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After debate, inaction can’t continue

Staff Editorial | Friday, February 16, 2007

When questions arose last spring about sponsorship and endorsement of potentially controversial student productions, debate erupted. Outraged faculty members spouted off against the University administration, vehemently defending academic freedom and the right of academic departments to sponsor events like the “The Vagina Monologues.”

Ten weeks later, University President Father John Jenkins released a statement intended to close the charged and often polarized discussion that he began. That statement said the “Monologues” would not be banned on campus, as long as they were performed in an academic setting with departmental sponsorship. Faculty members – at least those willing to comment publicly – widely regarded Jenkins’ decision as moderate, expressing satisfaction that academic freedom was preserved.

So one year later, why are academic departments so slow to jump on board with the upcoming “Monologues” and “Qlassics,” last weekend’s follow-up to both “Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Spectatorship and Narratives” and, before that, the Queer Film Festival?

This year’s installment of “The Vagina Monologues” will be performed off campus because organizers say they can’t get sponsorship. And “Qlassics,” while supported financially by the Film, Television and Theatre department and the Gay and Lesbian Alumni of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, underwent a name change because faculty warned organizers against using the words “gay” and “lesbian” in its title.

At this point, it’s unclear why departments seem hesitant to sponsor. It’s possible student organizers just got a slow start in asking for support. It’s possible other priorities are taking precedent. It’s also possible department chairs are engaging in a form of self-censorship, tired of arguing with the University about the place of Eve Ensler’s sexually explicit play on a Catholic campus.

Whatever the case, it comes off as strange that departments wouldn’t fully exercise the right they fought so hard to protect. And if that’s the future for these productions – off campus, or just unnoticed – it will hurt the entire University community.

As he issued his closing statement last spring, Jenkins commended students and faculty members for engaging in thoughtful, concerned debate. Unfortunately, that debate now seems to be lost. Maybe the campus is tired. But if Notre Dame lets these sources of contention slip under the radar – if departments aren’t willing to sponsor events that generate discussion – everyone loses.

Without dialogue and dissent, Notre Dame lacks vibrancy. It doesn’t matter what people think of the “Monologues,” or “Qlassics,” or any other student-run event that presents ideas in opposition to Church teaching. It just matters that they think about them.

That starts with departments, however. And if they don’t remember why academic freedom is important, no one will.