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Jenkins to address academic freedom

Justin Tardiff | Wednesday, January 18, 2006

University President Father John Jenkins will discuss the interplay between academic freedom and Notre Dame’s Catholic character in three open-dialogue addresses next week, a decision spurred by recent heightened debate about the Queer Film Festival and Vagina Monologues.

“Academic freedom is an essential value in any university community, and our Catholic character is essential to Notre Dame,” Jenkins said in a statement Tuesday. “I want to address both these central values, and seek comment and discussion from the University community. I believe such discussion is an important one for Notre Dame and Catholic higher education in general.”

Jenkins will not make a policy announcement in favor or against certain productions during his addresses, but will simply initiate dialogue, University spokesman Dennis Brown and vice president of Public Affairs and Communication Hilary Crnkovich said.

Professors and students said they were encouraged by Jenkins’ decision to speak publicly about two contentious and central aspects of the University’s identity.

James Collins, associate chair of the Film, Television and Theatre Department, which has traditionally co-sponsored the Queer Film Festival and Vagina Monologues, said the addresses have already built anticipation.

“I’m delighted he’s giving the talk on where he stands on all of this. Right now I think clarification of where he stands in really important,” Collins said. “A lot of people are imagining he’s going to be for or against it and he hasn’t said anything one way or another. With people so polarized on this campus, each convinced that Jenkins is on their side, it is very useful for him to articulate where he stands.”

While the Queer Film Festival and Vagina Monologues – the former entering its third year at Notre Dame, the latter its fifth – have particularly polarized the campus, Brown said the two events would serve as examples rather than focal points in the address Jenkins will deliver to faculty on Monday, students on Tuesday and alumni on Thursday.

Brown said he did not believe a decision had been reached about whether to change the name of the Queer Film Festival, a possibility raised in December.

Each address’ audience will be allowed a chance to respond with comments or questions, an open discussion concept that quickly generated a positive response from the Notre Dame community.

“It’s important that Father John is telling us what his thoughts are because [the academic freedom issue] has caused a lot of discord in the community,” said anthropology professor James McKenna, whose department has previously sponsored the Queer Film Festival. “What’s important is the ability of these issues to be addressed by all constituencies of the campus.”

But he also expressed uncertainty – a feeling he believes many professors share.

“I think all of us are thinking the same thing, [that is] we don’t have a sense of what he’s going to say,” McKenna said. “It is interesting because everyone is interested in it. Everyone thinks this has a lot of implications in order for our University to be great.”

Crnkovich said the new year provided a good opportunity for new University leadership to initiate discussion on important topics such as academic freedom.

“A university setting is a wonderful place to encourage points of view and discussions of importance,” she said.

Jenkins prioritized student involvement in the discussion through an invitation Executive Assistant to the President Frances Shavers extended to student body president Dave Baron during winter break. On Jan. 2, Jenkins, Shavers, Baron and student body vice president Lizzi Shappell met while in Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl to discuss the possibility of a dialogue involving students, Baron said.

“I appreciate and respect the approach [Jenkins] is taking with this, especially his effort to include as many people as possible in the discussion,” Baron said. “That’s extremely respectful of us, as students in particular.”

Baron said he believes there will be a sizeable student turnout at Tuesday’s discussion.

Jenkins has no choice but to confront an issue of this magnitude, said Charles Rice, law school professor emeritus, who has previously opposed both the Vagina Monologues and the Queer Film Festival.

“I think that’s part of his responsibility as president to address this issue,” Rice said. “I did not expect it but I think it’s an indication that he is taking this very seriously, which is a very good sign.”

Philosophy professor Ed Manier, who has in the past been outspoken in defense of academic freedom issues, including the Queer Film Festival, said predictions about what the president will reveal are at this point speculative.

“My initial reaction is more in the wait and see mode,” Manier said. “Jenkins is a serious man and this is an important talk. I think it will be a good idea to listen to the talk with something like an open mind … I certainly plan on attending.”

Students involved with the Vagina Monologues production are also anxious to hear what Jenkins has to say, director Madi Liddy said.

“We just discussed that we’re going to keep an open mind,” Liddy said. “Although there’s a lot of drama about the Vagina Monologues, we’re also really willing to hear what he has to say about academic freedom … We all want to go.”

The co-chairs of this year’s Queer Film Festival were not available for comment Tuesday.