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University president’s remarks met with applause, criticism from a divided student crowd

Mary Kate Malone | Wednesday, January 25, 2006

University President Father John Jenkins’ Tuesday address to students on academic freedom and Catholic character garnered no less criticism and controversy than did his speech to the faculty a day earlier.

Begged not to shut down controversial student initiatives and accused of being overly concerned with Notre Dame’s appearance, Jenkins repeatedly promised to listen to all opinions before delivering a final policy.

Senior Kaitlyn Redfield blinked back tears after speaking during the question-and-answer session that followed Jenkins’ talk.

“My guess is that you have not witnessed the pain as intimately as I and so many other women have – that one in four women will graduate from this University having been raped,” Redfield said. “In my several years of involvement in this issue here, I have seen no movement that has remotely begun to address this epidemic and this population as the Vagina Monologues have.”

Redfield has been a strong voice for feminists at Notre Dame. She organized the Vagina Monologues for the last two years and crafted the Campus Life Council resolution that created the Gender Relations Center.

Jenkins kept his composure and managed several smiles, even as emboldened students from all corners of the University peppered him with questions and accusations.

Student Jeff Hall asked Jenkins to clarify his stance on why the Vagina Monologues should not be allowed on campus. Jenkins replied that the name associated with the event could seem to be endorsed by the University.

“So you’re more concerned with appearance to outsiders?” Hall asked.

Jenkins countered immediately.

“It is sort of about perception, but it’s about the integrity of my views,” he said. Applause erupted.

Tom Miller, a graduate student in creative writing, questioned the scope of Jenkins’ statements, adding that in order to graduate, he and his classmates must read their creative works publicly – works that could contain controversial material.

“Do we have your assurance that while we are members of a program here at Notre Dame, we will be allowed to write and publish in literary journals and read off campus and in conference our creative work, without fear of censorship, even if there are situations or characters that run counter to the teachings of Catholicism?” Miller asked.

“Yes. Yes, absolutely,” Jenkins said.

While the vast majority of student response was doubtful, at best, of Jenkins ‘statements, views in support of his remarks were still present.

“There’s a battle raging on campus and, [supporters of the Vagina Monologues] are on the losing side,” said junior John Sikorski, commissioner for Notre Dame Right to Life, who prayed outside the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center last year during the staging of “The Vagina Monologues.”

“There is clearly a very vocal minority on campus involved in “The Vagina Monologues.” [And there is] another group very dedicated to ensuring the Catholic perspective … to offer a positive way for students to grow in their spiritual life,” Sikorski said. “Organizers of [‘The Vagina Monologues’ and Queer Film Festival] are completely opposed to everything we’re doing.”

Conversely, senior Zachary Ortiz likened “The Vagina Monologues” to the later works of the famous Spanish artist Francis Goya, whose work reflected the “darker and more contorted aspects of humanity. It focused on topics that words cannot do justice to.”

“The Vagina Monologues are akin to these paintings,” Ortiz said. “They elucidate the real cultural experiences of women and their sexuality. Unfortunately they do not agree with Catholic teaching on sexual morality … If you [Jenkins] disagree with this piece of art, that is your prerogative, and I can say nothing about that, but please don’t take over our freedom to express such a work of art.”

Jenkins and nearly all students – from those staging and organizing the events to those praying for the organizers – agreed on the ultimate goal to end violence against women. The polarization emerged on the best way to achieve those ends.

“I saw ‘The Vagina Monologues'” my freshman year,” said senior and Right to Life president Arina Grossu. “I was completely objectified. I felt like a vagina. I felt the play made any sexual act appropriate … [It] gives the University a bad reputation because it loses its Catholic identity. I feel strongly about ending it.”

Planted on the other side of the issue, Jill Weidner, an assistant rector in Howard Hall, said squelching events in contention with Catholic doctrine risks being too restrictive.

“One of the first things we learn [as assistant rectors] is that we serve a very diverse student body,” Weidner said. “I’m concerned that when [Jenkins] speaks of a limit on things that encourage a lot of dialogue like ‘Vagina Monologues’ … that are put on by students, it sends a message that only one kind of interpretation is permitted – that which falls in line with Catholic doctrine.”

Redfield left Jenkins’ speech concerned and convinced that the majority of the student body feels the same.

“Even if students don’t agree with [‘The Vagina Monologues’], most students are concerned that their freedom of speech is in quite a bit of danger,” she said.

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