In an attempt to quell the controversy over the abrupt cancellation of a student-led play, President Thomas Keefe announced Monday that he will work with the faculty to develop a communications plan aimed at preventing a repeat of last week’s uproar.
Keefe’s decision to cancel the public reading of a play last Tuesday sparked an ongoing debate regarding the meaning of academic freedom at a Catholic university.
“This is not a matter of vetoing,” he said. “It is a matter of prudence.”
Keefe said that his decision was based on his concern for preserving the Catholic identity of the university. “I’m expected by the board to make sure we comport ourselves as a Catholic university. I take that very seriously,” Keefe said.
He said that Dr. Blake Frank, chair of the Faculty Senate, and Dr. Philipp Rosemann, president of the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), offered to head a colloquium that will devise a communications process to “support the freedom of the faculty to profess and teach objectively any intellectual position while respecting the unique Catholic identity of the University.”
Dr. Dennis Sepper, a philosophy professor, first raised the issue of academic freedom in a faculty-wide email after he heard of the cancelled reading. “I made a request with a long preamble to the faculty senate to ascertain whether academic freedom was at issue,” he said.
The AAUP, which is supported by the University of Dallas, is the primary organization that defends academic freedom and tenure. In its policy reports, the AAUP states, “Academic institutions are obliged to ensure that regulations and procedures do not impair freedom of expression or discourage creativity by subjecting artistic work to tests of propriety or ideology.”
In light of this definition, Keefe’s action was viewed by some to violate academic freedom.
Rosemann, who is chair of the philosophy department, said, “It’s not up to the president to decide what the drama department can or cannot perform. If the drama department is known to be under censorship, they will lose their standing in the artistic community; they will loose their legitimacy.”
Keefe insisted that he supports academic freedom. In a letter to the faculty on Monday, Keefe also emphasized his responsibility to protect the Catholic identity of the university.
“The Board of Trustees expect that the administration will ensure that the university comports and presents itself in a manner that is respectful of the mission, vision and values of the university while also ensuring its Catholic identity,” Keefe said. “They also expect that this be done in a manner that will provide the faculty with the academic freedom to profess and teach objectively any intellectual position. Needless to say, this is a challenge at times.”
Rosemann agreed that the relationship between academic freedom and the Catholic identity of the university should be addressed.
“[Keefe] does have the right to exercise oversight to preserve the Catholic character of the university. But what is this in practice?” Rosemann asked. “Judging just on the basis of a title is not ideal.”
Keefe said he was “caught in a position of not knowing anything about the play and was worried that a public performance of this play could be detrimental to the university. I was surprised and concerned.”
The play in question, “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” was chosen by senior drama major Phil Cerroni. The title is, in fact, the most salacious part of the play, and it was this title that generated the storm of protests on Facebook and through emails.
“How is it,” Keefe said, “that in the last two years, the event with the most salacious title is the one that I don’t know about? If we had communicated, we could have prepared ourselves for the questions that had arisen.”
To address these issues, Rosemann and Frank will arrange the colloquium, called “Academic Liberty at a Catholic University.”
Cerroni’s reading of “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” was scheduled as part of the After Hours Series, one of the drama department’s three performance series, which also include the Main Stage production and the Senior Studios.
“The play is about the wrong ways people go about loving,” Cerroni said. “It’s a satire of the dating culture of the 1970s and how that is not conducive to happy, healthy relationships.”
Kyle Lemieux, chair of the drama department and director of the university theater, began the After Hours Series two years ago.
“The After Hours Series is intended to give students a creative outlet to extend learning of the classroom in production,” Lemieux said. “It follows the same guidelines of any production of the university.”
For a student to put on a reading or production as part of the After Hours Series, Lemieux said that students must go through a process: “Students make a proposal [to the head of the drama department], we talk about it, and if it’s approved, we sign a contract. The performance or reading will then be held in a drama building.”
On Feb. 6, Cerroni signed a contract with Lemieux allowing him to read “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” publicly on Tuesday, Feb. 14.
The reading was cancelled on Monday, Feb. 13. It has been further reviewed, and in his letter, Keefe said, “The content is neither pornographic, nor is it outside the acceptable norms of decency, and […] it advances the educational mission of the university.”
The reading of “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” has been rescheduled for Friday, Feb. 24, at 11:30 p.m.