Thursday, September 26, 2013

Today in Catholic education

I haven't been following the ongoing brouhaha at Providence College regarding the administration "uninviting" a speaker brought in by several academic departments, because teh gay is icky of Ex Corde Ecclesiae or something. Both the speaker, John Corvino, and the Faculty Senate at Providence have issued statements, however; I've read Corvino's, and plan to read the faculty's (which is much longer and more detailed).

As far as I can tell, the only place the faculty's letter has been published has been on a Facebook post; I'm reproducing it here for non Facebookers who may be searching for it. None of the following is due to me.

Letter from the President of the Faculty Senate

Dear Colleagues,

On Saturday Sept. 21st we all received a letter from Provost Lena informing us that a talk scheduled to be held on campus this week by Dr. John Corvino had been cancelled. Two main reasons were given for this decision: 1) that a publication by the United Stated Council of Catholic Bishops entitled Catholics in Political Life instructs Catholic institutions not to give platforms for those who act in defiance of fundamental Catholic moral principles, and 2) that the organizer of the event failed to comply with a College policy that “dictates that both sides of a controversial issue are to be presented fairly and equally when discussed in a forum such as this.”

Today, the College published the following statement clarifying their reasons for cancelling this event. Since some of you may have not seen this statement on our webpage, I include it here:

Providence, R.I. - Providence College’s respect for and commitment to academic freedom is articulated in its mission statement. Academic freedom means that our faculty may pursue the truth in accord with the canons of their disciplines and share their findings in research and teaching without interference. The nature of marriage is a matter about which our faculty has academic freedom.

The incident in question is thus not really about academic freedom, but rather goes to the meaning of being a Catholic college. Should a Catholic college invite an outside speaker to campus, pay that person an honorarium, and give that person an unchallenged platform from which to present arguments designed to undermine a central tenet of the Catholic faith? Our reading of Ex corde Ecclesiae is that to do so would be to undermine the very nature of a Catholic college. Our interpretation is in accord with that of the United States Bishops Conference, which has asked Catholic institutions not to provide honors or platforms for speakers who advocate for positions inconsistent with Church teaching.

It is important to note that Providence College had originally agreed to host this speaker in tandem with another well-known philosopher for a two-sided debate of the issue of gay marriage. We believe that this kind of free and fair discussion of both sides of a controversial issue would be beneficial to our community. The event was cancelled only when it became clear that this would not be the case. We would welcome a real debate about this issue on our campus and look forward to hosting an academic event that comports with our mission.

There are several aspects of these two statements that I believe should concern the faculty, and merit discussion among us.

1) Both of these documents claim that the College took this action in compliance with a document by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops entitled Catholics in Political Life. After discussion with some members of our Theology Department, however, I am informed that this document is—as the name implies—specifically intended to direct Catholic behavior in political life. As I understand it, therefore, this document was never intended to direct Catholic behavior in academic life, and therefore it is inappropriate to invoke this document to legitimize cancelling an academic event. Dr. Corvino’s lecture was unequivocally an academic event: he is an associate professor of philosophy, he has published extensively on the topic of his presentation, his talk was to be co-sponsored by nine different academic programs and departments including the Feinstein Institute, he was to address an audience of faculty and students, and one of our own Theology professors had agreed to give a response to his presentation. This was an academic event through-and-through, so the document Catholics in Political Life seems to have no bearing on this event, and therefore it certainly should not have been used to silence an academic discussion.

2) That both documents invoke language in the publication Catholics in Political Life to cancel an academic presentation seems very dangerous to academic freedom, because the Administration seems to be declaring certain academic discussion to be ‘political’. Subjecting academic discussion to regulations reserved by the USCCB for politicians and political advocates seems not only wrong, but perhaps even insulting. We academics are bound by standards of intellectual honesty and the pursuit of truth and knowledge. We support our statements with evidence that we have scrutinized, we do our best to remove bias from our thinking, we invite the criticism of our peers, and we challenge each other when our logic and reasoning is weak. There is no need to subject our academic discussions to the restraints and limitations reserved for political advocates.

3) Provost Lena’s letter stated that the event was also being cancelled because the organizer (Dr. Christopher Arroyo of the Philosophy Department) had failed to comply with a College policy that “dictates that both sides of a controversial issue are to be presented fairly and equally when discussed in a forum such as this.” In response to my subsequent inquiries about this policy, Dr. Lena has replied that it is not actually published in any College document, but rather it is a long-standing ‘practice’ of the College, dating back several decades. He does note that College documents require that a "...conference or event must be consistent with the mission of the College." Since this practice of providing both sides of an issue is not published among the College’s official policies for hosting speakers, there are grounds to question the closing remarks in the Provost’s letter: “The organizer of the proposed event was aware of College policy, and discussed a balanced presentation on the issue with members of the College Administration as far back as January of this year. However, the organizer did not dialogue with the Administration as to his plans, the event was not developed along the lines dictated by policy, and the organizer did not secure approval from the Administration for his final event prior to sending the campus-wide email.” Since the practice of providing two speakers was not a published College policy, there are grounds for wondering how Dr. Arroyo was to know of this unwritten expectation, or how he was to know that any changes to the originally proposed format of the presentation had to be approved by the Administration.

4) There are blatant errors of fact in the official College statement on our webpage, which seem a violation of the College motto Veritas. For one, the statement asks whether the College should have given the speaker “an unchallenged platform.” As the publicity for the event made clear, however, our own Dr. Dana Dillon of the Theology Department was scheduled to give a response to Dr. Corvino’s paper. Dr. Dillon holds a Ph.D from Duke University and specializes in moral Theology, so it seems incredible to say that Dr. Corvino’s presentation was to be “unchallenged.”

5) Both communications from the Administration state that the event was being cancelled because there would not be a proper response to Dr. Corvino, which seems highly suspect given that Dr. Dillon was prepared to be the respondent (Dr. Lena’s letter said Dr. Dillon did not have sufficient time to prepare). The Administration did not consult with Dr. Dillon in advance, but rather made its own decision that her response would not sufficiently fulfill the requirement that both sides be fairly represented. Dr. Lena has assured me that the Administration at no time doubted the professional capabilities of Dr. Dillon. Still, what criteria did the Administration use to impose its own assessment that there would not be a proper response to Dr. Corvino, when Dr. Dillon had already determined that she was capable and prepared to give that response? Is the Administration henceforth to rule on whether and when each of us is prepared to speak in our areas of expertise? Should the Administration be substituting its own opinion for our professional assessments?

6) The College practice used to cancel this event—namely that “both sides of a controversial issue are to be presented fairly and equally when discussed in a forum such as this”—is full of potential concerns for our faculty. Are all addresses on controversial topics henceforth to require two speakers? Will every talk given at the Center for Catholic and Dominican Studies henceforth provide a second speaker to give the 'other' side of any important issue? This expectation seems to suggest that we faculty are helpless, passive listeners who have no choice but to accept what any speaker tells us about a controversial topic. Our faculty contains thinkers from the best graduate programs in the world, and includes an excellent Theology Department and a priory of Dominican friars—are we not capable of challenging one speaker if we find biases, inaccuracies, weaknesses, or equivocal statements in his or her presentation? Do we need a second speaker to defend us from controversial ideas, or can we engage speakers ourselves and argue with them?

In sum, we have been confronted with what appears to be a violation of academic freedom at Providence College. Had Dr. Corvino been a politician or lobbyist or political advocate, the College’s action might have been reasonable, but this was not the case. Dr. Corvino is a noted academic and philosopher, and everything about this event was academic in nature. The limitations/conditions the Administration placed on this academic discussion, therefore, may well be limitations/conditions on our academic freedom. The justifications given for the cancellation of this event seem insufficient: some of our own theologians have said the USCCB document Catholics in Political Life was never intended to apply to academic discussions, the ‘policy’ requiring a second speaker is merely a ‘practice’ and is not published in College documents, and a capable respondent to Dr. Corvino was ready.

Dr. Lena has informed me that the Administration is eager to reschedule this event, and to invite Dr. Corvino to the PC campus at a time when a nationally recognized philosopher will be available as a respondent. While I will look forward to this presentation, it does not erase the apparent encroachment on academic freedom at the College.

I will be placing a discussion of this incident on the agenda for the Faculty Senate in our next meeting, which is scheduled for Wednesday Oct. 2 from 2:30-4:30 in Moore III. At that time the Senate will discuss what action—if any—to take in response to the Administration’s action. Furthermore, I am informed that the officers of the PC chapter of the American Association of University Professors will also call a meeting of its members to discuss whether the Administration’s action requires some response by the local and/or national AAUP.

In closing, I would like to encourage faculty to attend meetings of the Faculty Senate, especially when particularly important business is being considered. Faculty who are not senators are welcome to speak at Senate meetings as time allows, so feel free to contact me if you would like to raise a concern with the Senate. This year, the Senate is scheduled to meet in Moore III from 2:30-4:30 on Wednesdays Oct. 2 and 23, Nov. 20, Dec. 4, Jan. 22, Feb. 19, March 26, April 9 and 30, and (if needed) on Tuesday, May 6. You will find the meeting agendas, pending and approved legislation, as well as approved minutes of our meetings, at our website: Although I will send general announcements to the entire faculty when appropriate, most discussion of Senate business takes place on the PC-Senate listserv. To join the PC-Senate listserv, send your request to the Senate Secretary, Janice Schuster

The Faculty Senate will also host two General Faculty Assemblies this year, which all faculty members are strongly encouraged to attend. The assemblies will be in the Great Hall in the Ruane Building from 3:30-5:30pm on November 6 and April 2. These meetings belong to the faculty as a whole and therefore we will discuss those topics of interest or concern to the faculty, so please save the date on your schedule and try to attend.


Fred K. Drogula
President of the Faculty Senate