National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 6, 2003

Sen. Rick Santorum
-- CNS
St. Joseph’s University grads, teachers walk out on Santorum


About a third of the faculty and graduates of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia walked out of their commencement ceremony May 18 to protest the school’s conferring an honorary degree on Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

Although the walkout came soon after Santorum created a national outcry because of remarks he made concerning a right to privacy case before the Supreme Court, objections to Santorum had begun several weeks earlier at St. Joseph’s University, a Jesuit school with about 3,800 undergraduates and 2,600 graduate students.

Protesters said Santorum’s views did not represent the university’s vision of social justice and service to the community and therefore he should not have been selected for the honor.

In mid-March, St. Joseph faculty and students returning from spring break were surprised by the news that the university’s board of trustees had selected Santorum for an honorary degree.

Faculty and students were upset by the choice because of Santorum’s support of the war in Iraq, his advocacy of the death penalty and his stand on many social welfare issues, according to Mercy Sr. Elizabeth Linehan, who has taught at St. Joseph’s since 1976, the last 15 years as chair of the philosophy department.

“Even his favoring teaching creationism in the public school curriculum made some faculty object to honoring him with an academic degree,” Linehan told NCR.

The faculty also objected because “there was no internal [selection] process. The faculty didn’t even know that Santorum had been named,” she said.

The College Council of the College of Arts and Science drafted a letter spelling out these objections. Fifty-one faculty members signed the letter, which was sent to the board of trustees and printed in the student newspaper.

In late April, students staged a “quiet protest” outside a meeting of the executive committee of the board of trustees. Linehan told NCR this generated local media coverage and she thinks the trustees regretted having invited the senator. “The trustees didn’t know the choice would be so divisive,” she said.

Richard Passon, vice president for academic affairs at St. Joseph’s, said there was much discussion of rescinding the invitation, but the trustees “decide not to ‘disinvite’ him.”

Then in early May during an interview with The Associated Press, Santorum compared homosexuality to adultery, incest, bigamy and polygamy.

“Those remarks were offensive to people -- to individual students who would be graduating. We said we just can’t let that go by,” Linehan said.

The Gay/Straight Alliance, a voluntary committee that receives no budget from the university but reports directly to the president, decided to organize a protest. The alliance, for which Linehan is the faculty chair, has primarily an educational function that aims at “creating a welcoming environment for sexual minorities at the university,” she said.

The alliance distributed 500 rainbow-colored ribbons and 500 crimson and grey (the school colors) ribbons for students and faculty to wear on their academic robes during graduation as a sign of protest.

Offering two kinds of ribbons was also symbolic. “We didn’t want this to be a gay rights issue, because it was bigger than that,” Linehan said. Seven university departments endorsed the ribbon protest: classics, fine arts, gender studies, philosophy, sociology, teaching and theology.

Linehan said the overriding concern was to not be disrespectful of the ceremony for the graduating students and not to embarrass the university. A boycott was ruled out, but individuals were encouraged to walk out before the senator received his degree and spoke.

Meanwhile, the St. Joseph’s administration and the protesters were talking to each other. Passon was “kept in the loop all the along,” Linehan said.

Passon told NCR, “We tried to communicate with everyone.” The administration also fixed the program “so we could keep [the protests] orderly and respectful,” he said. Commencement was arranged so that Santorum would speak near the end, just before the benediction.

Passon, emcee for event, told NCR that after the graduates had received their diplomas, “I just said we would pause for a moment so people could make an expression of dissent.”

At least 100 students and faculty, about a third of those in attendance, Linehan estimated, walked out.

Linehan described the event as “a peaceful, nondisruptive but visible demonstration.”

Passon said he was pleased with the way things turned out. “In a university, we have to disagree civilly. I think we did that.”

One result of the affair, Linehan and Passon said, is that the selection process for honorary degrees will become more consultative.

Santorum’s office was contacted for this story but declined to comment.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 2003

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