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Jenkins delivers verdict

Maddie Hanna | Thursday, April 6, 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 about the complex relationship between academic freedom and Catholic character at Notre Dame.

While the sexually explicit Eve Ensler play lay at the heart of recent controversy, Jenkins’ statement – which also established guidelines for sponsoring academic events and announced the formation of an ad hoc committee to prevent violence against women – held broader implications for future University policy and Notre Dame’s identity.

“It’s not on a compromise on the ideals of Notre Dame,” Jenkins told The Observer Wednesday afternoon. “Certainly there will be people disappointed. Some people would have wanted ‘The Vagina Monologues’ banned altogether; some people are offended that the issue was even raised. And as I said in my statement, to those [people] I say, ‘This is a Catholic university.’

“We’re going to have multiple [viewpoints] in discussion. We’re also going to be serious about including a Catholic viewpoint and maintaining a balance.”

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.

Jenkins, who in February attended the third and final on-campus student performance of this year’s “Monologues,” said the academic panels that followed the performances appropriately placed the play’s 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 in the statement. “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 supports both 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, and Jenkins will serve as its chair.

In the statement, titled “Closing Statement on Academic Freedom and Catholic Character,” Jenkins explained the role of academic departments 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 Wednesday 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.”

The president 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.

Departments will be expected to consider “context, frequency and balance,” Jenkins told The Observer Wednesday afternoon.

“If someone wants to perform ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ they’ll have to make a presentation to the departments,” he said. “Those who are interested in putting on ‘Loyal Daughters’ are interested in working on that, and that’s what we’ve talked about. But we haven’t considered any proposal about ‘The Vagina Monologues.'”

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 future 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.”

“I think there are some events or speakers which just do not meet the standards of contributing to serious debates,” Jenkins said Wednesday afternoon. “People whose rhetoric is hateful or derogatory and possesses no serious intellectual substance … There are other events that may not fall below that, but we need to think about the frequency of, and the context of them.

“My questioning of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ in particular was related to the question of frequency and balance. So different events have to be evaluated in different ways.”

From the 10 weeks of discussion, Jenkins said he has “a deeper sense of how we achieve the balance” of different viewpoints on campus – but said that “balance” doesn’t necessarily characterize the relationship between academic freedom and Catholic character at Notre Dame.

“I think we can have academic freedom in a full sense, we can respect Catholic character in a full sense – we want them to enhance one another,” Jenkins said Wednesday afternoon. “I don’t see it as so much of a balance. I see it as an affirmation of both.”

And that affirmation is essential, Jenkins said, to upholding freedom of speech at a Catholic university like 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 in the statement. “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.”

Jenkins said he will stick by his decision as the Notre Dame community observes its impact.

“People want a kind of simplistic answer, but it’s not a simplistic situation,” he said. “Again, much will be decided, each proposal, on its own merits.”