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Academic Freedom, Faith and Nuance

February 4, 2008

Roman Catholic college leaders emphasized the importance of academic freedom and institutional autonomy Sunday amid observations of increasing external pressures on universities and the sounds, as one audience member put it, of a “clash of cultures” – that of dialogue and inquiry in the university versus pronouncement, or ordination, from church authorities.

Panelists and audience members grappled with that issue Sunday during a session at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities' annual meeting in Washington titled “Institutional Autonomy 40 Years After Land O’Lakes.” Land O’Lakes is a landmark 1967 statement from a group comprised mostly of university leaders asserting that institutional autonomy and academic freedom are “essential conditions” for Catholic colleges’ life, growth and survival. (“To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself,” the document states.)

Tensions between authority and academic inquiry are of course nothing new. Mary E. Lyons, president of the University of San Diego, reminded attendees that the first Catholic colleges were formed in the 12th century not primarily to educate clergy, but to train people for careers to respond to real-world societal needs -- and in response one audience member noted how jealously those early Catholic colleges guarded their autonomy from kings and queens.

“One dominant mark of a Catholic university is its openness," Lyons said. Catholic universities, she continued, come out "of the heart of the church and the heart of the world.”

Yet, while they can serve the church, nor, Lyons said, is it their primary mission to catechize. Instead, the colleges create “common ground for the bridge between the secular and the sacred.”

But while a Catholic college’s mission of service – as Loyola’s University Chicago's president, the Reverend Michael J. Garanzini put it, “A university doesn’t exist for itself” – is generally accepted, what, Father Garanzini asked, of the commitment to promoting the official teachings of the church? Citing the controversy over the college's role in that regard, Father Garanzini pointed out a tendency of colleges to simply call themselves autonomous and subsequently react with indignation or outrage to calls for change from ecclesiastical officials. But, in reality, he said, universities deal with outside pressures all of the time, from church and state alike. “We ought not to overreact from church pressures any more than to state pressures,” he said. Though he added: "We ought not always to give in...."

"Autonomy is a process," Father Garanzini said. "It is something we work toward."

Another panelist, Stephen J. Sweeny, president of the College of New Rochelle, in New York, said in an interview that while real tensions exist, church and college leaders are doing better than ever of navigating those tensions -- simply because the two entities are talking to one another. In his public remarks, he noted that even in the enforcement of Ex Corde Ecclesiae -- a Vatican document from 1990 associated with making Catholic universities more Catholic in character -- the church explicitly affirms in documentation the importance of institutional autonomy and academic freedom.

Yet, the Rev. Louis DeThomasis, chancellor of Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, said that in his experience, “When church authorities say, 'academic freedom,' it’s always nuanced – academic freedom if you speak the truth. Who speaks the truth?" Church authority? In an interview, he said that in his years in higher education, the tensions have only gotten worse.

“It seems that there is not an appreciation for the differentiation of the role of church and the role of the university” in presenting varying viewpoints and engaging in dialogue, inquiry and openness, he said. In an interview, he blamed increasing polarization in society in general, and a movement toward fundamentalist viewpoints, for the declining appreciation for that distinction.

“Twenty years ago it was popular to say there was a lot of 'creative tension,'” Brother DeThomasis told the crowd, indicating his suspicion of the term even then. “You don’t have academic freedom unless you have the courage to use it. We need more courage on our campuses. That’s going to lead to more tension and probably not creative tension.”

 

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