Bathed in the late-afternoon sunshine of a Friday in March, student members of the Xavier Players theater group climbed onto the outdoor stage on the campus green and began a protest rally. It didn’t take long for the “V” word to be spoken as they began boldly reciting skits from “The Vagina Monologues,” a production that deals with the issue of violence against women in direct, sometimes harsh ways. The play had riveted the campus for more than a week. By the time freshman Crystal Johnson performed a skit titled “My Angry Vagina,” about 250 people had gathered around the stage for the rally. One by one, the students found their voices and took turns speaking in protest of the University’s views of the play.
The play was proving to be a classic example of the battle the University faces when the sometimes contrary ideals of academic freedom and Catholic standards clash headlong.
The play was booked into the Gallagher Student Center theater by a student organization, then cancelled by administration officials, saying it was an inappropriate production for a Catholic institution. When faculty members pointed out the play’s educational value and suggested moving it to a classroom setting, however, the University approved its staging.
The decision sparked quite a debate. Was it just a splitting of hairs? Was the University eschewing its Catholic responsibilities? Was it shunning its educational responsibilities? The answer still depends on who’s asked. What can be said for sure, though, is it opened the door to review the University’s thoughts and position on the educationally vital concept of academic freedom.
“What’s wonderful about the events this spring is it makes us aware of the need to be as clear as possible about what the principle of academic freedom means to us,” says Vice President for Academic Affairs Roger Fortin. “That’s a distinction that has to be made.” A student group brought the play to campus to raise awareness about violence against women and generate income for a local women’s shelter. But the play’s use of coarse language and sensational scenes generated opposition, particularly from alumni and the conservative Cardinal Newman Society, a national organization committed to restoring traditional values to Catholic college campuses.
Fortin and University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., met with students to discuss the play and the merits of its presentation on campus—and to tell them they couldn’t stage it. But, they also told the students the play could be presented in an academic setting that would allow for discussion.
The students heard the word “cancelled” and began planning their protest rally. The faculty heard “academic” and figured out a way for the play to be performed.
“What was clearly communicated in that session was the fact that ‘The Vagina Monologues’ could be presented in an academic setting,” Fortin says. “I said setting, not class, because the entire University is an academic setting. You don’t have to have a class to have an academic learning experience.”
Graham said the play’s focus on the important issue of violence against women was overshadowed by concerns brought on by the sensational language and themes of the play. He then added that, “I am fully supportive of the principles of academic freedom.”
Economics Professor Nancy Bertaux invited the Players to perform the Monologues as part of her E Pluribus Unum class—a course that examines issues of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. The show went on. So did the debate. This isn’t the first time the University has dealt with such dilemmas, of course. Having former President Clinton on campus in 1996 sparked a similar debate. And, it certainly won’t be the last time as long as differing views exist.
“I believe the whole university is one sum academic endeavor,” says Bertaux, who adds that she thinks the University should only say no to an issue if it’s illegal.
University administrators expect to approach such controversial topics in the future by bringing in as many voices as possible earlier in the process.
“If we knew then what we know now, we would make clear it was a student organization that was sponsoring it, and that it is a great opportunity for the University to get a better understanding of women’s issues and violence against women,” Fortin says. “That’s a legitimate invitation to discuss a very important issue. I want people to say, ‘How can we make sure the real meaning of this is presented in the best manner possible?’ ”