Prof. Rick Garnett on What's "Behind the Angst at Notre Dame"
Notre Dame Law Professor Rick Garnett says that "this controversy is not about what should be said at Catholic universities, but about what should be said by a Catholic university":
... The question on the table is not whether Notre Dame should hear from the president but whether Notre Dame should honor the president. A Catholic university can and should engage all comers, but in order to be true to itself — to have integrity — it should hesitate before honoring those who use their talents or power to bring about grave injustice. The university is, and must remain, a bustling marketplace of ideas; at the same time, it also has a voice of its own. We say a lot about who we are and what we stand for through what we love and what we choose to honor. The controversy at Notre Dame is not about what should be said at Catholic universities, but about what should be said by a Catholic university.(emphasis added)
It is also a mistake to frame the controversy in terms of academic freedom. Obviously, this freedom, properly understood, is central to the mission of any great university.
Even so, no one is proposing limits on what can or should be discussed, debated, taught, studied or written by students or scholars. The American Association of University Professors is right to insist that "the opportunity to be confronted with diverse opinions is at the core of academic freedom," but wrong to imagine that this principle requires a university to be indifferent to the messages it sends through the honors it confers.
No university is entirely neutral; every university makes decisions about what to affirm, through its policies, as good or true. One can (and should) affirm the right (and duty) of scholars at Catholic universities to be true to their scholarly vocations while still asking whether Notre Dame is being true to itself.
To doubt that a Catholic university should honor Obama at this time, and to worry about the message such an honor sends, is not to engage in partisan or "single issue" politics or to deny that there are many things to be celebrated and admired about our new president's life, campaign, election and vision. Indeed, these things make it all the more regrettable — tragic, really — that he is so badly misguided on such a fundamental issue of justice.