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Questions to discuss

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, February 20, 2006

University President Father John Jenkins’ recent addresses on the subject of academic freedom and Catholic character have rightly prompted an intense discussion among members of our community about what academic freedom is generally and, more specifically, about whether Notre Dame would infringe upon academic freedom by refusing to sponsor – or by asking academic units not to sponsor – events that are “egregiously contrary to or inconsistent with the fundamental values of a Catholic university.” Such a debate is a healthy one, especially at an institution that believes that its academic and religious missions are inextricably intertwined (or perhaps that they are one and the same). But Jenkins’ invitation to begin such a discussion also serves as an opportunity to consider the importance of institutional identity and autonomy in the academy. As we engage in this debate, we should not lose sight of the important fact that unique academic institutions – defined by their missions and the decisions that reflect those missions – serve a critical role in the marketplace of ideas. Institutional assertions of identity enhance academic freedom – they do not detract from it. By speaking as Notre Dame, the University amplifies important messages. It may also help check our unfortunate tendency to believe that freedom is something enjoyed only by lonely individuals, rather than also by members of associations who work together to achieve a common goal.

Consider an example: several years ago, Yale Law School (my alma mater) announced that it would no longer permit the Christian Legal Society to interview on campus. Yale adopted this policy because the Christian Legal Society reserves certain high-level positions for Christians. At the time, I wrote the dean of the law school to object. I argued that a full commitment to religious liberty required Yale to respect the Christian Legal Society’s institutional autonomy and noted that the Society’s hiring practices were in keeping with federal anti-discrimination laws. The dean – who is a friend and former professor – respectfully but firmly rejected these arguments. He said that it was critically important for Yale Law School to take a “no exceptions” position against all “discrimination.” Yale’s institutional commitment to the anti-discrimination principle, in his view, trumped concerns about religious freedom in the employment context.

Yale continues to exclude the Christian Legal Society. I am certain that there are members of the Yale Law School faculty who share my view of this policy, but I do not believe that the policy infringes upon the academic freedom of these dissenting faculty members. They remain free to write, speak and teach about the importance of religious liberty – and to argue that Yale’s policy is wrongheaded. The same is true of Jenkins’ suggestion that perhaps a Catholic institution should not sponsor “The Vagina Monologues.” Of course, Yale’s policy and Jenkins’ suggestion prompt different questions, different class discussions and different op-eds. Yale’s decision asks us to consider the appropriate balance between our commitments to religious liberty on the one hand and non-discrimination on the other. Jenkins’ proposal asks us to reflect, generally, upon what it means for an institution to be a “Catholic” one and, specifically, upon whether the Catholic view of sexuality is more respectful of women than the secular one presented in the Vagina Monologues. That Notre Dame asks radically different questions than Yale is both not surprising and good. Notre Dame has different questions to ask – questions that the secular world will be enriched by hearing. Jenkins’ invitation to consider how Notre Dame might ask such questions, institutionally, while respecting the academic freedom of dissenting faculty and students is a welcome one.

Nicole Stelle Garnettassociate professor of lawFeb. 18