Catholic U's Garvey Gets It Wrong

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Earlier this week, Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote approvingly in National Review of a recent decision at the Catholic University of America to phase out co-ed dormitories and return to a single-sex system. Lopez called the decision both "sensible" and "practical" as it should "offer a corrective to the current campus hookup [and drinking] culture." Yet, what seems sensible or practical at the moment in some politically corrected Student Life meeting will do a great deal of damage to students in the long run.

Separating students by gender in residence halls is not, as some argue, "sexual discrimination." That old leftist trope receives great attention in university faculties, but no serious person considers it a real contribution to the discussion. Students don't have to attend colleges wrongheaded enough to have single-sex dormitories. They're certainly welcome to attend the many, many other higher education institutions that still offer co-ed living arrangements.

While CUA President John Garvey's decision on dormitories does not oppress women, it is an instance where university officials behave more like social engineers than educators. Garvey's is a patronizing decision, as if to protect students from the sins they will surely encounter once they leave the Ivory Tower -- it is another attempt by university administrators to create an alternate universe that is a college campus.

Garvey's response to dormitory debauchery is to say that the ideas of sexual purity and responsible behavior hold no water in the cultural battle. Garvey effectively has decided sin is more powerful than virtue. The decision diminishes the intellectual capacity of others to respond with their own ideas and behavior. It doesn't equip students with the abilities to behave as adults once they graduate. Unfortunately, this sort of decision making is commonplace. Universities simply have no real clue how to respond to controversial speech, inappropriate conduct, or anything out of their immediate control.

Another Catholic higher education institution, indeed the largest in America, DePaul University in Chicago is also plagued with a history of poor responses to campus happenings. Along with sex and alcohol, drugs and the ideas that come with make their way to campuses. Some months ago I wrote about the Students for Cannabis Policy Reform (SCPR), which was denied recognition as an "approved" student organization. DePaul Student Life administrators James Doyle and Cynthia Summers cited an unfortunate line from a statement on free speech the University adopted that this is an instance where the "university community must meet [controversy] by reasserting our fundamental values and by fostering educational opportunities, where appropriate."

And so, Doyle and Summers argue they're free to invoke their own administrative power to re-educate. Doyle told the DePaulia the reason why the University rejected the SCPR was because the University wouldn't be prepared to "manage" its message. Well, while we're at it, what other ideas is the University not prepared to manage? A university ought not engage in the business of managing ideas, rather it should be a place where all ideas can be heard, studied, and challenged.

Summers's statement to the campus newspaper is perhaps just as absurd. She argues a university cannot allow the "disruption of work," asserting that a student group such as SCPR would do so. According to Summers's logic, certain ideas are disruptive and at this point the university's "work" becomes management -- as Doyle would say -- and not education.

But Doyle then suggests that this is not a move to squelch free speech. He went so far as to give "many examples in which the University was criticized for being too tolerant, and put up with things that many people found offensive. This includes issues such as immigration, border security and the controversy surrounding the Palestinian situation."

In fact, in all of the campus controversies Doyle mentioned, the University was found to be quite intolerant. For instance, in May of 2008 the DePaul Conservative Alliance (DCA), an organization this author served as President, invited Minuteman Civil Defense Corps founder Chris Simcox to lecture on immigration and border security. The University imposed a "security fee" on the DCA, nearly $2,500, to control protestors, changed the location of the event three times, banned media attendance, and capped the audience at 200. Even the center-left Chicago Sun-Times editorialized that the University was "undermining the cherished academic principle of vigorous and unfettered debate by hitting the students up for the cost of security" and that "charging such fees limits students to inviting only noncontroversial speakers."

It seems President Garvey borrowed DePaul's ideas-management and re-education campaign.

Catholic Universities weren't always this way. As historian Thomas Woods writes in his book How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, "The creation of the university, the commitment to reason and rational argument, and the overall spirit of inquiry that characterized medieval intellectual life...was a gift of the civilization whose center was the Catholic Church." That spirit of inquiry and academic life was quite rigorous and committed to opposing points of view: "The master would assign students to argue one or the other side of a question." This formatted learning experience with an "emphasis on careful argument, on marshaling a persuasive case for each side of a question," was the cornerstone of the university degree-granting process.

Indeed, a university is not meant to be some "safe space" with no disagreement. It ought to be unsafe for conventional wisdom, unsafe for intellectual intolerance, unwelcome to the dominance of one idea. One of the most urgent responsibilities of a university is to displace students from their status quo and prepare them to engage with ideas that they disagree with, especially during this time of discomfort and alienation. It is in this environment where some of the best learning takes place. The idea that students are somehow better off if they don't encounter both morally bankrupt behavior and responsible behavior runs counter to the very purpose of a university.

It's about time university administrators grew up. Then students might finally have a chance to do the same.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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