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Social, academic life split examined

Mary Kate Malone | Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The issue of academic freedom at Notre Dame deepened its presence in University discussion at Monday’s Campus Life Council Meeting, as students, faculty and staff squared off on the topic for nearly 45 minutes.

The Council’s discussion came two weeks after student body president Dave Baron created the new Task Force on Programming Standards – charged with examining how University President Father John Jenkins’ recent addresses regarding academic freedom and Catholic character could potentially affect events sponsored by the Office of Student Activities.

“I think there is much relevance in what Jenkins said in his speeches … as to how we go about programming events and how we go about raising issues and raising money as students,” Baron said.

The contentious topic spurred extensive debate as members explored the difference between events sponsored by academic departments and events falling under the umbrella of the Office of Student Activities – and, more broadly, the separation of student life and academic activities.

“I can speak as a faculty member … we don’t want people to just come to class and then say ‘good that’s over,'” history professor Gail Bederman said. “The idea that there should be a split, especially when you’re working on something you don’t need a laboratory for – like gender history, social work or theology – is kind of sad.”

Members discussed the difference between events like the Keenan Revue – a dorm sponsored comedy event – and “The Vagina Monologues,” an academic department sponsored event.

“I’d like to see a distinction made clearly … a consistent policy between residence life and academic life,” student body vice president Lizzi Shappell said. “What are the regulations when working with clubs and organizations? [What about] unrecognized clubs and organizations? Because right now it seems like from department to department it varies, from men to women it varies, from clubs within [the] student union to unrecognized clubs it varies … it’s a mess right now and to find a clear policy is essential.”

Shappell said her biggest concern was how the University will define what is “egregiously against Church teaching.”

“While I see the entertainment value in many campus productions, I think even the Keenan Revue, that trivialized sexual assault and rape when we’re criticizing ‘The Vagina Monologues’ … was extremely concerning,” Shappell said.

Lewis Hall senator Katie McHugh said she could envision controversial events like “The Vagina Monologues” seeking sponsorship from residence halls next year – perhaps to avoid harsh restrictions.

“I think this is going to be a big problem. I can see dorms getting together to sponsor [‘The Vagina Monologues’] … I would ask Lewis to sponsor it,” McHugh said. “I don’t think it’s fair to separate academic and student life. The two are equivalent and go together.”

Hall Presidents Council co-chair Lindsey Ney said she was upset that “things that are for entertainment value or residence life are being given more freedom.”

“People were shocked that [R-rated horror film] ‘Saw 2’ was the SUB movie of the week when we’re talking about getting rid of ‘The Vagina Monologues,'” she said.

Judicial Council President James Leito agreed that there is a difference between academic events and entertainment productions.

“If [the Office of] Student Affairs says a certain dorm event isn’t fulfilling [the] mission for positive growth of the students … they should be allowed to say don’t do this,” Leito said.

However, if academic departments think an event has academic value “for even one student,” that event should be permitted, Leito said.

Baron asked members if they thought the title of a production influenced the permissibility of it.

“That’s another part of the inconsistency,” McHugh said. “[The title, ‘The Keenan Revue’] makes it sounds innocent and okay and then you watch it and [there are] serious things in there that are against Catholic teaching.”

Bederman said productions like “The Vagina Monologues” take “a thing that was hidden and unspeakable and make[s] [it] speakable.”

“To take things that, if you will, were in the closet, and bring them out […] we can talk about them openly and deal with them,” Bederman said.

By changing the titles of productions like the event formerly known as The Queer Film Festival, she said, “we already conceded that we don’t talk about them openly. In some ways, it looks to me like that is the crux of the matter …”

Bederman said that the polarizing issue of sexuality at Notre Dame is a problem for the entire nation.

“The next step, in some ways, is what is the role of the Catholic university to reach over these gaps?” Bederman said. “Are we best at bridging by going to one side or other? Do we bring them to campus and have discussions? Do we turn [the issues] over to students? … Notre Dame could play an amazing role in moving beyond these gaps.”

Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs G. David Moss said he does not believe there is only one way to discuss contentious issues on campus, adding that the “Monologues” is not necessarily the solitary catalyst to stimulate dialogue about sexual violence against women.

“The reality is, we still have an important issue to talk about,” Moss said. “We have women here that need to have resources … in many ways, thinking this play is the only way … to engage in conversation in violence against women is limited and doesn’t do it justice.”

Zahm senator Pat Knapp, who sits on the advisory council on academic and student life, said closing avenues for discussion will not solve the problem.

“As long as these issues about violence against women and sex are present in the broader societal context, then our mission is to educate Catholic then we should be asking, what is the Catholic teaching?” Knapp said. “How do we prepare Catholics to approach these issues in the contest of a broader society, not just within the Church.”