"Balance" is a much debated topic in higher education -- and if Boston College is any indication, trying to regulate balance in campus presentations can create all kinds of difficulties.
The college has adopted new rules for the speakers students may invite to campus using student activity fees. Under the new policies -- which were not discussed with student or faculty leaders prior to adoption -- the college reserves the right to make "necessary adjustments to require that balanced views be presented," in light of the college's identity as a Roman Catholic, Jesuit institution. The college also reserves the right to postpone programs to be sure that they can get such balance, and to call them off in the "rare instances" in which it is impossible to achieve balance.
While the policy makes broad reference to the college's religious mission, Jack Dunn, a spokesman, acknowledged that it was only certain topics that were likely to set off reviews and demands for balance. "Abortion is the hot button issue," he said, adding that other topics related to sexuality would also be subject to scrutiny. Dunn stressed that faculty members could bring whomever they wanted to campus, and that the college expected only very rarely to have to block events. "The intention here is not to censor."
That's very unclear to many on the campus, especially because of how the policy is being described. Student leaders noted, for example, that a Republican politician who favored the death penalty, tight controls on immigration, and cuts to programs for the poor -- all stances opposed by Catholic leaders -- would apparently be welcome to speak without "balance" being required. Indeed the college's last graduation speaker was Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, who has been a key player in Bush administration foreign policy, seen by many Catholics as antithetical to church teachings.
In contrast, Patrick Healey, president of the College Democrats at Boston College, said that he fears any time he invites a politician who favors stem cell research or abortion rights, a Republican opposed to those positions would have to join the panel.
"It's a real slap in the face" that some views would have to be balanced and others wouldn't, he said.
Healey has been in Catholic schools since first grade and he said that there is no lack of clarity for him or others about Catholic teachings on abortion or various other matters. "I have a very firm understanding of what the church believes," he said. "We're not trying to convince students to ignore Catholic teachings. We want to bring in speakers so students can make up their minds."
An editorial in The Heights, the student paper, also denounced the new rules. " The Heights isn't pro-life, or pro-choice; creationist or evolutionary; conservative or liberal; Catholic or Protestant or Muslim or Jewish. The Heights is pro-knowledge, anti-complacency, and pro-discussion," the editorial said. "At a university like Boston College, Catholic teaching should be explained, celebrated, encouraged, and expressed in its fullness. Catholic teaching on abortion rights, the sanctity of marriage, and the morality of war should be professed -- just as the Catholic practice of 'disputation,' or academic debate, and its historic role in the discussion and clarification of Catholic doctrine should also be encouraged on our campus. This requires that pro-abortion rights views, supporters of gay marriage, and the necessity of just war be professed with equal fervor."
While the policy is focused on students, professors are upset as well. Charles Derber, a profesor of sociology who has taught at Boston College for 26 years, said that the policy was more dangerous in part because it is unclear when and why it will be applied. "We're talking about scrutinizing people's views before they are even on campus," he said. He noted that there are dozens of speakers on campus every day, invited by a range of groups. "Is there going to be a committee that is going to review each of these people? What is going to constitute balance?"
While Dunn said it was "important" to note that faculty members were not covered by the policy, Derber said that in no way limited the importance of the policy to everyone at the college.
"The integrity of the university depends on free and open debate," he said, so any change in that tradition should be reviewed by faculty and student leaders. "This is central to what a university is about."