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Members enter academic freedom discourse

Mary Kate Malone | Thursday, February 16, 2006

Members of the Faculty Senate engaged in active discourse Wednesday about how best to respond to University President Father John Jenkins’ recent addresses regarding academic freedom and Catholic character.

Disagreeing on some points, unified on others, faculty members participated in a give-and-take session for nearly two hours as they pounded out points that will be included in a document the Senate plans to present to Jenkins.

Members debated the definition of art, zeroed in on the need for better communication and faced the difficult relationship between endorsement and sponsorship. But nearly all agreed that a line must be drawn regarding academic freedom. Where that boundary belongs, though, was a point of contention.

“There is a line,” economics professor Thomas Gresik said. “One thing we can do in a statement is to say, ‘Yes, there is a line between acceptable and unacceptable activities and that academic freedom does not permit everything.’

“The challenge Jenkins gave us is to say that we need to do a better job of finding out what that boundary looks like.”

But English professor Noreen Deane-Moran said she feared that a top-level decision by the administration could lead to boundaries that are too restrictive in certain disciplines.

“No one has ever told me what I could and could not teach … the distinction he has made I don’t agree with,” Deane-Moran said. “He has made a distinction between that which is legitimate academically and that which is sponsored external to that.”

History professor Gail Bederman agreed. Bederman helped organize the academic panel discussions that followed each of the three performances of “The Vagina Monologues” this week.

“Once you start thinking ‘This is too far or that is too far,’ without consulting with people who actually teach the area … where does it end?” Bederman said.

Film professor Christine Becker recalled one of her former students, Liam Dacey, who was one of the original organizers of the event formerly known as the Queer Film Festival.

“Liam Dacey was our ideal student … I understand [the need for] a line, but in some ways it’s ideal that our students cross it,” Becker said.

Communication between the administration, faculty and students is key to finding common ground, Bederman said. She said people on both sides of the issue must improve their conversation – saying it was “perhaps one of the most important things we can do here.”

“If anything is going to heal the misunderstanding, it should be where people get to say, ‘I don’t get that, that makes me feel uncomfortable,’ or, ‘You’re disrespecting my wife and my mother and myself,'” she said.

Gresik said Bederman hit “the heart of the issue.”

As the nation’s leading Catholic university, said a professor who wished to remain anonymous, the policy that Jenkins will eventually make will reverberate to Catholic institutions across the country.

“What’s at stake here is the study of feminism, gender and sexuality at our University … I think it is perfectly legitimate to support the flourish of the arts and to support more speech rather than less speech when it comes to controversial issues,” she said.

But if the University decides to restrict that dialogue, she said, it risks losing its ability to recruit and retain “top-notch” faculty.

“I’m worried we’re going down a path that we will regret,” she said.

Program of Liberal Studies professor Julian Marvin raised the issue of artwork – and the multi-faceted ideas one piece of work can represent.

“To say that presenting a work of art constitutes advocacy of what it’s saying, implies that we all know what its saying, and [that] it’s only saying one thing … [but] this is not the case in works of art that are of any merit,” Marvin said.

John Robinson, associate dean of the Law School, is the chair of the Senate’s ad-hoc committee charged with drafting the document to Jenkins, which is scheduled to be completed by March 3 and presented to Jenkins before he visits the Senate’s March 7 meeting.

Robinson has also planned a faculty forum on March 8 where a representative from the American Association of University Professors will speak in defense of academic freedom, and the chancellor of the University of Dayton will speak on Catholic character. He is still seeking a third speaker that would serve as “the merger of the two” viewpoints.

“We’ve asked each person to speak for no more than 15 minutes … their task is to stimulate discussion among us,” Robinson said. “We’re deliberately trying to bring in people from the outside.”

The mobilization among faculty is not restricted to the Faculty Senate – meetings and conversations have been taking place within the College of Arts and Letters as well, said philosophy professor Vaughn McKim. McKim met with Dean of the College of Arts and Letters Mark Roche last week, where he said he learned that Roche’s main goal is to provide a positive alternative for Jenkins before he issues a “unilateral decision.”

“We [the College of Arts and Letters] want to offer constructive alternative to the president,” McKim said. “It is much better to say yes to something than to say no. The question is what can we suggest to him that is something he can say yes to?

“The suggestion is going to be made that the president might want to consult with elected members of the Academic Council or subset of the group and have a consultation,” McKim said. “We’re not looking for consensus but [rather] postponing as far as possible the need to make some unilateral decision … that simply steps on various people that have been involved in the chain of decision-making.”

McKim attended the panel discussion following the performance of “The Vagina Monologues” Tuesday and said it was “one of the most important experiences” he’s had at Notre Dame.

“To see what happened between students and the panel … it was extraordinary,” McKim said. “I don’t know if I can recall another Notre Dame moment of such poignancy, of anger, of tears. It’s clear the University has a deeper problem dealing with women’s needs on this campus.”