Keefe joins with faculty in bid to avoid conflict over academic freedom

9
505

Christian Howard
Managing Editor

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.

9 COMMENTS

  1. If I wrote this using the language found in the play, and sent it as a letter to the editor, it could not be printed. The repeated claim that the only problem with this play is its title is at best disingenuous. Nastier than that is the canard that people are judging it only on the basis of the title.

    The Catholic identity includes a certain threshold of decency that the play does not rise to. It is a shame that so many people are anxious to wave the “academic freedom” process flag and ignore the substance of the matter, which is crass indecency. President Keefe is absolute right to do his duty.

  2. Read about “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” online. Dr. Gasper is right. David Mamet’s play is foul in its ethos, its language, and its intent. Read for yourself. The article in the campus newspaper, and the student who wanted to present the play, falsely present the nature of the play by stating that the title is the most offensive part of the play. It is scandalous that the present head of the UD philosophy department takes the stand that we ought to care what “the artistic community” thinks of UD’s actions. If that community is not hating us, as it hates all things Christian, then UD has stopped living up to its calling. No one is stopping young Mr. Cerroni from performing his play. I am certain, as a resident of Dallas, that he would find plenty of venues to putting on this work of smutty talk throughout our secular city. He should not be permitted to offer the play as part of a UD program or venue. President Keefe did indeed act prudently which will, regrettably, continue to receive the raucous rants of the Catholic bashers, who are curiously still a part of the UD campus mid-level hierarchy.

    • Excuse me, catholic basher you say? What student or alumnus would, in their right mind begin to defend such a show if they were not concerned with the catholic background of the university of Dallas? The university is mainly the choice of the catholic drama student, myself included, because it does allow us to understand and learn drama under the ideals and concerns of the catholic faith. Us catholic bashers, are indeed catholic. We are practicing our ability to learn the multi faceted art of theater. We are defending our right as students or former students to learn in a safe environment, one that allows free discussion of issues and different types of theater. Given the day and age, sure some one would feel this show is an extremist work only performed by those who want to create drama. But so were the works of Sam Shepard, Anton Artaud and the rest of the Balinese theater. Guess what we learn about all of this in theater history class. The exploration of Mamet is something started by the chair himself when he acted in an after hours production with a student, in a production that held context of a sexual relationship between a professor and his student. It was a smashing success. Lauded by those who attended the University and by local critics after the production revamped and had placement on the Dallas Theater scene. So this catholic basher takes offense to you. But wait did I go to catholic elementary school and high school and choose this university because I am a free catholic thinker? Yes. You sir are the catholic basher. Go ahead strike me with that stone if you dare.

  3. I applaud Dr. Rosemann in defending the integrity of the Drama Department and its staff. The President acted hastily, imprudently, and in a manner belittling the integrity of the Drama Department staff. I fully agree that the President has a duty to maintain the Catholic identity of the University, but this play in no way compromises that identity. Furthermore, President Keffe should trust the good judgement of his professors, especially department heads who would reap the consequences of their actions. Dr. Rosemann is absolutely correct that the department could lose their standing in the artistic community. As an individual who makes his living in the arts and proudly lists his B.A. in Drama from UD on his resume, it is of critical importance to me that the department maintain the level of integrity it always has. Kyle Lemieux has done nothing but build upon the great tradition begun by the Kellys. I am proud to be an alumus of the Drama Department even if I feel shame at belonging to an institution that would stifle academic and artistic freedom.

  4. Disgraceful affair. I love the claim that a veto is not a veto but a “matter of prudence,” whatever that means.

  5. Why not see the play and continue the discussion on the theater patio, especially if it was approved by the drama department?! This type of thing is so absurd, and it hearkens back to the theft of a visiting student’s art piece during my time at the University and the controversy surrounding the performance of Lysistrata during my Rome semester. At a university of “independent thinkers,” I’d expect some engaging discussion about this type of play, for students to think about it, to encourage others to think about it. If a person finds the title or content of something to be unsavory, he ought to exercise his personal freedom to choose not to see it. How embarrassing. At the very least, the colloquium should be excellent, and it is fortunate that the play has been rescheduled.

    • …welcomes letters to the editor on these topics. If you have not already done so, please consider writing one in response to this article for next week’s paper. This is an important issue which deserves much thoughtful discussion on campus. Thank you.

  6. Well, this is just silliness. And I guess the President realized it once he looked at the play. But I suppose the UD administration and the Ultra-radical Catholics are not immune to the stupidity we’ve seen at other religious colleges around the country, although I would have expected the thoughtful and educated UD folks would have been above all this. I’m glad the reading was rescheduled. Now President Keefe can get back to the important business of putting up crufixes in all the classrooms. I can’t believe that UD has existed all these years without crucifixes on the walls…clearly none of the students, faculty, priests and religious at UD before 2012 were very devout Catholics!

Leave a Reply to Lawrence McGauley Cancel reply

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here