Academic freedom forum produces calls for President Lyons’ resignation

Students and faculty alike participated in the forum, which addressed concerns of academic freedom in a Catholic university setting

By Sarah Jorgensen

Calls for the resignation of University of San Diego President Dr. Mary Lyons and questions about administrative authority and academic freedom have reached a fever pitch among students and faculty. Tonight’s “Authority and Academic Freedom in Catholic Universities” forum in Warren Auditorium featured speakers from a variety of disciplines, including philosophy, sociology, and theology, to contextualize and analyze the recent events surrounding Dr. Lyons’ decision to rescind an invitation to British theologian Dr. Tina Beattie.

Dr. Beattie was to speak at the university on a fellowship from the Center for Catholic Thought and Culture (CCTC) this week, but Dr. Lyons rescinded that invitation in a letter to Dr. Beattie last week. The decision, allegedly made without the input of the CCTC, has sparked debate among students, faculty, alumni, and others, and has led to an on-campus protest this past Tuesday and coverage from national media outlets, including the Washington Post and ABC News.

The nearly full auditorium, with a balanced mix of faculty and students, listened attentively to the panel members, which included Director of the CCTC Dr. Gerard Mannion, Associate Professor of Sociology Dr. Tom Reifer, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of Gender Studies Dr. Lori Watson, and Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies Dr. Mary Doak. The panel was moderated by Chair of the Philosophy Department and Professor of Philosophy, Dr. Mary Grier.

The panel began with a statement from Dr. Beattie read by Dr. Reifer. In the statement, Dr. Beattie explained that she felt it would be inappropriate to be directly involved in the forum due to her rescinded invitation, but stated that “dissent has a long and noble history” in the study of theology, and that this exchange of ideas should be embraced.

The following panel speakers echoed this sentiment. Dr. Doak spoke about the critical engagement that occurs within theology as an academic study, and Dr. Mannion also emphasized this point. ““Call dissent for what it is; don’t use it in pejorative terms,” he said.

Concerns were raised about the role of the administration in academic freedom and pursuits. “If anyone tells me that these events have nothing to do with academic freedom, I will laugh or cry,” Dr. Mannion said.

The concerns extended, too, to potential alumni and donor pressure that the panelists thought may have been at the root of this decision. Conservative donors have threatened to rescind funding from the university in the past based on similar events.

Dr. Watson noted that alumni and donor uproar, especially those represented by the unofficial group Alumni for a Catholic USD, has often been linked to events or speakers in support of same sex marriage and other issues of homosexuality, although Dr. Beattie was not scheduled to discuss homosexuality in her talks. “I fear that religion is being used as a shield for bigotry,” Dr. Watson said.

Dr. Lyons has explicitly denied that donor pressure was a part of her decision, noting instead in her original letter to Dr. Beattie that “[Dr. Beattie’s views were not] consistent with the intentions of those who have financially supported the Center.”

It was also revealed that Dr. Lyons sent a letter to the faculty late this afternoon in response to a letter sent by the Academic Assembly, a gathering of all tenured and junior professors of the College of Arts and Sciences, to her earlier this week.  In the letter, Dr. Lyons wrote that Dr. Beattie was “not invited to the university by one of our academic departments,” whose visit, therefore, was not protected by academic freedom policy. Dr. Mannion rebutted this point in the forum. “The fact that the CCTC is an academic unit has been underlined time and time again,” he said.

In light of today’s response from Dr. Lyons, which Dr. Reifer called “the most egregious attack on academic freedom in the name of academic freedom that I have ever seen,” Dr. Reifer revealed that the Academic Assembly will be reconvening on Tuesday. He stated that he believed a vote of no confidence would occur – a measure that indicates complete disagreement between the faculty and the president. “It is my belief that no president can survive a vote of no confidence,” Dr. Reifer said, indicating a call for Dr. Lyons to resign.

Voting is also occurring within Associated Students (AS). AS President Morgan Schwanke and AS Vice President Yasi Mahallaty stated during the forum that the AS Senate’s meeting today produced a unanimous vote to create a resolution regarding academic freedom at an emergency meeting next Thursday, Nov. 15 at 12:15 PM in Solomon Hall. “I encourage you, the students, to come to the next Senate meeting with your voices,” Schwanke said.

Dr. Reifer also spoke about other consequences of Dr. Lyons’ decision, including the resignation of Mike Davis, renowned writer and political activist, from his position as Knapp Chair of Liberal Arts in solidarity with Dr. Beattie’s rescinded invitation.

Dr. Doak spoke about how the dis-invitation of a visiting scholar is rare in academia and how the university was becoming known for a pattern of such events in past years, including the rescinded invitation of Dr. Rosemary Ruther to act as the Monsignor John R. Portman Chair in Roman Catholic Theology in 2009. A new academic freedom policy arose out of that event. Dr. Grier also spoke about a letter from the American Association of University Professors, a 47,000 member organization, that was written to Dr. Lyons last week in light of this trend.

Dr. Lyons claimed in a letter to Dr. Beattie on Oct. 27 that her beliefs “dissent publicly” from official Church teachings. This claim stemmed from a letter that Dr. Beattie had signed in August with 27 other U.K. theologians that supported an open dialogue regarding the possibility of Catholics’ support of civil unions for homosexual couples.  Dr. Lyons has indicated that she has no plans to reconsider her decision.  “I hope that we can move forward constructively and focus on the important work before us on behalf of our students,” Dr. Lyons wrote in the letter released to faculty today.