contrast between academic freedom in the classroom and the close administrative regulation of student organizations. If the critical inquiry essential to the intellectual life is to flourish on this campus, political liberals (e.g. the AAUP) insist that the basic standards of freedom of association prevail in student life. But such freedoms have been limited by precisely the same considerations advanced for withholding sponsorship of the aforementioned artistic presentations. Unilateral executive decisions have denied the inclusion of sexual orientation in the non-discrimination clauses associated with our hiring practices. In strictly parallel fashion, recognition of various student GLBTQ organizations and even gay-straight alliances has been denied.

Of course, students and faculty are free to discuss these issues in the classroom, even as we are all free to discuss the relevant Catholic principles in the classroom. But student organizations promoting Catholic teaching on many of the issues at stake in the current controversy (Right to Life) flourish on campus – and are perennially active in efforts to suppress public presentations of dissenting views – while dissenting organizations are refused recognition and all its privileges. The principle “inquiry must be protected so informed advocacy will contribute to the vitality of public life” is severely restricted at Notre Dame by considerations of doctrinal orthodoxy, again as a consequence of unilateral executive decisions not subject to formal procedures of critical review.

Clearly, we must continue to ask ourselves whether or not such restriction is essential to the Catholic character of Notre Dame. Does recognition imply endorsement?

No responsible Catholic expects the role of an educated Catholic laity to be restricted to the sphere of monkish contemplation. That role must be structured by concern for a healthy continuity of critical inquiry and responsible practice. But such combinations cannot flourish in a climate of enforced orthodoxy. Restrictions currently imposed upon student life diminish the vitality of intellectual activity on this campus. Student organizations which seek to continue the discussion of issues open to critical inquiry in the classroom have been denied recognition, or the range of speech permissible in those organizations has been subjected to administrative regulation. No better way of labeling certain activities as “merely” academic has ever been conceived. No wonder that a general lack of enthusiasm for intellectual disputation is so commonly observed as part of the prevailing temper of undergraduate life at Notre Dame.

I have sometimes argued that the marked division of principles governing the academic life of the University and those governing “student affairs” makes Notre Dame a house divided against itself. Of course I speak as a political liberal, but we must ask our most religiously conservative colleagues and students whether the best way to enhance the religious identity of Notre Dame is to ban recognition of dissenting student organizations. It seems instead to broadcast the view that, at Notre Dame, certain very important issues cannot be discussed, nor may students associate to promote their conclusions between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Ed Manier is a professor in the department of philosophy. He can be contacted at amanier@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.

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Monologues or dialogue: another perspective

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, February 1, 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). 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 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.

These issues will be split up into two parts. Today I will discuss doctrinal pluralism and special status of various performing and visual arts while continuing on Thursday with academic freedom of students and criteria for fair procedures of dispute resolution and adjudication.

(1) Pluralism. Notre Dame has clearly become a place where a full range of options on the most controversial topics can be fully and fairly discussed. These topics range from atheism or “naturalism” to various creationist alternatives to evolution, as well as challenges to orthodox views of the place of women in the Church, the morality of war or the death penalty, and the morality of abortion, contraception, and homosexuality, to name just a few. At Notre Dame, the finest scholars of Sacred Scripture can and have contested the views of leading philosophers of religion. Neither doctrinal authority nor presidential wisdom and prudence has imposed litmus tests of orthodoxy as requirements limiting the range of inquiry or the array of viable conclusions presented for public debate.

Although this circumstance is not fully understood or even recognized by many friends of Notre Dame, on or off campus, it has been a mainstay of the status quo here for nearly 40 years.

The practices of an irreducible plurality of approaches to research, pedagogy and publication which have prevailed here for so long they are part of the air we breathe are fully compatible with an array of student, faculty and administrative initiatives intended to “enhance the religious identity” of Notre Dame in areas of scholarship as well as broad sections of student life.

Everyone at Notre Dame should be aware of the essential role played by Catholicism and Catholics at the core – the heart, blood and brain – of this University. Executive functions are reserved for priests of the order of Holy Cross by our statutes. With this status comes the privilege of assigning very high priority to a full range of initiatives which deepen and broaden the influence of Catholicism on campus and in the world at large. This is surely a huge part of what it means for a university to be both Catholic and pluralistic.

(2) Performing and visual arts. It should surprise no one that performing and visual arts are at the center of the current controversy on campus. Presentation of such work to a wide and public audience is as essential to the role of our Departments of English and Film, Television and Theatre as it is to our Department of Athletics. As we have seen over the last ten years, the public performances of the University’s most prominent athletic team are capable of stirring a perfect – and image-shattering – storm of controversy. No one expects Notre Dame football to be played on Cartier field for the instruction of small groups of students of the game.

Shakespeare’s audiences included a broad spectrum of the citizens of London. The theatre did not thrive in the United Kingdom during and for a few years after the Puritan Revolution. Plays, films and the visual arts generally engage the full range of articulate human passion in a way that monographs of Galileo or Descartes, or even those of Darwin and Freud, do not. Both artistic and athletic presentations at academic institutions may, and often do, both instruct and offend a much broader range of spectators than do conferences on academic freedom or abortion and public policy.

As a result, the politically liberal principles of the American Association of University Professors’ statement on Academic Freedom and Artistic Expression insist that “Academic institutions are obliged to ensure that regulations and procedures do not impair the freedom of expression or discourage creativity by subjecting artistic work to tests of propriety or ideology,” and that “Since faculty and student artistic presentations to the public are integral to their teaching, learning and scholarship, these presentations merit no less protection.” At the root of these propositions is the core insight that “essential as freedom is for the … judgment of facts, it is even more indispensable to the imagination.” The threat posed by artistic performance, whether on the stage or in film, is its unparalleled ability to stimulate empathic or abhorrent passion.

A basic question we must continue to pose and try to answer is “Does our Catholic identity require departure from politically liberal principles, including those articulated by the AAUP? Should executive privilege on this campus include the authority to withhold, unilaterally, “sponsorship” of artistic presentations to the general public on the grounds that they are offensive to Catholic moral principles?”

Ed Manier is a professor in the Department of Philosophy.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.