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IN FOCUS: Other Catholic universities weigh in on policy

Katie Perry | Thursday, April 6, 2006

While peer Catholic institutions were reluctant to praise or pass judgment on Notre Dame’s understanding of the relationship between academic freedom and Catholic character – as outlined in University President Father John Jenkins’ statement Wednesday – college spokespersons said the same discussion has permeated campuses nationwide.

“I am very determined that we not suppress speech on this campus,” Jenkins said in the statement. “I am also determined that we never suppress or neglect the Gospel that inspired this University.”

A number of parallels link the situation at Notre Dame to that of other Catholic universities.

Erik Smulson, assistant vice president for Communications at Georgetown University, said Georgetown has a similar position on performances of the controversial play on its campus.

“Georgetown University does not endorse the views presented in ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ but respects the rights of students to do so,” he said.

Jenkins said he still believes the production’s “portrayals of sexuality stand apart from, and indeed in opposition to, Catholic teaching on sexuality,” but maintained the Church has “nothing to fear from engaging the wider culture” – an attitude that closely parallels that of Georgetown.

“As an academic community committed to the free exchange of ideas, it is important that students, faculty and staff at Georgetown are able to engage in dialogue on important issues of the day,” Smulson said.

For three years, students performed “The Vagina Monologues” at the University of Dayton, where the production stirred controversy in the college community.

This year, students wrote and performed an original production – “UD Monologues” – that adapted the premise of the former play to fit student experiences at the University.

On Wednesday, Jenkins said student leaders of “The Vagina Monologues” have proposed producing their own play entitled “Loyal Daughters,” which would integrate their own experiences at the University.

Teri Rizvi, associate vice president for Public Relations at the University of Dayton, said the school “believe[s] that a Catholic university is a place of dialogue.”

As a result, she said the university has “supported students’ rights to stage the play and draw attention to the larger issue of violence against women.”

“Like Notre Dame, the University of Dayton has concerns about some of the material in the play,” Rizvi said. “When students did stage [“The Vagina Monologues”], they ran a number of educational forums to address the serious societal issue of violence against women.”

Notre Dame ran a similar series of discussions this February to parallel its own showings of the “The Vagina Monologues.”

But not all Catholic universities tolerate the play.

In March, Marquette University joined nearly a dozen other universities and forbade production of “The Vagina Monologues,” on its campus.

Mary Pat Pfeil, senior director of University Communication at Marquette, declined comment Wednesday but referred to a previous statement issued by the school during its own debate over the play.

The statement said Marquette’s Office of Student Affairs advised two students that alternative ways of promoting awareness about “the serious issue of violence against women” should be emphasized, rather than performances of “The Vagina Monologues.”

Father Andy Thon, vice president for Student Affairs, met with students on Feb. 14 and said while the University “unequivocally supports efforts by student groups and university offices to address any instances of violence against women,” he still had several concerns about performances of the play on campus.

His first concern, Thon said, was the “short time frame” before the proposed March production date that “preclude[d] the educational dialogue that needs to precede such an activity.”

Thon also said there were “better ways” to address the issue of women’s violence at Marquette. The focus should be on the substantive issue, rather than debate over a particular play, he said.

Furthermore, he said two academic departments had no desire in sponsoring the production.

In February 2005, the Cardinal Newman Society – an organization dedicated to “renewing and strengthening the Catholic identity” of colleges in the United States – issued a statement asking Catholic women to condemn “The Vagina Monologues” at schools affiliated with the Church.

Notre Dame’s present stance reflects the approach to the issue of academic freedom and Catholic character outlined in the 1967 “Land O’ Lakes” statement.

The assembly of Catholic university leaders that created the statement asserted that universities “must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external or the academic community itself.”

Leaders also urged universities to uphold a “perceptively present and effectively operative” Catholic character.