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BREAKING NEWS: Jenkins delivers guidelines to balance academic freedom, Catholic character

Sam Davis | Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Future performances of “The Vagina Monologues” will not be prohibited on Notre Dame’s campus, University President Father John Jenkins said in a statement released Wednesday morning – a conclusion to two months of impassioned debate on academic freedom and Catholic character that extended far beyond the University community.

The decision comes as a follow-up to addresses Jenkins delivered to faculty and students Jan. 23 and 24 in which he questioned the place of events “in name or content clearly and egregiously contrary to or inconsistent with the fundamental values of a Catholic university” at Notre Dame.

While “The Vagina Monologues” have been the focal point of the discussion, the statement has broader implications for future University policy.

Jenkins said the academic panels that followed this year’s performances of the “Monologues” appropriately placed the play’s explicit content in a Catholic context.

“These panels taught me and perhaps taught others that the creative contextualization of a play like ‘The Vagina Monologues’ can bring certain perspectives on important issues into a constructive and fruitful dialogue with the Catholic tradition,” Jenkins said. “This is a good model for the future.

“Accordingly, I see no reason to prohibit performances of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ on campus, and do not intend to do so.”

To further advance the goal of eliminating violence against women, Jenkins said he both supports the future production of a play written by “Monologues” student leaders entitled “Loyal Daughters” and the formation of an ad hoc University committee to address gender relations and sexual violence.

The committee will be composed of administrators, faculty and students, including Executive Assistant to the President Frances Shavers, Vice President and Associate Provost Jean Ann Linney, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs Ann Firth, history professor Gail Bederman, theology department chair John Cavadini, Gender Relations Center director Heather Rakoczy and “Monologues” director Madison Liddy.

Jenkins will serve as chair of the committee.

In the statement, Jenkins explained the role of the academic department with regards to sponsorship – an issue he raised in his original addresses when he examined the possibility of performing the anti-semitic Daisenberger passion play at Notre Dame.

“The difficulty, as I see it, is that the play would be performed at the University of Notre Dame, using its facilities, implicitly or explicitly sponsored by the university, one of its units, or by a recognized organization of the university,” he said Jan. 23. “A reasonable observer would assume that the university is sponsoring an event that, in fact, is clearly and egregiously at odds with its values as a Catholic university.

But in his statement, Jenkins said academic departments are “best situated to decide what events should or should not be sponsored.”

“Sponsors have a role in communicating the academic rationale for controversial events,” Jenkins said. “They also have a responsibility to make clear – on campus and off – that sponsorship does not imply endorsement of the views expressed by a speaker or of an event as a whole.”

Jenkins said he has “reached a written understanding” with department chairs regarding guidelines for their discretion in the sponsorship process – a separate proposal that gives the chairs and College deans a large amount of responsibility in handling contentious issues.

The proposal will be presented to the University Academic Council for final approval.

Jenkins did, however, mention one type of event in the closing statement that would be denied a place in campus debate – an expression “that is overt and insistent in its contempt for the values and sensibilities of this University, or of any of the diverse groups that form part of our community.”

But he said this situation was currently not facing the University.

At the core of the statement is balance, stressing the importance of multiple viewpoints, of protecting both academic freedom and Catholic character at Notre Dame.

“After all, a Catholic university is where the Church does its thinking, and that thinking, to be beneficial, must come from an intellectually rigorous engagement with the world,” Jenkins said. “For these reasons, I am very determined that we not suppress speech on this campus. I am also determined that we never suppress or neglect the Gospel that inspired this University.”

The principles outlined by his decision, Jenkins said, are guidelines that he believes “a large majority of this community can embrace.”

Look for more coverage in Thursday’s edition of The Observer.