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Campus speakers chosen despite controversy

Marcela Berrios | Tuesday, October 30, 2007

President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University in September gave way to some of the year’s biggest headlines and a popular “Saturday Night Live” skit, as he said there weren’t any gay people in his country and questioned whether the Holocaust really happened.

Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia Sept. 24 drew hundreds of protesters to the streets, but Columbia President Lee Bollinger defended the school’s decision to invite the controversial leader to speak, citing the university’s commitment to furthering dialogue, especially on global issues.

“[Columbia] is committed to confronting ideas – to understand the world as it is and as it might be,” Bollinger said in a statement about Ahmadinejad’s visit. “Necessarily, on occasion this will bring us into contact with beliefs many, most or even all of us will find offensive and even odious.”

Similarly, Notre Dame’s mission statement says one the University’s goals is to provide a forum where, “through free inquiry and open discussion,” students can pursuit truth in every discipline – with Catholic values in mind.

So in the spirit of pursuing truth and understanding, what kind of speakers does Notre Dame invite?

Several professors from different fields said that while the University has not had someone as controversial as Ahmadinejad visit, it does not mean Notre Dame does not welcome outside opinions that may challenge or conflict with its own Catholic character.

Stem cell research discussed on campus

While the Catholic Church has said certain types of stem cell research are morally wrong, professor Charles Kulpa, chair of the department of biological sciences, said one of the most successful lectures held by the College of Science in recent years was delivered last April by Elaine Fuchs, a leading cell biologist who specializes in researching stem cells, both embryonic and non-embryonic.

The Vatican has opposed embryonic stem cell research multiple times, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has said the Church “opposes any research that exploits or destroys human embryos.”

Though some of Fuchs’ research goes against Catholic teachings, the moral angle was not the focus of her lecture, Kulpa said.

“She talked about her research using strictly scientific terms, and she went into both the pros and the cons,” he said.

Fuchs focused primarily on her non-controversial research, Kulpa said. One of her two lectures focused entirely on skin stem cells and their production of skin and hair – a study the Conference of Bishops calls “ethically responsible stem cell research” because it does not involve the use of human embryos.

Fuchs’ presence on campus, nonetheless, might have set a precedent for bringing to speakers to campus whose insight and work – though it may be at odds with the University’s Catholic character – is considered a valuable academic addition to the campus’ intellectual life. Fuchs’ lectures, Kulpa said, are further proof that a resume that may not be 100 percent in line with Catholic tradition does not detract from a speaker’s potential to bring to the University valuable and professional insights.

Immigration debates

The Notre Dame Forum, held on Oct. 8, focused on the topic of immigration by bringing together four public figures from various areas of leadership across the country to share their respective viewpoints with students and faculty members.

Keeping with the University’s Catholic character, one of those figures was Cardinal Roger Mahony, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. And though his perspectives on the heated immigration debate, modeled in light of the Gospels and Jesus Christ’s message of compassion toward strangers and foreigners, were not inflammatory, Mahony has encountered controversy in his role as archbishop of Los Angeles.

In July, his archdiocese reached a $660 million settlement with victims of hundreds of clergy abuse cases – a bill that will be partly covered by the sale of a local convent, the Los Angeles Times reported in September. The nuns who lived in the convent used it to help poor, undocumented immigrants and were served an eviction notice to make the space available for sale – an incident that made the news.

“The people in charge of putting together the forum were not unaware of the swirl of controversy in Los Angeles,” University spokesman Don Wycliff told The Observer before the forum. “Their purpose was to find an articulate, forceful speaker for Catholic Social Teaching on the immigration issue, and there was no one better in that role than Cardinal Mahony.”

The forum also featured another speaker whose stances and legislative actions toward immigrants have been widely criticized for their harshness. Louis Barletta, the mayor of Hazleton, Pa., signed an ordinance that would punish employers and landlords that knowingly hire or house undocumented immigrants, a piece of legislation whose constitutionality is currently being fought in the courts.

And while many of Barletta’s statements about immigrants during the forum – which tended to focus on the criminality of migrants – were greeted by booing from the audience, moderator Ray Suarez, a senior correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, was quick to remind the attendees that the forum was designed precisely to create a space where the different opinions on the matter could be heard. He called the audience to a level of reasoning beyond cheering or booing for different opinions.

Political figures cause divisions

One speaker who caused a fair amount of controversy on campus in recent years was Gerry Adams, president of the Irish political party Sinn Fein, who spoke at Notre Dame in March 2004, sparking objections from students, faculty members and alumni who disapproved of his possible involvement as a leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its violent campaigns to unite Ireland in the 1970s.

Whether despite of, or because of, this controversial association, students and professors filled Washington Hall to hear Adams speak, prompting the organizers from the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, which brought him to campus, to call Adams’ appearance a success.

Professor Edward Beatty, interim director of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, said he wasn’t at Notre Dame when Adams visited, but he understands why sometimes colleges must bring to campus figures that may cause ideological divisions among people, like Adams.

“The essential purpose of any university is to extend knowledge by presenting views, opinions and informed perspectives on a wide range of issues, and by doing so, to stimulate debate and learning,” Beatty said.

He said universities should try to invite speakers that challenge the views and assumptions of students. And at Notre Dame, that readiness to invite such speakers has not been influenced by the school’s more conservative, religious affiliation, he said.

Beatty said the University’s Catholic character doesn’t play a role in the Institute’s speaker selection processes.

“We simply look for speakers who are at the forefront of political activity or research on themes central to Kellogg’s mission,” he said.

And there’s always a chance some people will strongly agree or disagree with any given speaker, he said. One of the Kellogg Institute’s upcoming speakers is Ignacio Walker, Chile’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, a member of Congress and a human rights lawyer under the Pinochet dictatorship. Someone will likely disagree with something he’s said or done throughout his career – but his experience in Chilean politics make him an “interesting and engaging” speaker, Beatty said.

Similarly, professor Heidi Ardizzone, who has been in charge of arranging speakers for the American Studies department for the last two years, said the criteria to select speakers are not based on the persons’ adherence to Notre Dame’s own values, or the level of controversy they may create.

“We simply bring in academic speakers to address intellectual issues,” she said.

The consensus among the different professors is that if these academic speakers are also public icons or the source of controversy, it’s merely incidental.