Thursday, April 16, 2009

ND Response and Fr. Jenkins

I have so far avoided analysis of the most recent press release of ND Response, the student group which formed in response to the invitation of the University of Notre Dame to President Obama to be the commencement speaker and receive an honorary doctorate of laws degree.

I can give a little background as far as I understand it. After the group formed, they were sent a letter from President Jenkins, suggesting a meeting to discuss the situation. In response, the group made a counter offer. Originally, President Jenkins wanted a closed meeting limited to 25 students. The counter offer, in a letter to Fr. Jenkins, contained the following preconditions for a meeting.

1. The University publicly makes the institutional and permanent promise that the University of Notre Dame will not engage in, promote or allow practices offensive to life (e.g., research involving human embryos in any way, including on biological materials derived from embryo- or fetal-destructive techniques on-campus, or off-campus in collaboration with others);

2. The University will formally support pro-life initiatives on campus through financial and personnel resources. In particular, that you will appoint a pro-life ombudsperson at the level of associate provost to ensure that appropriate attention is paid to life issues at the beginning of life in both teaching and research at the University of Notre Dame. The appointee should be a person who has a deep and demonstrated commitment to the cause of unborn life.

Additionally, we hope that you will consider the following ways in which the University can take up the cause of life as its own by publicly speaking out against the injustices against the unborn: through the “What Would You Fight For?” commercials aired on NBC during football season, by leading the Notre Dame students in the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., by designating the topic of next fall’s forum as a celebration of life in its earliest stages, and by speaking out in other prominent forums.

You are a teacher, and we are students. Therefore, if these proposals are acceptable to you, we would like to meet in a setting that is comfortable for both of us, such as a classroom. We would suggest the McKenna Hall Auditorium or the Jordan Auditorium of the Mendoza School of Business. We anticipate that this meeting will be exclusively with the students of ND Response and select faculty and staff who support us. To this end, there will be more than 25 people at this meeting. We can guarantee that the number of students that will speak or engage with you will be limited to less than ten. The content of this meeting will be available to the public following its event in the form of a transcript and live video recording: True dialogue only comes with accountability.

I would say that these requests go too far. ND Response knows that the University will not back down, if the demands of the Bishops of the Church will not change their minds, it's no doubt that a small group of students will not. To demand, as a precondition to discuss this issue at hand, the formation of an administrative position, and an official policy statement of the University seems out of line here. Perhaps they would have been good points for discussion in a meeting, but not as preconditions.

The request for a larger group seems reasonable, as the size of ND Response is quite large, and ensuring that the number of student speakers is limited to 10 seems like a reasonable request. I also think that one way or another the meeting should be made public, even if only through the release of a transcript. In this way, interested students (such as myself) who might be unable to attend this meeting, especially if a compromise were reached which limited the number of attendees, would still be able to see what happened as it happened, not in the form of press releases from each side.

The response from President Jenkins, needless to say, was in the negative. I first saw this yesterday on Lifesite, and it has since hit some other news services. I will be working from the official ND Response press release.

In a private letter addressed to a coalition of 12 campus groups and organizations, University of Notre Dame president, Fr. John I. Jenkins, CSC, denied students' requests for dialogue on the issues surrounding the University's invitation to and honoring of President Barack Obama at this year's commencement exercises. Responding to a letter sent to him by representatives of the ND Response coalition on April 7th, the University's president wrote that "conditions for constructive dialogue simply do not exist" and that students could disregard his earlier invitations to meet with him.

In their original letter to Fr. Jenkins, the student leaders of ND Response confirmed their interest in discussing their concerns with the University's president but acknowledged their hesitancy to accept the parameters of a meeting he outlined in an email to ND Response on March 27th. Citing that President Jenkins' offer of holding a closed-door meeting to 25 members of the coalition was not an adequate option, ND Response leaders requested that a meeting be held in one of the largest classrooms on campus and opened to all members of the groups in the coalition. In addition to this request, the students also asked that the University affirm its "commitment to defending human life in its most vulnerable stages" before President Jenkins sat down to speak with students. In particular, the students requested both that the University publicly declare that it would never engage in or collaborate with research involving human embryos or fetal tissue obtained through destructive techniques and that the University appoint a "pro-life ombudsman" to ensure that proper attention is paid to life issues in both Notre Dame's teaching and research. "These requests," ND Response spokeswoman Mary Daly said, "were intended to lead the University into making gestures of good-will that would facilitate our productive discussion and demonstrate President Jenkins' genuine interest in transparent dialogue."

Although his letter indicates that President Jenkins urges the students to "disregard the invitation to meet," Daly says that "ND Response remains open to true and transparent dialogue with Fr. Jenkins on this issue."

This, I believe, is a misrepresentation of the facts. The request for dialogue could have been originated by ND Response, in a sense, by their very formation, and their initial statements, though, as far as I know, Fr. Jenkins made the first concrete effort, naming a place and time, and listing preconditions. By responding with the conditions they did, ND Response, in a sense, denied the request for dialogue. By making what I see as unreasonable demands, Fr. Jenkins, probably rightly so, shut down the negotiations for dialogue, which he was, at one point open to. Compare that to their headline "University of Notre Dame President Rejects Students' Requests for Dialogue". At best, he rejected the preconditions for dialogue.

There is a well-reasoned analysis here, though I may disagree on a couple details, he has done a good, and I think fair, job.

No comments: