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Dorm debate focuses on academic freedom

Kathleen McDonnell | Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Academic freedom and the role it plays in a Catholic university was the topic of discussion Monday as students and faculty members engaged in discussion in the basement of Keenan Hall.

About 25 students attended to listen to and interact with Mendoza College of Business professor Margot O’Brien, theology professor Herald Ernst and Film, Television and Theater chair Peter Holland. Each faculty member opened with his or her general thoughts before engaging audience members in a debate.

O’Brien spoke of Notre Dame’s legal right as an institution to make autonomous decisions. She cited as example a Supreme Court Case that struck down a federal sanction forcing any university accepting public funding to allow military recruitment on campus.

Notre Dame has a right to speak – or abstain from speaking – at its discretion, she said. Lawyers in the Supreme Court case argued allowing military recruitment on campus is a form of speech. In light of the first amendment, the federal government could not compel a university to speak in such a way.

She said this same freedom exists at Notre Dame. In allowing “The Vagina Monologues” to take place, O’Brien argued the University was approving such a production regardless of intentions. She said a Catholic institution should draw the line as to what is immoral. A biology professor performing stem cell research, for example, would not be acceptable, she said.

Holland agreed the University’s problem exists in its sponsorship of the event, but he interpreted the term differently.

Holland argued allowing “The Vagina Monologues” or the former-Queer Film Festival at Notre Dame does not imply advocacy on behalf of the University. Instead, it provides a forum for important discussion, he said.

Holland said academic freedom is a privilege and that a university is, by definition, a place for open debate and discussion, he said.

Ernst framed the debate within another perspective. He used his theology background in discussing the inevitable tension between knowing an absolute truth and broadening horizons at a university.

“Some may ask, ‘if Catholics already know the truth – what’s the point of a university?'” Ernst said. “But seeking always remains. Jesus Christ is the primordial truth, but the truth in itself is inexhaustible. It cannot be fully comprehended.

“That’s the very notion that originated universities in the first place – they arise out of happy confidence in the harmony between faith and reason.”

All three panelists agreed the vast majority of University-sponsored events do not conflict with the maintenance of academic freedom.

Ernst said advocates on both sides aim to maintain the moral integrity of Notre Dame while exposing students to a variety of ideas and perspectives. The differences exist, he said, in the sides’ interpretations of how to present viewpoints contrary to Catholic doctrine. And the disputes, which occur infrequently, concern issues of propriety.

The portrayal of female sexuality sparked the most heated discussion Monday. Students argued the message of “The Vagina Monologues” is empowering, and Holland said while the play is not his favorite, he feels the women of Notre Dame deserve to present their truth.

O’Brien argued the messages on sexuality are against those views of the University.

All three panelists concluded by calling for more discussion and debate. They challenged students to advocate their positions in e-mails to University President Father John Jenkins.

As a student questioned Jenkins’ appeal for input as appeasement, Holland defended Jenkins’ intentions.

“I think Jenkins is a man of great integrity,” Holland said. “We’re lucky to have him as our president. This is not a cover for a decision already made. He’s willing to hear every argument.”