Friday, April 07, 2006

Notre Dame and the question of academic freedom

Note: The University of Notre Dame, my alma mater, recently decided to allow the "Vagina Monologues" to be performed at the university for the fifth straight year. In a January, 2006 address to the faculty , the new president of Notre Dame, Fr. Jenkins, halted the performance until he had engaged the faculty in a two month debate before allowing the play to continue. You may find the text of his two addresses here. Below is a letter I wrote to Fr. Jenkins concerning his decision.

Dear Fr. Jenkins,

Aside from the specific issue of the Monologues, I find the position articulated in your April 5 address disappointing for the following reasons:

1) I don't believe you have articulated how "academic freedom" in a Catholic university setting may differ from other universities, given Catholicism's understanding that freedom must be essentially linked to truth, lest it be reduced to simply autonomy or license.

2) In your original address in January, you indicated by way of example that you would not permit the Oberammergau Passion play to be performed on campus because of its anti-Semitic bias, stating that the "staging of the play at Notre Dame would appear to endorse or at least acquiesce in a tolerance of an anti-Semitism whose consequences are only too clear to us."

I would agree with such a decision! However, what I find lacking in your April 5 statement is any guiding PRINCIPLE that would distinguish from this position and your decision to allow the Monologues to be performed.

You do indicate it may be sometimes appropriate to prohibit "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 this statement begs the question: Precisely what constitutes such forbidden cases of expression? Without a guiding principle, aren't we merely reduced to those expressions which offend the sensibilities typical of the educated elite?

3) Finally, in your original address in January, you indicated your primary concern is one of sponsorship and endorsement, rather than censorship. What happened to that concern?

If a department at Notre Dame invited a guest lecturer whose ideas were incongruous with the Catholic faith to give a single talk, one could argue credibly that this talk did not imply endorsement but was rather a voice within the "marketplace of ideas" typical of any university. Presumably this department would invite others in future years whose ideas were more aligned with the university's founding so as to foster a true "marketplace". If, however, the department invited back this same speaker to give the same lecture every year, at some point endorsement is clearly implied--all protestations to the contrary. The very fact that the Monologues is being performed for the fifth straight year at Notre Dame leads reasonable people both inside and outside of the University to conclude that Notre Dame is both a sponsor and endorser of its values.

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