When The Andy Griffith Show finished its eighth season in 1968 as the No. 1-ranked television program, Griffith shocked his audience by announcing his decision to call it quits while his show was at its most profitable juncture. University President Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., seems to desire a similar exit for himself, as he plans to leave Georgetown in June 2001 at the much-anticipated end of the $750 million Third Century Campaign. “I always thought a good president passes on the baton when he’s doing well,” he told reporters Monday. This is a sensible decision, because O’Donovan’s highest ratings have come from fiscal planning. If O’Donovan’s departure had followed any of a number of bad episodes over Catholic identity and freedom of speech in his 11-year tenure, it would have been much less impressive.

Surely, there has been no more persistent or controversial issue in O’Donovan’s reign than this one: the perceived conflict between Catholic and free-speech values. The latter, in the American tradition, deals exclusively with the relationship of the state to the individual and as such does not apply to private institutions like Georgetown. It becomes relevant, however, when used in an educational context, where a culture of healthy debate and exchange of ideas is necessary for the proper pursuit of knowledge. The former is a distinctively Georgetown tradition, that of Catholic higher education, and has a more storied history here than anywhere else in the country.

Critics of O’Donovan say that he is not vocal enough on ideological issues. O’Donovan is vocal, but not in the right way at the right time. When challenges arise to Georgetown’s integrity as a Catholic institution, O’Donovan acts as an apologist for the challenging party by couching his argument in the language of freedom of speech – and he does this more forcefully than he defends the integrity of Catholic values itself.

There is no denying the need for a university setting where open debate contributes to furthering and clarifying our understanding of truth in the various disciplines. The problem with O’Donovan’s emphasis is that it unduly prioritizes the university’s need to protect free speech while neglecting its far more important responsibility to preserve its most prided traditions. Those traditions affirm that each individual has the free will to accept or reject received teachings; from this, a right to freedom of speech can be drawn. As such, it does not need official university endorsement at each juncture to exist healthfully on campus in dialogues, debates and associations. Much less do particular viewpoints that are morally offensive and contradict Georgetown’s mission statement merit explicit university support.

Consider the case of Penthouse publisher Larry Flynt’s appearance on campus last spring. The university-sponsored Lecture Fund invited Flynt, and O’Donovan defended this action in the name of “academic freedom.” Catholic officials objected that this argument is invalid, because Georgetown, in providing Flynt with a “Catholic pulpit” for his ideas, went beyond merely permitting him to speak. Also, Flynt’s offensive agenda and its corresponding shock value do not contribute healthfully to academic debate. Effective consciousness-raising is not measured by pushing one’s limits of tolerance, nor is the intellectual caliber of students improved when exposed to material with no intellectual content.

In another instance, when GU Choice, the predacessor of the current student group H*yas for Choice, was founded in 1991, O’Donovan initially allowed the Office of Student Programs to fund them, claiming that their presence on campus would contribute to “a robust exchange of ideas.” He later recanted, under pressure from the Vatican, but not before several students, unprotected by appeal to free speech, were asked to leave Red Square for peacefully demonstrating their objection to the group.

In both cases, Church officials condemned the university’s decision, not because of a free-speech bias or even on First Amendment grounds, but because Georgetown had made two crucial errors of judgement that paved the road to an unbecoming moral turpitude. First, while Flynt and GU Choice made statements clearly contrary to Church teaching, the university did not present a strong, dissenting opinion but rather spoke only of Georgetown’s need to preserve the academic tradition of free expression. Second, the fact that university groups promoted these venues (as opposed to H*yas for Choice existing as they now do – independent of the university, or Flynt speaking in a neutral setting) sent a negative message about the degree to which Georgetown honors its Catholic ethical heritage. In criticizing Georgetown, the Church is not advocating that the university play the role of censor. Rather, it is asserting exactly what the free speech advocates hold most dear – that institutions should stand up for the principles in which they believe.

For an example of how a Catholic university should act in the face of such controversy, examine the case of three students from Providence College who took to hanging up pro-choice posters featuring a statue of the Virgin Mary that hailed abortion rights as an “immaculate concept.” The students were promptly suspended, received no credit for work done during that semester and each forced to pay a $1,000 fine. The president said that while the university values freedom of expression, the students “violated the college’s expectations for student conduct” and promoted an activity “that is morally offensive and contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church and the mission of Providence College.” The Providence administration clearly believes in a higher order of freedom of expression than ensuring that each student can do as he or she pleases. The statements also imply a university’s higher sense of duty to abide by its ethical standards: a duty, simply put, to teach.

O’Donovan’s successor will have to decide whether or not he, like the president at Providence, will operate out of a philosophical framework where Georgetown can remain true to its Catholic principles without denigrating its status as a great American university. It is not an easy path to tread, but it can be done, and done well. The legacy of real estate enhancement comes at a price of $750 million. The legacy of ideology is free but can prove much more costly.

For What It’s Worth appears every other Friday in The Hoya.

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