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The 'Vagina Monologues' Test

April 7, 2006

On Wednesday, the president of the University of Notre Dame issued a lengthy statement, arising out of a series of discussions with students and faculty members, about the nature of academic freedom at a Roman Catholic college.

The statement from the Rev. John I. Jenkins is drawing praise from many on the campus for its endorsement of key values of academe, especially for talking about how openness to controversial ideas -- including some that differ from Catholic teachings -- can take place at Notre Dame. But a single part of the statement is all that many headlines reflected: "Notre Dame to Allow The Vagina Monologues."

While the headlines captured only a part of the statement, they reflected a reality that what began as an Off-Broadway play about women's sexuality has ended up occupying a lot of attention at Catholic colleges, becoming something of a litmus test for those who scrutinize the institutions. Eve Ensler, the author, helped establish V-Day, in which campus and other productions of her play are staged on or around Valentine's Day to raise money for groups that combat violence against women. Hundreds of colleges participate -- and students and professors report that the unusually frank language encourages discussions about once-taboo topics. But things get complicated at Catholic institutions.

Students and faculty members at these institutions like the play for the same reason that students and faculty members elsewhere do. But conservative groups have drawn attention to the numerous ways that the play does not extol traditional Catholic teachings, setting off debates and tough decisions for presidents. Some let the play go on and others don't. And someone is almost always offended. At Providence College, for example, the Rev. Brian J. Shanley this year devoted the first in a series of letters to the campus to his decision to stop the campus performances of the play, which he said doesn't do what its supporters say it does. "Far from celebrating the complexity and mystery of female sexuality, The Vagina Monologues simplies it and demystifies it by reducing it to the vagina," he said.

And at Notre Dame, the announcement by Father Jenkins in January that he wanted a review of campus policies about the play and similarly controversial programs (such as a gay film festival) left many faculty members deeply worried. In his announcement this week, in which he said explicitly that he wouldn't ban Monologues, he issued a strong defense of academic freedom.

"We are committed to a wide-open, unconstrained search for truth, and we are convinced that Catholic teaching has nothing to fear from engaging the wider culture," he said. While Father Jenkins stressed the importance of also having programs that reflect Catholic views, and the need to distinguish between allowing an event to take place and endorsing it, supporters of the play were heartened.

"A lot of people were worried because he put things up for grabs, but we're very happy with the way things turned out," said Stephen Fredman, chair of the English department, which is one of the sponsors of the play at Notre Dame.

Father Jenkins said that the play itself may overshadow the larger issues of academic freedom and religious identity. "We have had this discussion of lofty ideals largely in the context of a single play. But we have to make sure this event, or any single event, does not take on any undue stature," he said.

It's clear from many at Notre Dame that the play did take on quite a bit of stature.

To many faculty members, the play has become a test of academic freedom. "It's very important to me individually that this university be an outspoken representative for academic freedom, and not just defensively for it," Fredman said. "It is especially important to me as a department chair trying to recruit and retain faculty that Notre Dame is such an institution and we are not retreating into any kind of parochial position. That's not what Notre Dame is about at all."

Fredman said that there are other reasons the work attracts such attention. Part of it is format. As a play, and one in which students participate, it has students "in their own physical bodies," voicing ideas that differ from church teachings. And there's obviously the focus of the play and its title.

"Really I think a lot of it is the term 'vagina,' " Fredman said. "The combination of the words 'Notre Dame' and the word 'vagina' is enough to set off torrents of e-mails."

And while campus reaction has been largely positive, not all alumni are thrilled, and a university spokesman said that the development office was spending time trying to reassure "dismayed" alumni. That's not surprising, given the publicity sent out about the play -- and Notre Dame -- by the Cardinal Newman Society, which regularly blasts Catholic colleges that permit Monologues to take place (or that allow campus speeches by politicians who favor abortion rights). The society issued a special release denouncing Notre Dame, clearly a disappointment as the group has been claiming credit for reducing the number of performances taking place on Catholic campuses.

Ironically, the society's opposition may be one reason the play has such strong supporters, according to Richard A. Yanikoski, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. "I believe the fact that a group like the Cardinal Newman Society has chosen it as one of a few ways to be critical of Catholic higher education has prolonged it much longer than it would on its own," he said.

When something becomes a symbol of academic freedom, faculty members will defend it, even if it doesn't reflect great art or ideas, he said. "I think one could draw an analogy that the right to possession of military-quality rifles, to members of the NRA, is as this particular play is to faculty members who care about academic freedom," Yanikoski said. The National Rifle Association wants gun rights and professors want academic freedom to be "unlimited," so these things become "a test of a perceived right."

The Rev. Bernard Olszewski, vice president for academic affairs and professor of philosophy at Hilbert College, said that the play has become important because it is more public than a scholar's writing or even what goes on in the classroom. "This issue is in the realm of public access and perfoming," Father
Olszewski said. "When you take something into a very public forum, it's going to be more controversial." (Father Olszewski backs the right of students to put on the play, but said that students at his college haven't asked to do so.)

The Monologues debate also turns up outside of Catholic higher education, although with less intensity these days. Roger Bowen, the general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said that when he was president of the State University of New York at New Paltz, he angered his bosses in the system by allowing the play to be performed. "This has been going for a while," said Bowen, who wrote to Notre Dame to urge that the play be permitted.

While private colleges do not need (from a legal perspective) to provide First Amendment protections, Bowen said that their commitment to academic freedom should be one of values, not legality. And he noted that past Notre Dame presidents, such as the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, have been honored by the association for their commitment to academic freedom.

Joan W. Scott, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and the head of AAUP's committee on academic freedom issues, has seen the play and isn't surprised that it creates controversy. "It's a statement of a certain kind of feminism, which is a celebration of female sexuality, so to the extent that orthodox members of the Catholic Church are concerned about that issue, they are going to be worried about it," she said.

Scott compared the debates to those that have come up over time about books that deal in part with rebelling against traditional values or sexuality, citing Catcher in the Rye and the works of Judy Blume as examples. The question for those who care about academic freedom isn't that a controversial work is necessarily the best art ever created, but that principles of free expression are challenged.

"We can't choose the cases that come to us, but you get these things when cultural and political issues come together," she said.

 

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