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Jenkins continues to answer questions

Kathleen McDonnell | Wednesday, March 29, 2006

University President Father John Jenkins addressed academic freedom issues ranging from the timing and intent of his Jan. 23 and 24 speeches to hypothetical situations involving stem cell research and artistic expression in an open discussion with graduate students Monday.

After giving a brief introductory speech, Jenkins fielded questions for nearly an hour in a forum arranged by the Graduate Student Union in DeBartolo 101.

Graduate students have a unique and integral place in a university, Jenkins said, performing researching and teaching roles like faculty members, but subject to supervision like undergraduate students.

He stressed their importance in contributing to the discussion on academic freedom and Catholic character at Notre Dame.

Jenkins said he agreed with the prepared statement sent to him by graduate students and their point that the principles he articulated in his addresses were not completely clear. The addresses were intended to start the discussion, not deliver a final decision, he said.

“My initial talk was meant to affirm both academic freedom and Catholic character,” Jenkins said. “Obviously they have to be a part of any [Catholic] university. My job is to defend both as vigorously as I can.”

When asked why he decided to confront the issue of academic freedom and Catholic character now, Jenkins said he began to discuss “The Vagina Monologues” as questions arose. He said he realized more input was needed.

“I just felt that as I started my presidency it was important to address it in a way that would characterize future discussions,” Jenkins said. “One could have carried on the discussions behind the scenes, but I wanted to say ‘These are my thoughts, let’s have your thoughts.’ I think that is the character of a university.”

While he invited contribution from the Notre Dame community, Jenkins reaffirmed his position that his ultimate decision on certain controversial issues – like the place of “The Vagina Monologues” on campus – would not be made by consensus. A higher level of common understanding will be achieved through discussion, he said, but on such a divided issue, no answer will please everyone.

One student questioned whether alumni have more voice in the discussion than other members of the Notre Dame community given their role as University donors, and whether this will cause Jenkins to come to a more conservative conclusion than he otherwise might have.

Jenkins restated the importance of all contributors to the debate and denied that any group has a particularly strong influence based on its financial power.

“You cannot say to the alumni, ‘We’ll do exactly what you want,’ but you can’t say that to the students or faculty either,” Jenkins said. “I think it is wrong to say we better not do what we think is right because we’ll lose money. But this is true of all universities. They rely on people outside the university to support what they’re doing. What we do is, to a large extent, based on the fact that people support us, financially and otherwise.”

Jenkins repeated he has not made a final decision on the status of next year’s production of “The Vagina Monologues.” He did, however, explain how he feels repetition can imply endorsement.

“If the political science department invited President Bush to speak five years in a row and did not invite an equally prominent Democrat, wouldn’t everyone say that the political science department favors Republicans?” Jenkins said. “No sharp lines can be drawn here, but we need to be conscious of that and use discretion in making judgments.”

Graduate students also discussed a number of situations that they believed could potentially pose problems if academic freedom is restricted at Notre Dame.

Jenkins said artistic freedom should not be limited, saying while art is sometimes provocative, that is acceptable for a university.

While he said it would be appropriate to cover an obscene artwork if children were passing through the gallery, he also confirmed the artist’s right to create the work and display it within the bounds of the University.

Another student questioned whether a chemical engineering dissertation would be allowed if bone cell tissue from an aborted fetus was used.

Jenkins said these types of situations could be problematic.

“I don’t think we would do that if there were some fundamental values that institutionally if we don’t affirm, we should cease calling ourselves Catholic,” Jenkins said. “I don’t know that particular case, but I do feel that there is a conflict, because Catholic view says that that’s a human being, and you shouldn’t destroy humans for research purposes.”

Jenkins could not stay to answer every question but thanked students for their interest and input.

He also urged members of the Notre Dame community to continue to share their views with him.

“As [Irish author] James Joyce said about Catholics, ‘Here comes everyone.’ We want a diversity of views,” Jenkins said. “I think we’re a better university with wider views, with a more vibrant face.

“If the Catholic institutional identity is going to be maintained, someone once told me, it’s going to be maintained at Notre Dame.”

Contact Kathleen McDonnell at [email protected]