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Faculty Senate passes resolution on controversial freedom issue

Amanda Michaels | Thursday, March 23, 2006

For the last regularly scheduled meeting of the 2005-06 Faculty Senate, the group spent just over two hours Wednesday night dissecting and debating the language of the statement about academic freedom presented in draft form at its March 8 meeting.

The four-page statement is “not intended as a direct response or rebuttal” to University President Father John Jenkins’ Jan. 23 address on academic freedom and the Catholic character, according to Senate chair Seth Brown. Rather, said Brown, it recognizes the existence of academic freedom within reasonable limits, and reaffirms academic freedom as a value essential to the fulfillment of the University’s mission statement.

After Brown introduced the statement – which was projected on a large screen throughout the meeting so changes would be immediately visible – members began the slow process of amending the intricacies of the document’s language to ensure that it best represented the position of the faculty.

Changes included the deletion of a sentence that read, “A principal function of a Catholic university is to encourage exploration of apparently settled doctrine, so that strong beliefs can be reaffirmed and faulty practices identified,” along with similar words or phrases deemed too strong or “needlessly inflammatory,” as described by one member. Also up for debate were words with subtle differences of connotation, like “conflict” versus “opposition.”

A paragraph addressing the effect of “the suppression of controversial ideas,” as the statement reads, on artistic expression went through a long period of discussion and several amendments. Program of Liberal Studies professor Julia Marvin introduced an alternate version to the section of the paragraph she described as “difficult to understand.”

The final incarnation of this debated section read, “This chilling effect [referring to a statement made in the previous sentence] is also of particular concern with respect to artistic expression. Art tends more to raise questions than to provide answers; to forbid the asking of particular questions curtails the range of possible artistic expression and eviscerates art’s intellectual force, reducing it to the status of mere entertaining.”

At this point in the meeting – after a period of debate about the adjective “chilling” as opposed to “inhibitory” – civil engineering and geological studies professor Jeff Talley said he felt the language of the entire document was “over the top.”

“[The statement] is so dramatic, it’s like reading a play … If you want the administration to take this seriously, perhaps adjectives less dramatic than ‘chilling’ and ‘unorthodox’ would be more favorably received,” Talley said.

Salma Saddawi, professional specialist of chemical engineering, said she thought, “like many of those involved in the sciences,” the language should be simple and clear.

Gail Bederman, professor of history, disagreed, noting she had received many responses from within her department that said the statement’s wording was not strong enough.

The issue was then raised that the statement was redundant in it support of the University’s mission statement, and failed to address any specific cases.

“Nowhere do we state that we support ‘The Vagina Monologues’… There’s an issue here of technicality, of endorsement versus sponsorship … and in no way do we address it,” physics professor Colin Jessop said.

Other members argued that the document was meant more as a general statement of principles than a response to specific, current events.

“If we have something written that is general, we won’t have to come up with a new statement every year when a new controversy comes up,” physics professor Philippe Collon said.

“Taking up the issue of redundancy is missing the point [of the document],” Bederman added. “You may say that we’re just repeating and affirming the University’s mission statement, but a lot of people read the mission statement a different way than we are.”

Barry Keating, professor of finance, then suggested the statement condoned so broad a spectrum of actions that it condemned almost any University action to disallow an event.

“With the statement as it reads now, if the band wanted to put together a halftime show promoting lesbian seduction, the only thing the University could do is run a tagline on the TV that they do not endorse it,” Keating said.

He later added, “This is four pages of pedantic statements that will be relegated to the dustbin along with the rest of the statements like this that come out of Faculty Senate.”

Many members contested the validity of Keating’s hypothetical case, and Brown said that reading of the document was “not a fair interpretation.”

“The intent [of the document] is to say that if you have a responsible academic event that is [denied] and objected to only because of content, then that’s pretty serious,” Brown said. “We have no power over the [University] President, what we’re saying here isn’t law.”

Professor of music Peter Smith agreed.

“Of course the [University] President is going to do what the President is going to do, but there is something to be said for making a statement,” Smith said.

Associate Dean of the Law School John Robinson offered an amendment he “did not necessarily sponsor or endorse” but thought would help bring the group into agreement, he said.

The amendment, which was approved by all members except for Bederman, reads, “Note that this discussion properly centers on how to present a conference, or speech, or play, or work of art in such a way as to avoid the appearance of official endorsement; it would not ordinarily center on whether an event should take place. This is not to say that extreme scenarios cannot be imagined that might appear to call for stronger presidential action that that sketched here. Our point is that such stronger action would in every case put at risk the academic freedom upon which the University insists in its mission statement.”

The group moved into a final vote soon after this amendment was passed. The statement was solidly approved, with only one member – professor of German language and literature Vera Profit – dissenting.