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Faculty angry, pleased with first of academic addresses

Amanda Michaels | Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Furiously scratching down notes, leaning over to conference quietly with a neighbor, murmuring with approval or dissent – all things considered, the crowd of faculty members gathered to hear University President Father John Jenkins speak Monday night looked the part of the students they normally preside over.

But this was not the typical class lecture, as several of the listeners were quick to respond to the president with high praise and fiery critiques.

Encouraged to add their voices to the “conversation” about the struggle to maintain both the Catholic character of Notre Dame and the academic freedom necessary to cultivate a healthy University environment, faculty took advantage of the post-speech formal question-and-answer session as well as time set aside for more personal discussion during the post-address reception to raise concerns about the more controversial elements of Jenkins’ statement.

“Sexuality” was the watchword of the evening, with “The Vagina Monologues” – an explicit play that’s been a point of fierce debate since its arrival on campus four years ago – taking the prominent place in discussion after Jenkins’ assertion that he does not think the play should be performed at Notre Dame.

Margot O’Brien, an associate faculty member in the College of Business, said she supported Jenkins’ view that the “Monologues” were not the appropriate means to achieving the ends of eliminating violence against women and affirming the gift of their bodies. She also took it one step further, denouncing the scandal and degradation of both sexes she said came with the play.

Borrowing a phrase Jenkins used to describe the consequences of losing a diverse and open university environment, O’Brien said if the moral path paved by the “Monologues” is followed, “we will lose our souls.”

Emily Phillips, assistant professor of Film, Television and Theatre, opposed this viewpoint, ushering the role of the students who annually perform the play back into the equation.

“The reason that this play is here on this campus is because it was chosen by the students … To take that away from them and to say it can only be in an academic setting which cuts down on the audience … it takes away a voice of students,” Phillips said, responding to Jenkins’ decision that this year’s “Monologues” production will be held in a classroom rather than on stage. “And that, for lack of a better phrase, isn’t right.”

Film, Television and Theatre chair Peter Holland’s comments for Jenkins led to the most heated exchange of the night, as Holland expressed worry about the president’s “finely discriminated judgment of what is acceptable and what is not.”

“The University is a place [for] intellectual discussion…works we disagree with should be performed, read and discussed, and I’m concerned about where we’re going to draw the line,” Holland said.

Holland and Jenkins then argued about how the frequency of a certain performance affects its acceptability at Notre Dame, with Jenkins saying “The Vagina Monologues”‘ annual occurrence implied the University’s continued endorsement of the play’s values, and Holland countering there was no play his department would sponsor every year, regardless of its relationship to Catholic teaching.

Holland, in response to the suggestion in Jenkins’ address that a certain passion play, whose “anti-Semitic elements are clearly and egregiously opposed to the values of a Catholic university,” would not be shown at Notre Dame, brought up as a counter-example “The Merchant of Venice” – the Shakespearean play notorious for its anti-Semitic overtones, which is set to be performed on-campus in a month by the Actors from the London Stage.

Margaret Doody, a professor of English whose sarcasm-laced comments stirred the most laughs from the crowd, had likewise brought up “The Merchant of Venice” in the larger context of the promises of freedom made by both Christianity and universities, warning against the possibility of slipping back into a restrictive era in higher education akin to McCarthyism.

She also firmly spoke against Jenkins’ statement that the name of the initiative “Her Loyal Daughters” – the “Her” referring to the Virgin Mary – calling for student papers on “sexual experience, abortion, contraception, theology of the body and a number of other issues” appeared to be “intentionally offensive” and even “blasphemous” because of the initiative’s subject matter.

Doody fired back, “I … want to register my objection to naming Our Lady the patron of the pretty and the proper and the limited, [for] that is surely not the kind of woman I find her.”

Other faculty comments during the formal session spoke to broader concerns, including the true definition of sponsorship – which, “not censorship,” Jenkins said was his focus – as well as the separation between the views of the University and its contingent members and departments.

In the more relaxed setting of the Performing Arts Center lobby as clumps of faculty members drifted around following the 20-minute formal session, the discussion turned to the topic of discussion itself.

“I’ve been on the faculty for 26 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen a forum like this where people were invited to discuss deeply held feelings and issues,” said Teresa Phelps, professor of law and Kroc fellow.

Jenkins was several times praised for his “bravery” in making such a strong move so early in his presidency.

“It was really a courageous thing, for a new president to put himself out there in such a way that he is open for discussion with the faculty but is at the same time standing for an opinion,” said Daniel Groody, assistant professor of theology.

Gail Bederman, professor of history, agreed.

“It was an extremely positive thing to do, and certainly not an easy thing to do, getting in front of the faculty who [Jenkins] knows have very strong opinions on these issues, just laying them out for folks to engage with,” she said.

Though Bederman said she disagreed with Jenkins’ stance on “The Vagina Monologues” and similar events – saying that to exclude them from the University would “shut down a lot of hard intellectual work” – she fully embraced his open approach to decision-making.

“‘Authority versus Academics,’ this is a huge issue that has been dealt with for quite awhile,” she said. “[Jenkins] has to make the hard decisions, and for him to stand up and say, ‘I’m happy to talk, we can have a forum’ … I just hope the faculty and students realize what a model this is at what should happen at a university.”