Friday, March 18, 2022
The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) recently sent a letter to the President of the University of Dayton -- a "Catholic, Marianist university" -- that criticized the university's recent decision to disinvite Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng from participating as a keynote speaker in the Social Practice of Human Rights conference on October 28, 2021. The university administration apparently concluded that Dr. Mofokeng could not speak on campus because her “work as an abortion provider” made her presence on campus a “sharp conflict with the University’s Catholic, Marianist mission and the right to life.”
The AFA -- of which I am a member -- charged that the "disinvitation represents an egregious violation of the principles of academic freedom and an abnegation of the University of Dayton’s own stated commitment to freedom of thought." The letter also states:
We do not quarrel with the right of religiously affiliated institutions to govern themselves in line
with the precepts of their sponsoring religious bodies, and to pursue their faith-based missions.
We insist, however, that all institutions, including religiously affiliated colleges and universities,
live up to their free speech and other academic freedom commitments, and honor the formal
and informal contracts the institutions have made with their faculty and students.
I have written before about the issue of Catholic universities, honorees, and outside speakers before. Among other things, I said:
[A] Catholic university can invite someone to speak on campus and thereby facilitate the respectful consideration-and, perhaps, criticism and rejection-of that person's views and positions by the university community without "honoring" that person.' The issue, again, is not what should be said at Catholic universities'-just as it is not for whom may a faithful Catholic vote, or which actions would involve a Catholic university in culpable cooperation with evil-but what should be said by a Catholic university.
That said, I have to confess, it is not obvious to me that the AFA's letter is correct when it charges the University of Dayton not only with violating academic-freedom promises, but also (later in the letter) with violating the very nature of a university. It is not clear to me that the AAUP's 1940 Statement (which the AFA notes is included in the handbook -- and, so, the contract -- of Dayton faculty) requires that "academic freedom" include an unfettered right on the part of faculty to organize on-campus events with outside speakers, when those speakers are (for whatever reason), in the view of those with fiduciary obligations to care for the university's mission and character, inappropriate. As I understand the events at Dayton, the university did nothing to interfere with any faculty member's own expression or research.
Again: This is not to say that, in my view, a meaningfully Catholic university should always exclude outside speakers who promote (say) abortion-rights. And, the AFA's point that Catholic universities should honor the promises they make to faculty is, certainly, a strong one. But I cannot shake the impression that the letter, in both tone and substance, gives short shrift to the Catholic university project, and suggests (incorrectly, in my view) that, to the extent a Catholic university enlists its Catholic character and mission in shaping policy, it is (somehow) departing from the ideal or nature of a university. And again: I say a bit more about why this suggestion is incorrect, here.