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Student government invites academic freedom discourse

Kathleen McDonnell | Thursday, March 2, 2006

In preparation for University President Father John Jenkins’ impending visit to the Student Senate, student government hosted a discussion on issues surrounding academic freedom Wednesday night.

The event attracted approximately 15 students to the Coleman-Morse lounge in a discussion intended by student government as a way to involve as many student opinions on this issue as possible before its presentation to Jenkins Friday. In his Jan. 24 speech to students, Jenkins called for the entire student body’s consideration of issues concerning academic freedom.

“We’ve already solicited information from each dorm through dorm senators, and this discussion tonight is to include those whose opinions have not yet been heard,” said senior Matt Walsh, chairman of the Senate’s University Affair Committee. “Father Jenkins wants to hear how the student body feels.”

An e-mail sent to Notre Dame students by student government said the event called for the inclusion of randomly-selected small groups to ensure a diverse spectrum of student views was represented.

Senators said previous dorm-sponsored debates greatly contributed to the low turnout, which made the single discussion group appropriate.

Armed with a handout containing number of intended questions, the group jumped into discussion. While strong viewpoints on both sides of the issue were expressed, students remained respectful and strove to find common ground rather than flare up on points of contention.

One issue up for debate was whether Notre Dame can be both a Catholic institution and a top-20 university. While one student used Harvard as an example of the secularization of a religiously-affiliated school at the top of national standings, many students argued that Notre Dame is a top 20 university because of its Catholicism. Furthermore, they said the concept of high academic quality and a high moral standard are not at all in contention.

“Why is it a question of either or? We can be both,” sophomore John Trippi said.

Trippi said a problem arises if Notre Dame becomes too exclusive in its definition of Catholic character or if line-drawing is taken too far.

“If we really want to adhere to Catholic dogma in all areas of the University, there will be a great deal of censoring,” he said. “[The Student Union Board], for instance, showed ‘Saw II,’ ‘The 40 Year Old Virgin’ and ‘Jarhead’ this year – all of which are completely against Catholic morality.”

The question of line-drawing was a point of contention for the group. With residence halls so crucial to campus life, students questioned the administrative assertion that hall events can be kept free from this debate.

A few students wondered if a women’s hall performance of the “Vagina Monologues” – in a fashion similar to that of Keenan’s Revue or Dillon’s Pep Rally – would be deemed acceptable by the University.

Those two events in particular, the Keenan Revue and the Dillon Pep Rally, were in the context of one underlying issue of academic freedom – that of sexuality here at Notre Dame. Some students said such events portray women in a less than desirable fashion, but as dorm events it is understood that the jabs are lighthearted ones.

“‘The Vagina Monologues’ did not set out to present a holistic sense of sexuality,” senior Jackie Clark said. “Just like in ‘Harry Potter’ with Lord Voldemort, you have power over something if you can name it – that is the point of the play.”

Other students said the play objectifies women and presents sexuality in ways wholly opposed to all for which Notre Dame stands.

The group stood in relative agreement over a middle-ground suggestion offered by junior Jack Calcutt, who said the University should both foster the growth of a Catholic culture and focus on tackling important issues – especially those of homosexuality and female sexuality – at Notre Dame.

“For many onlookers, being associated with Notre Dame is being associated with Catholicism,” he said. “We have a lot to contribute to our Catholic culture because Notre Dame is a pretty unique place. There are many people who want us to choose one path or the other, to choose a side.

“I’d like to see what events Jenkins feels would foster Catholic character – especially in light of these critical issues – and that way we could come to some sort of consensus.”