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Freedom and Responsibility

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, February 2, 2006

By the standards of the genre, University President Father John Jenkins’ inaugural address last September was better than most, rising above the merely platitudinous to make the sort of proposals with which one might conceivably disagree. I disagree with one myself. Jenkins’ plan to increase the intellectual engagement of undergraduates by quadrupling the amount of students who participate in research as “fellow inquirers with the faculty” severely underestimates the period of apprenticeship that most academic disciplines require before students – the occasional prodigy notwithstanding – can engage in original research that represents a real contribution to their field. It would be a disservice to students to flatter them into believing otherwise.

For the most part, however, Jenkins kept the discussion of the challenges facing Notre Dame during his presidency at a safely abstract level. He was much bolder when he spoke to the University’s faculty, students, and alumni last week on the subject of academic freedom and the University’s Catholic character, and initiated an open, heated and necessary debate.

Whether the debate will be productive remains to be seen. Since Jenkins stated very clearly that he “will not lead by consensus, nor by majority vote, nor in response to the pressures that individuals or groups inside or outside the University may bring to bear,” I would have thought that it would behoove his critics to at least pretend to pay attention to what he actually said, but many preferred to respond not to the speech he gave but instead to the speech which they are confident that – as a heterosexist puppet of wealthy alumni with hankerings for a return to the good old days of the Inquisition – Jenkins must have given.

Having first noted Jenkins’ insistence that his mind is not yet made up on these matters, let’s review his treatment of the two most reliable annual sources of controversy on campus, The Queer Film Festival and “The Vagina Monologues.”

Jenkins said the first will go ahead under a title that more accurately conveys the academic nature of the event while the second will take place in DeBartolo’s largest auditorium rather than one of the campus theaters and, unlike previous years, it will not be a fundraising performance. Both positions are legitimate and eminently reasonable.

Rather like contemporary debates over the constitutional separation of church and state, disputes about academic freedom tend to go wrong because everyone assumes that “academic freedom” means whatever they think it should mean.

Those who hope to contribute to this debate effectively would do well to read (in addition, obviously, to Jenkins’ own speech) The American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. One of the points which that document is at pains to emphasize is that the rights of academic freedom have correlative duties.

Departments that allocate their resources in ways that do not – directly or indirectly – further the goal of intellectual inquiry are failing in their duties. If that failure becomes chronic then the President of the University has an obligation to intervene.

In the case of the Monologues I fail to see how the sponsorship of a play that has been performed on campus every year since 2002 can be justified by an academic department on academic grounds. Saving the world is not part of the English department’s academic mission, which is just as well because there is no reason to suppose that they would be especially good at it.

It is often claimed that the play promotes dialogue on important issues of sexuality and violence, but that is dissembling. Most of what is euphemistically called dialogue is just people taking turns to denounce each other. A university education should equip students to tell the difference.

Maybe the play’s organizers don’t know of any other play that could provoke a debate on the issues that concern them, but surely someone in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre must.

Why not sponsor a production of David Mamet’s Oleanna? The play deals explicitly with themes of sex, power, authority and (not coincidentally) academic freedom, and has reliably provoked controversy amongst audiences since it first debuted in 1992.

As the debate over academic freedom at Notre Dame continues, let us avoid succumbing to the myth that secular universities are bastions of academic freedom and free speech. It’s been only a few years since the dean of students at Cornell stood in solidarity with students who burnt copies of the Cornell Review.

A spokesman for the university defended the burning as “symbolic,” which it certainly was. Notre Dame will be held to a different standard than secular private universities because the source of the perceived threat to academic freedom is the University’s Catholicism.

One aspect of Jenkins’ speech did concern me, which is that he seemed to suggest that sponsoring a performance of a play is tantamount to an endorsement of its values. In the case of “The Vagina Monologues,” this is a plausible claim because the play is closely tied to a political campaign and because, for that reason, its organizers want to stage a production every year. That makes is an exceptional case, and a poor example from which to draw general principles.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the Philosophy Department. He is very much in favor of truth, justice, and dialogue and staunchly anti-Hitler. Peter can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.