Time to Change CUA’s Speaker Policy

catholic-university-president-john-garvey-DORMS

CUA President John Garvey

By Michael Ellement ‘13

CUA President John Garvey and Business School Dean Andrew Abela published an article last week in the Wall Street Journal defending their decision to accept a $1 million donation from a charitable fund run by David and Charles Koch. The decision has been criticized by several Catholic groups, which claim the Koch brothers’ views are contrary to Church teaching on workers’ rights.

While the Koch brothers aren’t exactly my political idols, I don’t consider their charity so beneath my alma mater that I think it should be rejected. But what disheartens me is the acceptance of the donation continues a trend I observed while at CUA Law—a preference for conservative public figures over liberal public figures. This trend is most clearly embodied in the university’s speaker policy.

The speaker policy requires review of all proposed speakers invited to campus by student groups. In practice, the policy has been used to restrict speakers who hold left-leaning political views contrary to Church doctrine, while permitting conservative speakers who similarly hold views challenging Catholic teaching.

In my first year of law school, one of my professors was personal friends with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, and wanted to invite Breyer to speak at the law school. My professor was prohibited from doing so, however, because Breyer had voted in favor of abortion rights while on the Court.

That same year, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey spoke at the school. Mukasey was the public face the Bush administration’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, and had publicly defended the use of torture against terrorism suspects. At the time, Pope Benedict had made clear that the use of torture was contrary to Church teaching in all circumstances. As one Vatican official put it, torture is the “humiliation of the human person.” Mukasey was also a public supporter of the war in Iraq, which Pope John Paul II called “a crime against peace.”

In my third year at CUA Law, Justice Antonin Scalia was invited to speak. Scalia was asked whether his Catholic faith conflicted with his numerous opinions affirming the use of the death penalty. Not only did Scalia defend his decisions, he argued that current Catholic doctrine on the subject was wrong. He entered into a theological discussion on the death penalty, and argued the modern Church mistakenly believes the death penalty violates Biblical principals. If he agreed with the Church on the issue, Scalia said, he would resign his seat on the Court immediately. But the Church was incorrect—so he was free to remain on the Court.

I greatly enjoyed hearing Mukasey and Justice Scalia speak. Both offered incredible insight into the law. I am confident Justice Breyer would have done the same had he been allowed to speak.

The speaker policy also has harmful effects on the law school’s academic publications. As a member of the school’s law review, I was cautioned by the editorial board not to write about any topic “sensitive” to Catholic teaching, like gay rights. If I did, my writing would not be published.

When the law review organized a symposium on bipartisan criminal justice reform last year, former Republican Governor of Maryland Robert Ehrlich was selected as a speaker. Since bipartisanship was a central focus of the symposium, and current Democratic Governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley is a CUA alum, O’Malley seemed like an obvious person to also invite to speak. But O’Malley supports abortion rights, so no invitation was extended.

The scrutiny of speaker’s views is out of step with almost all other universities, including Catholic universities like Boston College, Georgetown, and my undergraduate institution Siena College.

So, it is with this background that I began reading President Garvey and Dean Abela’s article. A few paragraphs in, I was pleasantly surprised. The article laid out a stern defense of academic freedom, regardless of a person’s views—remarking the school is open to debate just like “Columbia, Stanford or any other serious university.” The article states there should be no “litmus test” for persons the university associates with. It contends the university would be open to accepting donations from persons like Bill and Melinda Gates, despite their foundation’s support of contraception as a method of family planning.

Most surprising of all, the article directly compares critics of the Koch donation with critics of “commencement speakers who support objectionable causes, like abortion. (President Obama speaking at Notre Dame comes to mind.)” I read this particular line with some shock. During my time at CUA, I would have thought the prospect of President Obama speaking at the school unheard of. But if President Garvey sees criticism of universities inviting abortion proponents in the same light as critics of his decision to accept funding from opponents of other Catholic social teaching, then it appears the tide has shifted.

Of course, this could just be a continuation of the trend I observed while at CUA—acceptance of conservative voices, dismissal of liberal ones. But I am optimistic. President Garvey’s and Dean Abela’s article demonstrates the need for the school to be open to all opinions. The speaker’s policy—which in practice serves to limit the number of ideas students are exposed to—is an embarrassment. Consistent with President Garvey and Dean Abela’s views, the policy should be abandoned.

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2 comments

  1. Distgruntled 3L · · Reply

    Great article pointing out some of the blatant inconsistencies in the policy as applied to the law school.

    In addition to preventing leading professionals from coming to campus and connecting with CUA students, the policy also unfairly burdens liberal-leaning student groups who want to bring a progressive voice to campus. A group has to submit a speaker approval form, which can take UP TO THREE WEEKS to receive approval from the administration. If a group is trying to coordinate a panel of speakers, three weeks can be a very long time to wait for approval, and it can serve to shut down the whole process.

    Any speaker that raises flags can be denied (arbitrarily, as your article suggests), regardless of whether the event has anything to do with the topic that ousted the speaker in the first place. If your group needs to seek additional approvals because of schedule conflicts, the whole mess starts over again. The individuals in the administration openly admit to scrutinizing speaker proposals by progressive groups more heavily than other groups.

    The policy serves to stifle progressive student organizations, which are seriously outnumbered on campus anyway. Student groups are an asset to the law school community and ought to be encouraged and enabled, not restrained and silenced. The speaker policy is an embarrassment and has no place in today’s legal education. Especially when the school holds itself out as an open-to-all, free-debate institution. If you want to help your students raise to prominence in the legal community, stop restricting who can come to campus and meet us.

    The leaders of student organizations are more concerned with their grades, internships, jobs, and other matters of high importance — we shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to bring top-notch lawyers to campus.

  2. […] acknowledge improvements can still be made. For example, the speaker policy and lengthy event planning process makes it difficult to organize events. These policies limit the […]

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