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Academic freedom divides group

Maddie Hanna | Thursday, March 9, 2006

In a two-hour saga of a Student Senate meeting broken by agenda inversions and seemingly constant motions to amend, senators passed two substantial resolutions Wednesday.

But the crux of the meeting, not surprisingly, was a discussion on academic freedom – a recurrent topic during the past several weeks of Senate meetings that came to head Wednesday when a resolution presented on the subject was hotly debated and ultimately sent back to committee for revisions.

University Affairs committee chair Matt Walsh described the Resolution Supporting Diversity in Programming and Academic and Intellectual Freedom at Notre Dame as “the product of what our committee kind of considers a middle ground.”

“As a Student Senate, I think it’s our responsibility to discuss this,” Walsh said.

The resolution, which draws upon the 1970 Land O’ Lakes Agreement, the Open Speaker Policy outlined in du Lac and the Notre Dame Mission Statement, asks the University to “encourage and facilitate a wide-range of programming in order to allow for all students to express their own deeply held views.”

While “The Vagina Monologues” and Gay and Lesbian Film Screenings are only mentioned by name once in the resolution – a decision intended to keep the resolution broad and far-reaching, Walsh said – the final clause voices strong support for controversial campus programming.

“Therefore be it further resolved that the University never compromise itself by disallowing certain student programming, even programming which may disagree or be perceived to disagree with elements of Catholicism, unless such programming shows no respect for the University’s mission or shows no willingness to enter into academic or intellectual conversation,” the resolution reads.

Walsh said the resolution argued for “an innate value” to programming like “The Vagina Monologues” with elements that may oppose the University’s Catholic character.

At first, senators largely praised the idea behind the resolution, arguing about phrasing issues and hammering out details of particular clauses.

But the most articulate opposition to the resolution came from Academic Affairs committee chair Chris Harris, whose statement temporarily quieted senators and seemed to embolden a few more contrary voices.

Harris prefaced his comments by saying, “I don’t think I’m going to make friends with this.”

“I don’t support this resolution,” Harris said. “I just want to say … I support Father Jenkins and the way he’s handled this … When it comes down to it, your views, my views, that’s not really the [point].”

Quoting former Cavanaugh senator Jordan Bongiovanni, Harris said, “We have to represent our constituents. It’s obvious there is not consensus on campus … This is not the time or place for student government to take a stand.”

Harris drew a distinction between passing this resolution and a resolution supporting the College Readership Program.

“We’re not questioning the merit of a program,” he said. “This is in the hands of the administration, Father Jenkins. You have served your constituents well, brought their views to Father Jenkins … We have done everything we were elected to do.”

He described the resolution as a “great attempt at a middle ground – but as we all know, there is no middle ground on this issue.”

Siegfried senator Ben Gunty responded to Harris by saying he didn’t think the resolution was overly slanted in one direction.

“I think this is serving exactly what the University has said on [academic freedom], in a more formal way,” he said. “This is our opportunity and our responsibility to make a decision on this issue.”

Carroll senator Jim Grace, who backed many of Harris’ points, said he thought “a more reactive approach would be better than preempting this whole thing.”

And Farley senator Carol Hendrickson also said she didn’t think senators could accurately draft a statement encompassing the views of the entire student body.

“I had no idea [Jenkins] was going into the discussion [with the possibility of] having [‘The Vagina Monologues’] every other year,” Hendrickson said, referring to a statement made by Jenkins during a March 3 Senate meeting. “I almost agree with Father Jenkins … I understand his point about balance.

“So now I don’t even know what people in my dorm think about having it every other year. I think the issue has changed.”

The back-and-forth continued as Lewis senator Katie McHugh firmly defended her committee’s resolution.

“Great leaders sometimes have to look beyond what their constituents think … [to] do what’s best for the University,” she said.

Walsh said the University Affairs committee will present a revised form of the resolution at the next Senate meeting.

Senior Vijay Ramanan, former Academic Affairs committee chair and current student delegate to the University’s Academic Council, took the podium at the beginning of the meeting to present a proposal for a course information system for students to use before the registration period each semester.

“For many years, students have been requesting a credible and comprehensive reliable source about [course offerings] at Notre Dame,” Ramanan said

So two years ago, student government requested that teacher course evaluation (TCE) form results be made available to students – an idea with good intentions, Ramanan said, but ultimately inadequate and not feasible.

Last year, a Committee for Better Informing the Course Selection Process was formed, with Ramanan and associate provost Dennis Jacobs as co-chairs. The committee, composed of students, faculty and administrators, has spent a year crafting the proposal.

The goal of the proposal, Ramanan said, is “so you can get an idea of what [a particular] class and associated activities would be like.”

The committee drafted five questions that students would be asked to answer in addition to current TCE questions. The responses to these questions about a particular class, along with information provided by the professor of the class and Institutional Research, would be posted online for only students and the course’s professor to view.

“It’s not to create a resource that identifies easy classes … [but to] match interests, talents, skills [students] would like to develop to courses we have,” Ramanan said. “If you think about this carefully, this [resolution] is kind of a no-brainer.”

Senators unanimously passed a resolution in support of the committee’s proposal. Ramanan said he could not give a full timeline for the project – which he called “a concept near completion – but said the Faculty Senate would be voting on the proposal at its meeting next month.

The Senate also passed a resolution in support of Notre Dame Health Services’ hiring of a new physician, recommending that this physician specialize “in the treatment of and response to eating disorders, sexual assault and women’s health.”

Welsh Family senator Brenna Doyle said the Gender Issues committee wanted to stress the importance of hiring a physician with a background in women’s issues, such as sexual assault.

“Currently, the Health Center doesn’t have a strong reputation [in that field],” Doyle said.

The resolution passed without opposition.

In other Senate news:

u The Senate approved student body president Dave Baron and student body vice president Lizzi Shappell’s topic for student government’s May presentation to the Board of Trustees – student-alumni relations.

Baron and Shappell will head to Washington D.C. on May 4 to discuss the contrast between Notre Dame 20 years ago and Notre Dame now – a “gap” Baron said was revealed this year during debates over the “Candle” institutional spot and academic freedom.

u The Oversight committee announced several award recipients at the meeting.

Baron and Ramanan were both selected to receive the Irish Clover Award for service to the student body.

Political science specialist Joshua Kaplan was chosen to receive the Frank O’Malley award for outstanding undergraduate teaching.