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Jenkins maintains stance, invites response

Maddie Hanna | Wednesday, January 25, 2006

University President Father John Jenkins delved into the relationship between academic freedom and Notre Dame’s Catholic character with more than 500 students Tuesday in an address almost identical to the one he delivered Monday to faculty, using a frank and explanatory tone he later said was necessary to confront the weighty topic.

“I think it was important I said what I thought,” Jenkins told The Observer Tuesday. “I don’t want to come out and say, ‘Really, I’m undecided,’ because that would be dishonest … To say I don’t have any views on this, that would be dishonest.”

Tuesday’s address was slightly pared down for students, omitting sections geared toward faculty, but Jenkins’ message was just as clear – Notre Dame could not protect its “distinctive Catholic character” while permitting on-campus performances of events “clearly and egregiously contrary to, or inconsistent with, the fundamental values of a Catholic university.”

The message made a strong impact on the audience. Students poured into the aisles to line up behind microphones and respond to Jenkins’ stance, focusing their comments on ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and the Queer Film Festival in particular, while others made their opinions known through bursts of applause.

Seemingly rattled at times, rock steady in others, Jenkins responded to the majority of student questions and comments in a direct and engaging back-and-forth manner.

“I’m very comfortable with students. I like students, I like the give and take,” Jenkins said in an interview with The Observer Tuesday afternoon. “We wanted it to be conversational enough so that they could say what they think.”

While he said he has not seen “The Vagina Monologues” or attended the Queer Film Festival, Jenkins told The Observer this would not prevent him from making a fully informed decision on either event.

“I’ve read ‘The Vagina Monologues’ a couple times,” he said. “There are some really great theatrical works, Greek tragedies, that I have never seen performed, but I’ve read, and I feel I know those works pretty well. I think [seeing the play] helps a bit, but I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary.

“The Queer Film Festival, I think I know enough because [my concern] was about the title … and again, that’s been addressed. Because [my concern] really was more superficial.”

Students raised certain issues repeatedly while questioning Jenkins, one being the fear that if “The Vagina Monologues” are not allowed on campus – as they have been the past four years – that victims of sexual assault and rape will be silenced.

Jenkins told The Observer that the issue of violence against women was “always on the agenda.”

“I honestly don’t know what we need at this stage,” he said. “[Violence against women] is something we need to continue to look at, and I imagine I’ll be responding to, but what particular steps are needed at this stage. I am not prepared to say. I’m open to learning.”

The issue of sponsorship was also a recurrent theme in the address and a point of contention for some students, who questioned if Jenkins thought students should not have the right to decide whether or not to participate in, attend or protest controversial events.

That’s not the case at all, he responded.

“I think views that are contrary to Catholic teaching should be presented at Notre Dame. We should engage them, we should think about them, students need to encounter them and make up their minds, and I’m 100 percent behind all that,” Jenkins told The Observer. “That is not only something I would allow, but something I insist on, that range of views.”

But when those views run the risk of denying the University’s fundamental identity, Jenkins said, problems arise.

“When, year after year, we sponsor something or a unit of the University sponsors something that appears to be in conflict with Catholic teaching, the University’s name is used in such a way that it seems to support that which it doesn’t support. It’s more [about] authenticity of character and its representation,” he said. “But that in no way should limit a wide and broad environment and presentation of views, events, artistic productions.”

Regardless of whether they agreed or disagreed with Jenkins, the students who addressed the president – especially those dissenters – conducted themselves admirably, said Glenn Hendler, director of undergraduate studies and associate professor in the English department who attended both Monday’s and Tuesday’s addresses.

“As someone who’s been involved in a couple different productions [of ‘The Vagina Monologues’], I think [Jenkins] misunderstands them, too – both the play itself and its purpose here,” Hendler said. “What was really heartening and made me feel really good today was the reassurance that there are a bunch of really smart students out there who are willing to teach him. That was really inspiring.”

Student body president Dave Baron said he thought students understood and respected the opportunity Jenkins presented and conducted themselves professionally.

“I was extremely proud of the student body,” Baron said. “I thought we held ourselves well.”

Students who couldn’t make it into Washington Hall – capacity is a little over 500 – were sent to a spillover room in LaFortune, Baron said, where the speech was broadcast on campus cable.

He was not surprised by the high turnout.

“I started to feel this was really on the pulse of what the campus was talking about,” Baron said.