January 25, 2008

Biondi is Urged to Speak Out

By Kavita Kumar, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jan. 25--Thus far, Archbishop Raymond Burke and St. Louis University basketball coach Rick Majerus have had their say in the public flap between the two that has placed the university in the crossfire.

But the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, SLU's president, has remained relatively silent on the issue. He has not responded to numerous requests from the Post-Dispatch for interviews sent via e-mails, to phone calls and to visits to his office.

Some faculty members wish Biondi or other campus leaders would speak out forcefully on the issue to make clear that the university respects academic freedom and that other employees should not be fearful about speaking their minds.

But many faculty and student leaders say they are comfortable with the university's statement through spokesman Jeff Fowler, which said that Majerus was expressing his own opinions and not speaking on behalf of the university. Fowler has not definitively said whether Majerus will be reprimanded.

"I'm very satisfied by the official statement that the university released," said Kathleen Farrell, chairwoman of SLU's communications department. "It's sufficient for me."

The flare-up began over the weekend when Majerus told a reporter at a Hillary Clinton rally that he is "pro-choice" and supports embryonic stem cell research.

Burke responded by saying he would deny Majerus Holy Communion and that SLU should discipline him. Majerus, unapologetic, told the Post-Dispatch that he does not regret his comments and does not expect to be punished by SLU.

Harold Bush, an English professor and president of the faculty council for the College of Arts and Sciences, acknowledged that the university has a good track record in upholding freedom of expression and ideas.

"But I think some of the faculty is a little nervous about the fact that (SLU officials) have not come out in support of academic freedom and freedom of speech," he said. "I think they might want to consider going a bit farther, saying this is what universities do, this is what we represent. We represent critical thinking and academic freedom."

In the absence of such a statement, Bush said there is a bit of a fear, especially among nontenured professors, about saying something that might upset the archbishop or the church. Some professors, for example, are already hesitant to bring up issues of sexual orientation in the classroom, he said.

Matthew Mancini, chairman of the American Studies department, said he has not seen such reluctance in his department.

"It's absolutely not an issue," he said. "I have never felt the slightest threat to my academic freedom at SLU, and I mean that."

Joe Adorjan was on SLU's Board of Trustees when the school sold its hospital to Tenet Healthcare in 1998 over the adamant objections of then-Archbishop Justin Rigali. Still a member of the SLU board today, Adorjan said he would be surprised if the school decided to punish Majerus.

Speaking for himself, Adorjan said he does not think Majerus should be disciplined.

"My personal view is that he is an employee of the university and the university is run by a lay board," he said. "I think that's the coach's personal opinion and he's totally entitled to his personal opinion, as would be any employee of any other organization."

SLU identifies itself as a Catholic institution, but neither Burke nor any religious creed has direct control over the school. While SLU often proudly states its Jesuit tradition, less than 3 percent of its faculty members or staff is Jesuit, and less than half of its students identify themselves as Catholic.

In a speech in 2006 accepting the Citizen of the Year award, which is sponsored by the Post-Dispatch, Biondi said SLU welcomes everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, race or sexual orientation.

"On our campus, we encourage competing ideas and ideologies," he said. "Sometimes that means hosting speakers, events or plays that some may find inappropriate on a Catholic college campus. But as soon as censorship begins at any university, where does censorship then end?"

Despite the protests of some Catholic groups, the school has held the controversial play the "Vagina Monologues," with its frank discussion of homosexuality, on campus. But last year, administrators refused to sponsor the play, so it was performed off-campus.

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