Unclear whether the University will publicly address the promotion of abortion on campus

Amidst the ongoing controversy regarding faculty who actively promote abortions, the University of Notre Dame sought to clarify her position on academic freedom in a November 1 Faculty Senate meeting. In the meeting, University administrators referenced instances in which the University will respond to faculty members who speak against the Catholic mission of the school.

Maura Ryan, Vice President and Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs, and Joel Curran, Vice President of Public Affairs & Communications, presented at the meeting. They made preliminary remarks regarding the Common Proposal from April 5, 2006, that “a university has an obligation to promote the free discussion of issues that are controversial in our society.”

The proposal continues, “A Catholic university has an added obligation to sponsor academic events that consider controversial issues in the light of Catholic teachings. … Departments/chairs should aim at ensuring that a forum is provided in which multiple viewpoints and voices on controversial topics can be heard, an appropriate balance among viewpoints is maintained, and when a significant issue in the Catholic tradition is touched upon, that tradition should be presented.”

Maura Ryan also emphasized that Article IV of the Academic Articles provides for academic freedom, including “freedom to teach and to learn according to one’s obligation, vision, and training; freedom to publish the results of one’s study or research; and freedom to speak and write on public issues as a citizen.” Ryan further emphasized that Article IV also includes “correlative obligations” to ensure, “in the course of one’s utterances, work, and other conduct, protection of the basic mission of the university.”

Joel Curran then presented preliminary observations and distinguished between formal academic publications and informal extracurricular statements in op-eds, opinion pieces, and social media, including Twitter. Curran said that the university regards academic freedom and free speech as resolving most issues with regard to faculty statements: a faculty member can say whatever he or she wants in formal and informal writings.

However, a Faculty Senator asked Joel Curran about instances in which the University has decided to speak out against faculty writings that harmed Notre Dame’s reputation. He noted a May 2022 statement in the context of the Buffalo shooter and Notre Dame Professor John Gaski. 

Gaski published an opinion piece on August 26, 2013 in the Investor’s Business Daily that was cited in the manifesto of Payton Gendron, the so-called Buffalo shooter, who has been indicted for the murder of eleven black and two white victims. On May 19, 2022, Notre Dame issued a statement signed by Joel Curran stating that “We are appalled that a 2013 article by John Gaski, an associate professor at Notre Dame, was cited by the perpetrator of the heinous murders of innocent people in Buffalo. Whatever Professor Gaski’s intentions, we deeply regret that his words were used to support a doctrine of racial hatred. We urge all, at Notre Dame or elsewhere, to speak and act in ways that never give harbor to hatred and violence.” 

One Faculty Senator celebrated the issuance of such a statement as an example of an appropriate university response to controversial faculty writings. Another Faculty Senator stated that she wished the university statement would have been stronger and issued sooner. Joel Curran stated that the university drafted that statement the same day that it became aware that the Buffalo shooter had relied on Professor Gaski’s writings. No Faculty Senator questioned the appropriateness of such a university statement in response to Professor Gaski’s article.  

Professor Gaski issued his own statement the following day, expressing his sorrow that a portion of his 2013 article was used so horrifically, stating that it was “never my intent to in any way incite violence—in fact, just the opposite.” Two months later, Notre Dame and Professor Gaski reportedly negotiated his early retirement from the university, and he became an emeritus professor in July 2022.

In response to the Faculty Senator’s question regarding the circumstances in which the University will speak out to condemn faculty writings, Joel Curran stated that his first priority as Vice President of Public Affairs & Communications is to “maintain the reputation of the University of Notre Dame.” He then stated that the “University of Notre Dame will not hesitate to speak out against faculty statements that are abhorrent to the values and mission of the university.” A Faculty Senator thanked him for the university’s willingness to speak out in such circumstances and Joel Curran responded, “You’re welcome.”

A Faculty Senator then asked, “Given your statement, it seems that the university should speak out against faculty statements that are abhorrent to the values and mission of the university, including faculty who advocate for the direct and purposeful taking of the life of an unborn child.”  Catholic teaching provides that “abortion … is gravely contrary to the moral law” and “formal cooperation in an abortion is a grave offense.”  

In an opinion piece published in Salon on May 4, 2022, tenured Notre Dame Professor Tamara Kay and untenured Notre Dame Professor Susan Ostermann argue that “forced pregnancy and childbirth is violence. It is sexual abuse. It is trauma. … Abortion access … prioritizes and values women’s freedom from experiencing violence, sexual abuse, and trauma through forced pregnancy and childbirth. When the state supports forced pregnancy and childbirth, it is complicit in violence.” 

These and similar writings by Kay and Ostermann offer no limiting principle, indicating that in their opinions any restrictions on any unwanted pregnancy at any time in the pregnancy is an act of violence, sexual abuse, and trauma against women. Kay admits that “[f]or me, abortion is a policy issue. And yes, my views run afoul of Church teaching.”

It is not yet clear whether the University will treat such faculty statements as contrary to its values and mission, and whether it will issue a statement similar to Notre Dame’s Gaski statement. In response to the question from the Faculty Senator, Joel Curran stated that he was not going to get into a discussion about specific cases or specific faculty statements at the Faculty Senate meeting. Maura Ryan did not offer further clarification about whether, or if, Notre Dame would issue a statement against such faculty writings similar to its Gaski statement. 

Curran did not respond when asked by the Rover whether Prof. Kay’s actions “are seen as ‘abhorrent to the values and mission of the University,’ and, if so, whether the University plans to make any public statement regarding her active promotion of abortion.”

The Rover also asked Ryan whether promotion of abortion goes against the “‘basic mission of the University,’ and if so, whether the university plans to make any public statement.” She also failed to respond.

At press time, Notre Dame has not made any comment regarding this unfolding situation on campus.  

W. Joseph DeReuil is a junior from St. Paul, Minnesota studying philosophy and classics. He can be reached at wdereuil@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: Lauren Douglas