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Issue Date:  February 10, 2006

Identity and freedom

Notre Dame's president on university controversies

The following talk was presented to the University of Notre Dame faculty Jan. 23 by Holy Cross Fr. John I. Jenkins, the university's new president.


Thank you for your presence here today. Despite the fact that universities at the start of the 21st century have become complicated and diffuse organizations, they nevertheless remain in essence communities of scholars and students in conversation about significant issues. If we lose sight of that simple reality, we will have lost our soul. I want to speak to you today about issues of importance for our community, and I will ask for your views today and in the weeks ahead. Your presence here, despite your busy schedules and many responsibilities, is an indication that we have not lost our sense of ourselves as an intellectual community.

I will speak today about issues arising from the Queer Film Festival and “The Vagina Monologues.” I will speak not only about these particular events, but also about the deeper issues they raise regarding academic freedom and our character as a Catholic university. Whatever one thinks about these two events, few issues are more important for this community than these. Today and in the discussion of coming weeks we seek above all the deeper principles that take account of academic freedom and our Catholic character -- the principles that guide decisions not only about the events currently at issue, but also about others in the future.

In addition to these very important issues, there is something else at stake. As I begin my presidency, I am aware that as I make particular decisions and undertake initiatives, I am establishing patterns and expectations for how I will lead in this position. Consequently, it is important not only what decisions I make, but how I make them. On matters of significance, I will always strive to make decisions, consonant with my authority, according to my most informed and considered judgment about what is best for this university and its mission. I will not lead by consensus, nor by majority vote, nor in response to the pressures that individuals or groups inside or outside the university may bring to bear. However, prior to making a decision on an important matter, I will, as appropriate and practicable, strive to solicit and listen to the views of relevant individuals and groups. Central to the obligations of my office are the twin responsibilities of listening to the views of members of this community prior to a decision, and then making that decision.

Today I meet with you, the faculty, and I will offer my thoughts on the issues at hand. At the end of my address, I will take your questions and listen to your comments. In coming weeks, I hope you will respond by e-mail or letter to what I say. Tomorrow I will meet with the students and ask for their views as well. I will also make a statement available to the alumni and invite their response. While I will not be able to respond to every letter and e-mail, I will read them all. After an adequate period of time for response and for reflection on the responses received, I will make a final decision on the issue at hand and will announce the principles that will guide future decisions at the university.

A sacred value

Academic freedom is essential to a university. It ensures that faculty have the ability to research, create, teach and express themselves in accord with their own best judgment. Appropriately applied to students, it ensures that they have the opportunity to inquire, express opinions, explore ideas and engage in discussion. Recognition of academic freedom in higher education has been hard-won for centuries, and it must be vigorously defended. It is a sacred value. We will do all we can to protect it at Notre Dame.

Precisely because academic freedom is such a sacred value, we must be clear about its appropriate limits. I do not believe that freedom of expression has absolute priority in every circumstance. While any restriction on expression must be reluctant and restrained, I believe that, in some situations, given the distinctive character and aspirations of Notre Dame, it may be necessary to establish certain boundaries, while defending the appropriate exercise of academic freedom.

Consider the following case. The well known Oberammergau Passion play has been a work of theatrical and religious power for centuries. The play has been performed by the villagers of this Bavarian town as an act of pious thanksgiving to God for sparing their town from the plague in 1633. Performances occur every 10 years, and they draw crowds in the hundreds of thousands from around the world. Audiences have been moved religiously and emotionally by the performances.

In 1860 Fr. Joseph Alois Daisenberger, the parish priest of the village, revised the script, and it was fundamentally his version, with minor revisions, which was to be performed until the year 1980. Daisenberger’s script was dramatically and religiously powerful, but it bore an anti-Semitic message. The Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples was entirely hidden, while the opponents of Jesus, who were depicted as greedy and treacherous, were clearly Jewish. The text strongly suggested that Jews collectively were responsible for the death of Jesus. Adolf Hitler attended two performances of the play, praised it for exposing “the menace of Jewry,” and insisted that it continue for its depiction of the “muck and mire of Jewry.”

In 1965, with the promulgation of the encyclical Nostra Aetate by Pope Paul VI, the Catholic church condemned anti-Semitism and any suggestions that Jewish people collectively are culpable for the death of Christ. In 1970 the church withheld from the play its missio canonica, its assurance that the play is consistent with Catholic doctrine -- and the archbishop of Munich said that the play should be revised. In 1990 and again in 2000 the script was revised to remove the anti-Semitic elements. Some complain, however, that the current script lacks the theatrical and religious power of the Daisenberger script.

Suppose that students or faculty proposed a performance at Notre Dame of the Daisenberger Passion play. They may be sincerely attracted by its theatrical power, or by its dramatic or religious power. Whatever their motives for performing this play, however, I do not believe that such a performance could be permitted at Notre Dame. Its anti-Semitic elements are clearly and egregiously opposed to the values of a Catholic university. Even if those wishing to stage the performance had pure intentions, the staging of the play at Notre Dame would appear to endorse or at least acquiesce in a tolerance of an anti-Semitisim whose consequences are only too clear to us.

Let me be clear on what I see as the problem here. There would no objection to a faculty member assigning the Daisenberger script in a class, or to any student reading or writing a paper on the script of this play. Further, any faculty member or student would be free in their own name to praise the play, or advocate for its performance in The Observer or in another publication. Nor would I seek as president to prohibit an unofficial performance involving members of the university community in space away from campus. My concern is not with censorship, but with sponsorship. 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. 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.

I have spoken here about a dramatic production. But I can imagine, hypothetically, a similar issue with conferences sponsored by units of the university or recognized organizations -- although I know of no such examples during my time at Notre Dame. Consider titles of the following imagined conferences:

  • Childish Fancy and Adult Ignorance: Theism as Delusion and Psychosis
  • The Moral Legitimacy of Infanticide and Euthanasia
  • The Moral Acceptability and Strategic Value of a First-strike Nuclear Attack

If a conference were proposed at Notre Dame under one of these titles, and all speakers defended the position that the title suggests, and there was no one arguing persuasively for a position compatible with a Catholic position, I do not see how the university could sponsor such an event. Again, the problem would be that this Catholic institution would seem to be sponsoring an event that supports or appears to support a position clearly and egregiously contrary to the certain central values of Catholicism.

Variety of views

Again, let me be clear. The university certainly can host individual speakers who defend atheism, or infanticide, or euthanasia, or a first-strike nuclear attack. It is essential to a university that there be a variety of views expressed vigorously, even those contrary to deep values of Catholicism. We are richer, and the Catholic intellectual tradition is strengthened, if a variety of views are expressed and discussed. The difficulty is that these imagined conferences either are or at least appear to be, in their title and content (as I described it), one-sided presentations of and perhaps advocacy for -- positions that are clearly at odds with deep values of Catholicism. If they are sponsored by the university, or by one of its units or recognized organizations, their occurrence would suggest that the university sponsors not merely open discussion of controversial topics, but endorses or at least considers compatible with its values the particular positions that are being advanced.

I reiterate that I know of no such conferences that have occurred or are being planned. I present them as hypothetical cases merely to raise a concern about “The Vagina Monologues” and the Queer Film Festival. Although there are many important differences among these two events and the hypothetical cases that I have mentioned, I believe they are instances of events which appear to imply endorsement of views that are in conflict with fundamental values of Notre Dame as a Catholic university.

The Queer Film Festival bears a title which, to a nonacademic observer, seems to celebrate homosexual activity. Furthermore, there is a concern that, among its constituent presentations, a Catholic view on sexual morality is not adequately presented. Conversations have been going on at the departmental level around these concerns, and I believe that those involved in this production have been receptive.

“The Vagina Monologues” has been performed on campus for four consecutive years. The work is presented as interviews with, which become monologues by, women about their vaginas. As the work presents them, such monologues take place in a context in which women have not spoken about their sexual organs at all, or have spoken only in euphemisms. Their thoughts about and emotions concerning them are generally negative, and often associated with traumatic, and sometimes violent memories. These monologues are explicit and graphic. Through such frank talk about their sexual organs, experiences and desires, these women are portrayed as coming to a more positive, more accepting and indeed a celebratory attitude toward their sexual organs, their own sexuality and their identity as women. Through the performance of the play, the narrator hopes, a community and even a culture might be created in which such positive attitudes are fostered. Central to the goal of fostering such a culture is the organized resistance to all forms of violence against women. The V-Day efforts each year -- the day on which the Vagina Monologues is performed on campus -- is a movement for the elimination of violence against women.

There are many laudable goals associated with the performance of this work. Among them are that women have a positive, accepting attitude of their own bodies, that they see their sexuality as a gift that is to be cherished, that they take pride in their identity as women, and that they form communities that will support such attitudes. The most urgent and laudable goal of all is the elimination of violence against women, which I personally and this university as a whole unequivocally support.

The concern that I and many others have is that in “The Vagina Monologues” discussion of female sexuality, and in the community and culture it strives to create, there is no hint of central elements of Catholic sexual morality. The work contains graphic descriptions of homosexual, extramarital heterosexual, and autoerotic experiences. There is even a depiction of the seduction of a 16-year-old girl by an adult woman. The experiences are often portrayed as leading the characters to the sort of positive embrace of the woman’s body, sexuality and self that the narrator wants to encourage. Yet these portrayals stand apart from, and indeed in opposition to, the view that human sexuality finds its proper expression in the committed relationship of marriage between a man and a woman that is open to the gift of procreation. Moreover, the repeated performance of the play and the publicity surrounding it suggest that the university endorses certain themes in the play, or at least finds them compatible with its values. Despite the many laudable goals of those who support this performance, I find it problematic that the university continues to sponsor annual performances of this play.

I have spoken about some broad intuitions and convictions. I will now articulate some more specific principles. I will not attempt to give anything approaching a systematic and exhaustive treatment of academic freedom, but will simply highlight some key principles and address what I see as the main issue at hand. I will speak first about academic freedom as it relates to faculty members; secondly, about academic freedom as it relates to students; and, thirdly, about events like “The Vagina Monologues” that are sponsored by the university or units of the university.

Undoubtedly, the interest will be about any limits on expression. But I do want to place that discussion within the context of the range of expressions that are protected by academic freedom, which we will vigorously defend, and which help make Notre Dame an intellectually rich and vibrant university.

Freedom of the faculty

The core of academic freedom is the freedom of an individual faculty member to conduct research in accord with his or her abilities, training and interests; to publish the results of that research; and to teach in his or her discipline according to his or her best judgment of the field and of appropriate pedagogy. When a faculty member’s research and teaching is evaluated, as it must be, it is judged by appropriate faculty in accord with clearly defined procedures and due process within the university.

Distinct from, yet related to, the freedom to conduct research, publish and teach in one’s discipline is the freedom to make statements on matters outside one’s discipline as a member of the university, of the local community, a citizen of this country, a member of the Catholic church or any other church or religious tradition, or in other capacities. The university recognizes a faculty member’s freedom to speak his or her mind on such matters.

The Academic Articles (Article III, Section 2) speak of correlative obligations on those who enjoy this academic freedom. Among the obligations mentioned are avoidance of using the university’s name to advance one’s personal opinion or interests. It is incumbent on a faculty member, in expressing opinions on any matter, to make clear that he or she speaks only for himself or herself, and does not represent the university or any part of it. The Academic Articles, as well as the university’s Mission Statement, call for every faculty member to respect the basic aims of the university in one’s conduct, utterances and work. What these correlative obligations amount to in a particular situation requires prudential judgment, but we are all obliged to make such judgments carefully and conscientiously.

Regarding our obligations correlative to academic freedom, I call to your attention to a recent address by Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, on academic freedom. (The lecture was given as the annual Cardozo Lecture to the Association of the Bar in New York City, and I will have a link to it on my Web site.) Bollinger argues that a primary purpose of universities is that of “nurturing a very distinctive intellectual character,” which professional scholars exhibit in the highest degree and cultivate in their students to some degree. This character, which defines what Bollinger calls the “scholarly temperament,” consists in “the imaginative range and mental courage to take in, to explore, the full complexity of the subject.” It is “the intellectual disposition of an extraordinary openness of intellect.” As I would paraphrase Bollinger, this scholarly temperament consists in a Socratic conviction about one’s ignorance, and a corresponding willingness to entertain questions and various answers to them. It demands an appreciation of the complexities in any area of reality, high standards of inquiry and inference, a reluctance to settle for the current synthesis and a resistance to a premature closure of questions.

It is the nurturing of this scholarly temperament that deserves, and indeed demands, academic freedom. Our greatest contribution as intellectuals and scholars perhaps does not consist in the discovery of any particular truth or truths. It consists rather in the cultivation in ourselves and in our students of this scholarly temperament in a world that is often uncomfortable with uncertainties, questions and new perspectives.

If we are to continue to cultivate this scholarly temperament we must be wary, as Bollinger warns, of becoming an advocate for any particular scholarly or political view or movement. To the extent that we are advocates for some particular position, we lose this temperament and our writing and teaching can become indoctrination.

As I am sure most of you know, there is pressure now to monitor universities and academic departments for a balanced presentation of political positions. I think such a move would be disastrous for universities, for it would lead to politicization and polarization of universities and their faculties. One important way to resist this is for we who are faculty to cultivate the scholarly temperament of which Bollinger speaks. To the extent that we are primarily advocates for a particular position in the political spectrum, it makes sense to demand equal representation. However, to the extent that we are scholars whose role is to question, explore and imagine alternatives, each of us in our thinking and speaking can and should provide a range of different views.

Students also enjoy certain freedoms of inquiry and expression. Again, my purpose here is not to give an exhaustive list, but simply to affirm some of these key freedoms.

In the classroom, students are free to express their views insofar as they respect appropriate decorum in class and the views are relevant to class material. They are to be evaluated in class on the basis of appropriate academic standards, and not on capricious or biased grounds. While they must master the material set by the syllabus, they are free to hold their own opinions on issues treated in the class, and must not to be negatively evaluated for any opinions they hold or express.

Outside the classroom, students are free to express their own views while respecting the rules and procedures of the university. They are free to gather and demonstrate, in accord with the regulations of the university. Students may form organizations, though the administration reserves the right to make prudential judgments, in accord with the principles of the university, about whether to grant organizations official status.

An important means for student involvement and expression on campus is The Observer. The Observer is a very good student paper, staffed by hard-working and dedicated students who do a great service to the university. It is not financially independent from the university. Because student fees support the operation of The Observer, it has an obligation to serve the entire community in a manner consonant with the ideals of the university. In its coverage of the news, including issues involving university administration, The Observer has had, and will continue to have, editorial freedom. The standards of editorial and journalistic practice that we expect at The Observer are those recognized by the most respected newspapers in this country.

‘Freedom to learn’

The academic freedom accorded to students is sometimes discussed as parallel to that of the faculty. The notion of academic freedom in the United States has its roots in that of German universities in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and those universities which spoke of both a “freedom to teach” (Lehrfreiheit) and a “freedom to learn” (Lernfreiheit). Yet I do not think a student’s academic freedom here is usefully understood as precisely parallel to that of a faculty member. For one thing, we have curricular requirements for degrees that prescribe the students’ range of choices regarding classes. A student pursuing a degree is not entirely free to choose any courses he or she wishes to take, nor to choose the books or assignments on a syllabus that he or she will read or complete. (Or more accurately, a student may choose not to read books or complete assignments, but predictable results will follow!) We certainly wish to respect and protect academic freedom for students, but it is that freedom appropriate to students.

We at Notre Dame have, moreover, a more explicit goal of helping to form our students’ character. We state clearly to all prospective students that at Notre Dame we will strive to cultivate in them the virtues that will enable them to live a worthy life. The cultivation of independence and autonomy in our students is an important part of this, but these are not the only traits we seek to instill. Consequently, in student activities, we do and will continue to make prudential judgments about the appropriateness of certain forms of activity and expression.

The performance of “The Vagina Monologues” and the holding of the Queer Film Festival are events sponsored by units of the university -- in this case by academic departments. They do not constitute cases of an individual faculty member or student publishing a book or article, writing an editorial or letter, or expressing a view in his or her name. They are cases in which the university, or some unit in or recognized organization of the university, sponsors the activity, the university facilities are used for the event, and the university’s name is associated with it. In this way these cases differ from one that concerns the expression of an individual faculty member or student.

“The Vagina Monologues” and the Queer Film Festival have raised difficulties because they either are or appear to be at odds with certain fundamental values of a Catholic university. The fact that they have been sponsored annually by units of the university, and have been widely publicized, prominently associates the university’s name with them. Such occurrences suggest the university endorses or at least finds compatible with its values certain views that are not in fact compatible. The wide publicity and prominence given such events tends to instrumentalize our collective identity and our higher meaning. The concern here, as I said, is not with censorship, but with sponsorship.

The position I am inviting you to consider then is that an event that has the implicit or explicit sponsorship of the university as a whole, one of its units or a university recognized organization, and that either is or appears to be in name or content clearly and egregiously contrary to or inconsistent with the fundamental values of a Catholic university, should not be allowed at Notre Dame. As I said, the sponsors of “The Vagina Monologues” have many laudable goals: that women should be aided to affirm their own bodies, the gift of their sexuality and their identity as women; that we should form communities and a culture that can support this; and, most pressingly, that we work to eliminate violence against women. I pledge myself to work to advance such goals at Notre Dame. I fail to see, however, how the annual performance of “The Vagina Monologues” is the appropriate means to these ends. In coming weeks I welcome and look forward to hearing your views on this play or other events, and on the principles that I have tried to articulate.

You have, then, my thoughts on this matter. I am absolutely committed to Notre Dame’s continuing quest to be a truly preeminent university, to be a leader in inquiry and creative expression, to be a place of vibrant debate and intellectual engagement. I am equally committed to maintaining our distinctive Catholic character -- indeed, with the other fellows of the university, I bear a special responsibility in this regard. It is with this mission of the university in mind that I have offered you my thought on academic freedom and our Catholic character.

I now look forward to learning your thoughts. As I said, I am meeting with you, the faculty, today, with students tomorrow, and will give the alumni an opportunity to express their views. I will not make a decision on this matter until members of this community have had the time to express their views, and I have had the time to consider them. I will not respond to all letters, e-mails and essays, but, as I said, I will read and give thoughtful consideration to each person’s contribution. I am establishing a special e-mail address to which you may direct your comments.

Many people feel passionately about the issues under consideration, and no doubt that passion will be evident in their comments and discussions in coming weeks. I urge everyone to make this a conversation that is characterized by respect for other members of this community, careful listening, thoughtful contributions and argumentation, and an appreciation for the distinctive character of this Catholic university. Too often in our society discussions are characterized by polarizing and unyielding polemics, personal attacks and manipulative appeals to the emotions or even the prejudices of an audience. Let us make this a discussion characterized by mutual respect, and guided by reasoned argument. I hope it will show this community at its best.

For my part, I will do my best to consider fairly and thoughtfully all views expressed, and to act judiciously consonant with my responsibilities. I will listen to all, and make the best decision I can.

I thank you for your time and attention, and now am willing to take questions and listen to comments.

National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

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