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Forum invites external viewpoints

Mary Kate Malone | Thursday, March 9, 2006

Two voices from outside the University added to the ongoing campus-wide discussion on academic freedom and Catholic character Wednesday during the Faculty Senate’s Forum on Academic Freedom.

Jonathan Knight, director of the Program in Academic Freedom and Tenure for the American Association of University Professors [AAUP], and Father James Heft, Chancellor of the University of Dayton, provided their perspectives on the nature of academic freedom at a Catholic university. But both avoided commenting specifically on how the University should address recent campus events like “The Vagina Monologues.”

“There can be a mixture of internal and external circumstances that prompt the examination of propriety and acceptability of a particular academic program,” Knight said. “Whether an academic program or activity is to be launched or is to continue is for each institution and faculty and its student body to decide.”

Knight said he did not feel that academic freedom was a sufficient defense for not allowing controversial events to be shown on a broader stage at a University.

“It’s difficult to see what principles consistent with academic freedom could be relied upon to not allow a department to have a play performed in a more public venue because its content is deemed offensive,” Knight said.

Several faculty members and students who attended the forum nodded as Knight described the AAUP’s policy on academic freedom.

Knight quoted excerpts from University President Father John Jenkins’ recent addresses on academic freedom, and his “striking” distinction between “what is done by an individual on one hand and the group on the other.”

But, Knight said, since an event put on by a group naturally can draw more attention to itself, it’s important to distinguish the criteria that constitutes endorsement.

“It’s not that the institution is taking a positive step to endorse but it perhaps is seen as endorsing,” he said. “I would maintain that the principle for making this kind of judgment cannot focus on the use of institutional resources.”

If the use of University resources constitutes endorsement, Knight said, then professors using e-mail, the library or a classroom to express ideas contrary to Catholic teaching could be implying institutional endorsement.

“I am therefore skeptical that the reason advanced to date for not allowing ‘The Vagina Monologues’ or the [event formerly known as] Queer Film Festival to continue as they have in the past can find support under principles of academic freedom.”

Heft took the podium and provided three metaphors for what a University can be – a “marketplace”, a “closed circle” and an “open circle.”

Heft described the “marketplace” as an environment where all ideas are discussed and debated and only the fittest survive debate. The nation’s elite secular universities aspire to this, Heft said.

The “closed circle” metaphor refers to a university where the “leadership expects full

agreement on all significant aspects related to the mission of the institution.”

A university that fits under the “open circle” is circumscribed to “provide a wide variety of ideas.”

“To be an open circle the University has to value the contributions of every member of the academic community to engage the great questions as a scholarship community,” Heft said.

He said that a Catholic university should be able to draw the lines of the circle to accommodate a wide-reaching range of ideas.

“A truly Catholic university will be able to over time sort out the worthy from the unworthy, the insightful from the trivial all the while giving glory to God.”

After both Knight and Heft address the audience, the floor was open for discussion. Some professors expressed dissatisfaction with Heft’s comments – saying they were too generalized.

“I’ve served in academic administration for 14 years and eight as provost,” he said “I have found it very useful to be as clear as possible on principles but very hesitant to make applications unless you know the full contours of a specified case.”

But Heft tried to further explain his stance by referring to how the University of Dayton dealt with “The Vagina Monologues.”

“I think if a University allows external pressure to set its course, it makes a huge mistake … one of the most important things people need is face time. Sitting down face to face and talking about [a controversial issue.]”

That’s how the University of Dayton handled the Vagina Monologues, Raft said. This year Dayton students put on their own version of the “Monologues”, allowing both male and female students to share their experiences related to sexuality and self-acceptance.

Notre Dame Law School professor Doug Cassel addressed Knight, highlighting the middle ground between what might appear to be endorsed by a university.

“It strikes me that if a department sponsors a public production of a play, that that is as likely to be perceived by the public at large and many in the University committee as having implicit sponsorship of the University, just as if the University sponsored a play,” Cassel said.

Heft noted that Notre Dame is in a unique position as a prominent Catholic university with access to a significant amount of financial support.

“The University has to stand its ground,” Heft said. “The danger for a place like this that has resources is to outgrow Catholicism, as it is an ill-fitting stricture, and not draw on those intellectual traditions. …If you could recapture that as the lifeblood of the debate, you’re better off.”

Sociology professor Joan Aldous said she was “100 percent in favor of the Sociology Department’s sponsorship of ‘The Vagina Monologues'” and asked both Knight and Heft how the American setting has played a role in framing the issue of academic freedom.

Heft said too many University presidents – unlike Jenkins – are not confident enough to allow their campus communities to engage in discussion about contentious topics, which could be perceived as restricting a U.S. citizen’s constitutional right to free speech.

Several professors nodded in agreement as Knight described the need for Universities to tell professors when they are hired if they will be restricted in what they can and cannot teach.

“One thing we’ve always made clear, if a religious institution imposes restriction on what can be taught … it needs to make that clear at the outset,” Knight said. “The faculty member should be apprised if there are indeed limits on what he or she may say or publish. If there are restraints they should be known.”