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Jenkins fields academic freedom questions

Maddie Hanna | Monday, March 6, 2006

University President Father John Jenkins discussed “The Vagina Monologues” and broader issues of gender and sexuality with senators at a special session of Student Senate Friday afternoon – another chapter in the unresolved campus debate over academic freedom and Notre Dame’s Catholic character,

Jenkins, accompanied by Executive Assistant to the President Frances Shavers, delivered brief preliminary remarks before telling senators he was “all ears.”

“I think one of the great challenges of this discussion [is] it touches on issues around which there’s a great deal of energy [and] strong views,” Jenkins said. “The challenge is when you speak on those issues, there can be a tendency to simplify … that makes discussion difficult.”

He said two-sided “for or against” questions – such as “Are you for or against academic freedom?” – were overly simplistic and dangerous when applied to such a nuanced subject matter.

Senators took turns expressing their views and feedback from their constituents as well as questioning Jenkins on a variety of subtopics, including fundraising, violence against women, the Keenan Revue and sponsorship.

The depth of Jenkins’ responses to the questions varied.

Listening attentively, Jenkins nodded and occasionally took notes while murmuring “thank you.” Many times his gaze was directed upwards, and he seemed deeply engaged in personal deliberation.

“I’m curious what sort of events you think could take the place of ‘The Vagina Monologues,'” Morrissey senator Brian Klein asked Jenkins.

Jenkins said he thought a production “to compare our own reflections … our stories, in a certain way” would better serve the Notre Dame community than the “Monologues.”

University Affairs committee chair Matt Walsh said he felt the campus culture was “male dominated” and events like the Keenan Revue and Dillon Pep Rally were “pretty chauvinistic.”

“I’m not saying these events don’t belong at Notre Dame … [but] there’s a huge void on this campus where females get overshadowed,” Walsh said. “How, as a Catholic University, can we address the issues of gender, sexuality and sexual orientation … without compromising our Catholic [character]? Do you think it’s important to allow these events to exist?”

While Jenkins’ answer was firm, it lacked specifics.

“[Issues of gender and sexuality] need to be addressed, and we need to find ways to address them,” Jenkins said. “And we need to be creative in finding ways to address them … Look. I do think we can.”

Jenkins said he was “100 percent behind discussing these issues” but told senators the creativity was required on their parts.

Welsh Family senator Brenna Doyle asked Jenkins about sponsorship and endorsement – specifically, if he would feel the same about “The Vagina Monologues” if they were sponsored by a dorm rather than an academic department or the University.

Jenkins said he would have “some concerns.”

“The same goes with the Keenan Revue,” he said. “Is that appropriate? We have to talk about that.”

Regarding the frequency of “The Vagina Monologues” performances, Jenkins said he was concerned about having the production at Notre Dame year after year.

“Suppose that we have George Bush come to speak five years in a row and we didn’t have a prominent Democrat,” he said.

But Walsh senator Erin Hankins compared repeat performances of the “Monologues” to watching a movie multiple times.

“You pick up different ideas,” she said. “I was struck by how different the ‘Monologues’ were this year than last year. [This year’s production] was wonderful in a different way … It’s priceless, basically.”

Keough senator Rob Lindley said he was concerned the campus discussion had become too limited, overly focused on “The Vagina Monologues” and the former Queer Film Festival – a statement similar to an earlier comment made by Jenkins.

“This is much more than that,” Lindley said. “This [discussion] definitely should not be restricted to just the two events.”

He said Keough residents discussed the issue of fundraising for women’s organizations- an option previously associated with the “Monologues,” which last year raised $15,000 for the S-O-S and YWCA organizations of St. Joseph County.

This year’s productions in DeBartolo Hall, however, were not able to charge for tickets.

“This restriction can only hurt us in the long run,” Lindley said.

He also said he hoped debate would continue to promote year-round awareness of problems confronting women.

“The discussion in certain places seems to get polarized,” Lindley said. “If it’s stagnant and only rises around Valentine’s Day [when the ‘Monologues’ are traditionally performed] … it makes the polarizing surface.”

Like Lindley, Community Relations committee chair Nick Guzman stressed the importance of the discussion – a discussion he believes would suffer if the “Monologues” were not held annually.

“If I was trying to create a balance, I would try to do it with more instead of less,” he said. “Seeing [the ‘Monologues’] more than one time – I think that’s important.”

Jenkins paused before responding to Guzman.

“Well, let me just ask you a question,” he said. “It does take some energy and time to put on something like that … That’s kind of the start of the answer. We can’t have a performance [to balance the anti-Catholic themes of the ‘Monologues’] every week.”

But Siegfried senator Ben Gunty said the testimony of other senators to a certain polarization within the student body means there are “enough differing opinions on campus to put together different performances or discussions.”

He said it was important students have “the ability to reason through opposition” – a theme he called central to the intellectual history of the Catholic Church and a “unique opportunity” for Notre Dame.

For Minority Affairs committee chair Rhea Boyd, the question is what Notre Dame wishes to teach students.

“If we really want our students to be honest and open about their sexuality,” Boyd said, “how can we limit the ways in which they express themselves? …

“It’s our responsibility and privilege to ask difficult questions. To me, that’s our mission.”

Student body president Dave Baron acknowledged the difficulty of Jenkins’ situation.

“One of the things I’ve learned this year [is] you can’t pick your issue. It kind of picks you,” he said. ” … We don’t really want to deal [with certain issues], but conscience impels you.”

Jenkins concluded the meeting by thanking senators and urging them to keep the discussion going.

“You need to help us,” he said. “You understand the position better than I do … I appreciate the seriousness with which the whole student body has taken this issue, and I’m proud.”