Christian colleges, commencements, controversy

Notre Dame, the nation’s most prestigious Roman Catholic university, walked a fine line last week when President Barack Obama, who favors abortion rights, delivered the commencement address. Critics said the school crossed a line just by inviting him. Even more complained about granting him an honorary degree.

At least two dozen graduating seniors boycotted the ceremony. At least three dozen protesters were arrested on the campus.

Starting with Dwight Eisenhower, Notre Dame has invited most presidents to speak at commencement. (One notable exception: Bill Clinton.) But this year, the invitation to Obama upset the delicate balance between Notre Dame’s Roman Catholic teaching, which strongly opposes abortion, and its academic freedom.

A 2004 statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is straightforward: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

On the other hand, as a leading university Notre Dame is obligated to academic freedom.

While not as high profile, the dozens of church-related colleges and universities in this region struggle with the same tensions, often played out at their big, public events.

Formal criteria for choosing commencement speakers are few and far between. Generally, colleges select people of accomplishment, who are likely to present a worthwhile message, and who have contributed significantly to society or to the institution. Most church-related colleges also want their speakers to be people of faith.

 “I try to find a speaker whom I think will be challenging,” said Don Jeanes, president of Milligan College, affiliated with Christian churches and churches of Christ (and where I teach). “Secondly, we want it to be a person of strong Christian commitment … someone who is consistent with the majority of where our constituency would be in theological persuasion.”

King College in Bristol, Tenn., affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA, considers its commencement address as part of the academic program, according to Tracy Parkinson, assistant dean of the faculty.

“Commencement is special because of the nature of the school,” Parkinson said. “At the same time, if you’re going to bring folks from a wide variety of perspectives, as we do during the year, there will be people on campus who agree and some don’t. It’s an important part of what we consider the academic integrity of what we do.”

Parkinson said that considering the college’s normal criteria for commencement speakers – “a professing Christian, who’s accomplished in his or her field” – then Obama would be “a reasonable candidate” as a speaker, as would people “on the other side of any number of political or social issues.”

Public figures by definition are engaged in public issues, which can make it difficult to avoid controversy, according to Dirk Moore, director of public relations at Emory and Henry College, a United Methodist school in Emory, Va.

“Often what you want to bring to a commencement address is someone who’s been engaged in public service and so has had to take certain positions,” he said. “It can be hard not to be lightning rods.”

But part of the learning process is hearing from people who have different points of views, Moore said, and that process doesn’t end at commencement.

“Ultimately what you have here is a learning opportunity,” Moore said. “It would be unwise for any educational institution to keep them out simply because we may disagree with them on particular issues. We’re here to serve and educate students, open their perspectives on the world.”

Moore thinks the Notre Dame administrators were correct to invite Obama – not in spite of the controversy but because of it.

“Controversy is never pleasant for colleges and universities, but that’s kind of expected, to have voices expressing opinions,” he said. “What are you going to do, ridicule them for having firm beliefs?”

That’s one reason Moore was impressed with the Notre Dame students who protested Obama’s presence.

“A university is doing its job,” he said, “when it’s having students who come out with convictions that are important in their lives.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 23 May 2009.

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