God, Vincentian Values, the “Limitations Clause” and the Finkelstein Case at DePaul University

I am quite aware of using an alleged violation of a university’s mission to justify sanctions or other forms of coercion against progressive, controversial faculty. Roman Catholic universities and colleges are somewhat contradictory by nature. As a religion, it is rather constraining and theologically uncompromising—some would say anti-woman, anti-modernism, homophobic and frankly anti-humanistic in its rejection of embryonic stem-cell research. {I applaud, however, Roman Catholicism’s generally progressive and inspiring opposition to war, capital punishment and excessive materialism.} However, Roman Catholic universities have a reasonably good track record when it comes to academic freedom and creedal requirements. They are situated between secular universities such as a public state university that eschews any official religious canon and numerous Christian faith-based institutions that mandate creedal adherence to a charism (religious founders).

Catholic colleges and universities are non-creedal. One does not have to be Catholic to teach or occupy a primarily research-oriented appointment. They are not like a Wheaton College that fired Professor Joshua Hochschild for converting to Roman Catholicism. They are not as doctrinally restrictive as some Lutheran institutions for example, that require faculty profess allegiance to the Apostles’ Creed and the Augsburg Confession prior to the offering of a contract.

DePaul University President Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M. in his denial-of-tenure letter to Professor Norman G. Finkelstein on June 8 wrote:

“DePaul’s Faculty Handbook…articulates the University’s goal of creating “an environment in which persons engaged in learning and research exercise [academic] freedom and respect it in others.” This goal is central to furthering the University’s Mission of “ennobling the God-given dignity of each person.”… DePaul’s Faculty Handbook requires DePaul professors to know and understand our Mission and these principles, and conduct themselves and their scholarly work accordingly.”

Dean Chuck Suchar in the well-known “Suchar Memorandum,” of March 22, 2007 wrote:

“My own estimation of the tone and substance of his scholarship is that a considerable amount of it is inconsistent with DePaul’s Vincentian values, most particularly our institutional commitment to respect the dignity of the individual and to respect the rights of others to hold and express different intellectual positions—what I take to be one significant meaning of what we term Vincentian “personalism” as well as our commitment to diversity.”

Aside from the pronounced inconsistencies whereby the president and dean claim to defend a professor’s right to publish and articulate controversial positions while at the same time severely circumscribe that right, there is more than a hint of creedal imposition on a faculty member that was not required at the time of the initial appointment. The use of the word “God”–not all believe in a heavenly being–and the repeated invocation of Vincentian values–one does not have to be a Roman Catholic or a member of that order–suggests to me an ex post facto effort to purge a faculty member. In this case one who happens to be of a differing faith than the charism of the university and who has allegedly violated its religious principles.

The emphasis on the religiosity of that mission by the president and the dean as major argumentation to deny a scholar tenure, is worthy of exploration. There may be a fine line between administrators demanding conformity to mission and inappropriate demands for religious fidelity. While no one is suggesting that professors should act in a manner that is in contravention of a university’s mission, one can frequently debate what that mission is. When the emphasis is on doctrinal or faith-based mission attributes, an institution must IN WRITING with the initial appointment, explicitly detail that requirement.

The 1940 AAUP Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure contains this admonition in the so-called “Limitations Clause”:

“Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be carefully stated in writing at the time of the appointment.”

Yet even this “Limitations Clause” has been challenged by a 1970 revision of the 1940 Statement. The Third Interpretive Comment avers, “Most Church-related institutions no longer need or desire the departure from the principle of academic freedom implied in the 1940 Statement and we do not now endorse such a departure.”

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