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Faculty defends academic freedom

Amanda Michaels | Wednesday, March 8, 2006

The issue of academic freedom dominated discussion at Tuesday night’s Faculty Senate meeting – a debate prompted by the presence of University President Father John Jenkins, who came to respond to the group’s draft statement on the topic.

In the four-page statement drafted last Friday, the Faculty Senate outlined its idea of the principle of academic freedom, listing the related “fundamental obligations” underlying its existence at Notre Dame to be “tolerance of dissent, respect for the University’s mission and a willingness to enter into conversation.”

Jenkins, reading a prepared statement, said he was grateful for the group’s draft and “agreed in general spirit” with it. He did express reservations about several of its points, but said his disagreement could be addressed within the broader frame of his agreement with the statement.

“My primary concern is about clarity about what the statement asserts,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins went on to say the discussions he has participated in since his Jan. 23 and 24 addresses on academic freedom and Catholic character have shown that the way a question is framed makes a great deal of difference in how the conversation proceeds.

He pointed to the series “Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives and Spectatorships” – formerly known as the Queer Film Festival – and the process that went into its name change as an exchange that is “a model of collegial conversation.”

“Rather than being an attempt to silence, [the exchange] was an attempt to express transparency,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins then approached the controversial issue of “The Vagina Monologues,” saying there are two sets of facts about the performance. The first, he said is that the play is “a serious means” of raising and addressing the issue of violence against women and fosters a sense of solidarity among its participants.

But Jenkins’ second point was that groups of both women and men feel “offended and alienated” by the play – seen by some as “an affront to Catholicism.”

“To deny either fact is to [refuse] to listen to both realities,” Jenkins said.

He said the pressing question with the “Monologues” debate and other similar discussions about academic freedom is how to maintain a balance among the diverse perspectives present in a healthy University environment.

Establishing all that as background response, Jenkins then addressed the Faculty Senate’s draft statement of principles more specifically.

Among several suggestions, Jenkins proposed a reevaluation of the word “dissent” as it is used in the context “tolerance of dissent.” He said, from his understanding of the word, “dissent” in a Catholic context refers to a Catholic not keeping with a Church teaching, while “disagreement” would better suit the issues raised by non-Catholics as well.

Jenkins also disagreed in response to the draft statement’s assertion that a disclaimer lifts the burden of endorsement from a department or the University sponsoring an event.

“A certain sort of sponsorship may imply endorsement. If the Political Science department only invited Republicans to speak over four years and no Democrats … all disclaimers would ring hollow,” Jenkins said.

The floor was then opened up to faculty questions and commentary, some of which Jenkins responded directly to.

Associate Dean of the Law School John Robinson asked Jenkins if, in looking at how “The Vagina Monologues” controversy was mediated with the addition of academic panels to the performances, “the solution [to similar debates] would be more speech and not silence.”

“I’m uncomfortable with that, because it makes it sound like quantity is the solution,” Jenkins responded. “You need balance. If there is a tendentious right wing conference here, the problem won’t be solved by bringing in a tendentious left wing conference.”

Physics professor Philippe Collon said while Jenkins and others may object to repeatedly performing “The Vagina Monologues,” students face “the problem of recurrence” as well.

“Students are constantly faced with the same problems,” Collon said. “We have the recurrence of something deeply felt by our students. And students are the ones who always bring [the ‘Monologues’] up for performance.”

Jenkins agreed and said the University must face these recurring problems. To do so, he said Notre Dame must find a way to create a forum that crosses ideological and theological lines.

Philosophy professor Vaughn McKim said he got the sense the “The Vagina Monologues” – if properly examined – “is offering powerful opposition to this administration and this University.”

He expressed concern about the University’s response to the productions.

“You know, these are not abstract lifestyles we’re talking about here,” McKim said. “These are real people who are troubled, sometimes deeply troubled, and we need to address them in a real way.”

Jenkins agreed and said the current discussion was important – but finding a solution was more difficult.

“If you want to talk about sexual assault, let’s talk about sexual assault. We just have to figure out the best way how,” Jenkins said.

Music professor Peter Smith said it should be a challenge for both sides of an issue to find a balanced means of engagement.

He also, however, cautioned about inflating the impact of something like the repeated performance of “The Vagina Monologues.”

“There are few people, looking at the variety of events that go on on campus every year, who would say ‘The Vagina Monologues’ dominates Notre Dame’s cultural life,” Smith said. “I mean, the Music Department sponsors Handel’s ‘Messiah’ every year … so we have to be careful about blowing up the significance of something.”

James Rakowski, economics and policy studies professor, drew the group’s attention to one particular statement in the draft: “No silencing of intellectual or artistic expression based on a perceived or real conflict with the core values of the University can be reconciled with the principles of academic freedom.”

“Does the decision not to fund a proposed event with University money constitute silencing? Because if this is so, silencing occurs all the time,” Rakowski said.

He said the statement made it sound like departments were obligated to fund all proposed events against core Catholic values or else they would be exercising censorship.

Associate professor of marketing John Gaski later agreed, adding the statement even seemed to remove limits on artistic expression and possibly “promoting sin, depravity or crime.”

History professor Gail Bederman clarified, saying “silencing” occurs when something already in the works is shut down because of fears about conflicts with Catholic values, not necessarily when it is in the premature stages of gathering funding.

She went on to say it is especially important for the University to facilitate student speech, even if “[students] say things that are stupid or wrong,” because students are learning how to express themselves in ways faculty members are already well-versed in.

There was later a general consensus to rework that portion of the draft statement.

After a brief recess, Associate Provost Dennis Jacobs briefly presented two proposals regarding academic evaluation.

The first addressed the evaluation of a faculty member’s teaching to inform tenure and promotion decisions and whether the current system was adequate.

“TCE’s [Teacher Course Evaluations] just can’t capture everything, and lack depth,” Jacobs. “We want to report a balanced case about someone’s teaching.”

The proposal enumerated four essential elements of a comprehensive evaluation, including course design, implementation, student learning and student perception. It also recommended the selection of representative courses from a faculty member’s teaching history for in-depth review.

The second proposal examined how to better inform students about courses at the time of registration. After over a year of work, the committee came up with a system that would allow students to process both instructor- and student-provided information about a course, without using TCEs, which are confidential and used for personnel purposes.

“Right now, all students can find is outdated course descriptions … or anecdotes from people down the hall … or something like NDToday.com, which has no restricted access to it,” Jacobs said.

The solution offered is a questionnaire for faculty members to fill out about their course, complete with information about types of materials taught, manners of teaching and learning and primary learning goals.

This information is compiled with information about the courses from the Registrar or the Office of Institutional Research, including enrollment numbers and related courses, as well as student ratings based on a five-question survey handed out with TCEs at the end of each semester.

The questionnaire will be separate from TCEs, Jacobs asserted, and will not be used in any way for personnel matters, but may be published on the same sheet as the TCE for efficiency purposes.

Though details are still being worked out, Jacobs said the hope was this information would be available only to students on insideND.

A third pilot program for the system will be conducted at the end of this semester.