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Speculation centers on events’ fates

Karen Langley | Thursday, January 26, 2006

The annual campus presentations of “The Vagina Monologues” and the Queer Film Festival have provoked controversy since their arrival at Notre Dame in recent years, but University President Father John Jenkins’ academic freedom addresses this week have added a degree of uncertainty to the events’ status as a fledgling campus presence – leaving student organizers and department sponsors puzzled about how to proceed.

Though the two events emerged as focal points of contention in Jenkins’ Monday and Tuesday addresses, the extent and timetable of any changes mandated remain unclear.

Jenkins told The Observer Tuesday he could not say whether “The Vagina Monologues” could continue to be performed annually on campus in the play’s present form.

“[I’ve] given my initial thoughts on that,” Jenkins said. “For the next weeks, months … I will listen. And when you’re listening, you’re always open to have your view changed in a certain way. It’s the persuasive reasons that I’m interested in, and not simply the numbers.”

The president’s speeches may not result in significant changes to this year’s production of “The Vagina Monologues,” sociology department chair Daniel Myers said Wednesday. Sociology, along with English, will co-sponsor the “Monologues” this year.

“At the moment, I don’t think it’ll have any impact,” Myers said. “In the short term, we don’t plan to do anything differently, and we’ll have to see what comes out of the conversations so we’ll have to see how we have to react.

“We’re still in a holding pattern.”

Glenn Hendler, director of undergraduate studies in the English department – who was acting chair of the Gender Studies program when it, along with Film, Television and Theatre, was the first academic unit to sponsor “The Vagina Monologues” on campus in 2002 – said he didn’t recall much initial opposition to the play from the University administration.

“It was generally pretty cooperative.” Hendler said Tuesday. “I remember being asked to provide some language with which we could explain this decision publicly. As I recall, the University made a statement defending not ‘The Vagina Monologues’ themselves, of course, but the decision to stage them.

“A lot of the discussion was to try to draw a distinction – one that I think Father Jenkins seems not to be drawing here – between sponsorship and endorsement.”

Hendler said he and the Gender Studies program pursued approval for the “Monologues” in 2002 first through the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, who passed it on to then-Provost Nathan Hatch and then-President Father Edward Malloy for final approval. Malloy was traveling out of the country this week, his secretary said, and The Observer was unable to reach him for comment.

“I assume Father Malloy was in on those discussions, but I never spoke to him,” Hendler said.

But this year was a different story.

Rather than keeping the decision to sponsor the play among the chair and a few leaders of the English department, the department chose – both of its own accord and at the urging of Arts and Letters Dean Mark Roche – to take a department-wide vote, Hendler said.

It was unanimous.

Of the 30 or so faculty members (out of a department of approximately 40) who attended the vote, all elected to sponsor the “Monologues,” he said. And debate was “definitely more charged” than in 2002.

“Dean Roche did not threaten censorship or anything of the sort,” Hendler said. “Both department chairs [English and sociology] agreed to bring the objections that had been raised [by administrators and faculty members opposed to the ‘Monologues’] back to the department and have a discussion with the faculty, which was a new thing, but something we’d actually planned to do anyway … we didn’t think it was a good idea for one or two people to stand for the department.”

Despite this year’s sponsorship agreements reached by some academic departments, the possibility of such sponsorship of the “Monologues” in future years remains ambiguous, said Peter Holland, chair of the Film, Television and Theatre department.

“Clearly, Father Jenkins is saying it is absolutely permitted under notions of academic freedom to study ‘[The] Vagina Monologues,’ to require a class to read ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and to perform it in class,” Holland said. “We’re not clear what would happen if – totally hypothetically – the department of FTT decided to put on a production of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ as part of the theater season. Would we be able to do it or not?”

In his addresses, Jenkins emphasized the need to reduce “The Vagina Monologues” to its academic essence. Accordingly, this year’s performance will be held in DeBartolo 101 on Monday, Feb. 13 and Tuesday, Feb. 14, said Kaitlyn Redfield, an organizer of “The Vagina Monologues” for the past three years. Redfield contrasted the newly prescribed classroom setting with the production’s previous location in the much larger DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts.

Organizers of “The Vagina Monologues” will also no longer be allowed to charge admission to the play, a change that Redfield viewed as compromising the mission of the production. In previous years, all of the play’s proceeds have gone to the YWCA of Saint Joseph County and S.O.S., a rape crisis center. Those organizations have depended on the $33,000 raised by “The Vagina Monologues” over the past four years to balance their budgets, she said.

“The intention of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ is to raise awareness and money,” Redfield said Wednesday. “If you take one away, it doesn’t fulfill its purpose.”

While Redfield reacted strongly to mandates she sees as compromising the purpose of “The Vagina Monologues,” organizers of the Queer Film Festival accepted orders to tweak the event’s statement of purpose and its name, which Jenkins said could be misconstrued by University outsiders to suggest Notre Dame endorsement of homosexual actions.

The film festival will now be called Gay & Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives, Spectatorships – a name which event co-chair Martin Laina said “better reflects the academic nature of the event.”

“All parties involved are happy with the name of the event, as it more accurately reflects the nature of the event,” he said.

Laina declined to comment further Wednesday on the future of the event.

Amanda Michaels contributed to this report.