Academic Freedom

Academic Freedom

[A]ny appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission.
May 2008

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While few question the central importance of academic freedom to the mission of a university, competing views of precisely what that term means have bedeviled higher education for a very long time. What is clear is that nowhere and at no time has either academic freedom or its close relative free speech been thought to be absolute. A brief search of the internet will uncover a long catalog of illustrative recent disputes, such as the University of Colorado/Ward Churchill battle and the fight over student publications’ printing the incendiary Danish anti-Muslim cartoons, as well as such startling rules as the University of Miami’s prohibition of “words” that “cause emotional distress.” For more information: Click Here

The Vagina Monologues controversy, thus, is of a genus common to all universities, though of a species unique to those claiming a religious identity. There have been a number of recent studies of the role, actual and ideal, of academic freedom in Christian, often including Catholic, universities, some of which we have collected under Resources for those interested in examining the issue in depth.

We do not do so here, for we think the issue is simple enough to make elaborate analysis needless. The Vagina Monologues’ unrelenting exaltation of illicit sex is so hostile in its substance to Catholic doctrine and tradition and so scornful in its style of Catholic, indeed of civilized, sensibility that learned discussion and textual dissection seem quite beside the point. What is called to mind, rather, is Mr. Justice Potter Stewart’s famous dictum respecting the difficulty of defining obscenity. However complex that task, he said, “I know it when I see it.” Jacobelli v. United States, 378 U.S. 184, 197.

While Father Jenkins in the end decided to sanction the play, he has subsequently reassured protesting alumni, as we have noted, that this does not foreclose his reconsideration in the future, and accordingly a careful examination of the basis for, and the potential consequences of, his decision is in order.

The threatened consequences are serious. Since Father Jenkins characterized this issue as presenting a “test” of how he would in the future resolve questions involving competing claims respecting academic freedom and Catholic identity, if the decision stands it is hard to visualize any circumstances in which protection of Catholic identity would trump academic freedom. Not that Catholic identity would be formally eliminated as a consideration, to be sure, for not only did Father Jenkins explicitly recognize its importance, but a concern for the Catholic character of the University is also reflected in the guidelines jointly agreed to by Fr. Jenkins and the Department Chairs. More, the University’s formal statement respecting academic freedom and freedom of expression declares that the exercise of these rights is to be “consistent with the objectives of the University as a community that… lives in the tradition of Christian belief.”

But if Father Jenkins’ decision is to be a key marker, an event would have to evince even more hostility to the “tradition of Christian belief” than does The Vagina Monologues to run any risk of disapproval. No wonder, then, that Father Jenkins remarked that he “did not expect” ever to face “this sort of expression.” In short, Father Jenkins’ decision seems to endorse a concept of academic freedom that, as a practical matter, has unlimited reach. Particularly in light of the degree of secularization already evident at Notre Dame, this is a dark prospect.

Still, if the principles that Father Jenkins set forth are considered by themselves, that is, without regard to their application by Father Jenkins to this play, there is ground for hoping that, upon reconsideration, Father Jenkins will come to a different conclusion. Indeed, those principles on their face ought, we believe, compel such a result. To be sure, Father Jenkins’ introductory expression of his “determin[ation] that we not suppress free speech on this campus” would seem to sweep all before it; but it does not, for Father Jenkins promptly went on to describe the type of expression that he would in fact “suppress,” namely, expression “that is overt and insistent in its contempt for the values and sensibilities of the University, or of any of the diverse groups that form part of our community.” When to that standard is added Father Jenkins’ description of the sort of speech that would be “welcome” even though not consonant with fundamental Church doctrine, namely, “any serious debate on any thoughtful position” “as long as the Gospel message and the Catholic intellectual tradition are appropriately represented,” there emerges a general set of principles that may be about as serviceable as any can be.

If these be the tests, then, should not The Vagina Monologues fail rather than pass? Surely the play cannot easily be thought of as part of a “serious debate” on a “thoughtful position,” to put it conservatively. There is here presented no question of interdicting classroom study of the play, should that for some reason be thought worthwhile, nor of foreclosing a scholarly debate respecting the morality of, say, homosexual intercourse or masturbation (although the promotion of seduction of minors or sadism would seem to raise a question of a different order no matter how imposing the academic credentials of the proponents or the vigor of the opposition). No impediment to academic freedom in any serious sense, that is, is implicated. What is implicated, in striking fashion, is “an overt and insistent” expression of “contempt for the values and sensibilities of the University.” Surely Father Jenkins could not have meant that anything and everything gets a free pass as long as it does not have affixed a prominent and explicit “anti-Catholic” label. And so far as “sensibilities” are concerned, in a discussion with faculty Father Jenkins himself noted that “groups of both women and men feel ‘offended and alienated by the play’” as “an affront to Catholicism.” As well they should. (For this and other interesting interchanges between Father Jenkins and faculty members in which Father Jenkins defended his initial doubts about permitting the play’s performances, see the February 3, 2006 issue of The Observer.)

In sum, we ask, not that Father Jenkins revisit any part of his extended and thoughtful analysis of the relationship between academic freedom and Catholic identity, but rather that he reexamine how the principles that he has formulated on the basis of that analysis ought be applied to this play in what he has characterized as a precedent-setting case. Would that it were not, we add; but the faculty will reasonably think that it is.

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