The Washington Post and the president of Georgetown University have defended the appearance of Kathleen Sebelius at a commencement ceremony on the grounds of basic academic mission. The Post cited “the proper role of a university and the importance of vigorous, open debate, even–or perhaps especially–involving matters of intense controversy and religious disagreement.” In his open letter to the community, President DeGioia declared, “We are a university, committed to the free exchange of ideas.”
But, of course, the event at which Sebelius spoke was not a “vigorous, open debate,” and it did not involve any “free exchange of ideas.” It was a speech given with the speaker and attendees dressed in gowns, and DeGioia himself has spoken of commencement speakers as “exceptional individuals… who will provide inspiration for our students as they envision more clearly the impact they can make in the world”–not, that is, bearers of opinion who will be challenged in a campus forum.
DeGioia’s statement is quoted in a letter signed by ten Georgetown faculty members, which states, “we, the undersigned members of the Georgetown University academic community, wish to state our belief that it was a grave and serious mistake–indeed, a scandalous one–for Georgetown to invite Health and Human Services Department Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to serve as speaker before the 2012 graduating class of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. Secretary Sebelius’s role in crafting and advancing the HHS mandate that requires religious institutions to offer insurance coverage that would provide abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraceptives, makes her a profoundly objectionable choice.” (Full text here).
The letter is linked to through an article on the First Things web site by one of the signers, Professor Patrick Deneen. Deneen’s essay is a sober rejoinder to the easy rationale of “academic freedom,” and a principled reminder of the squishy ethics of college administrations. One thing Deneen notes is that originally Sebelius was listed as a “commencement speaker,” but after the controversy began, Georgetown edited its web site to characterize her as one of the “Other speakers.” The underhandedness also applies to the characterization of the invitation as a chance to examine controversial matters and “religious disagreement,” as the Post puts it. In terms of the church to which Georgetown adheres, there is no controversy. Church doctrine forbids contraception–it’s a settled issue. In supporting it, Sebelius violates the doctrine. As Deneen remarks, “Georgetown is under an obligation to invite the exchange of ideas to promote an understanding of God’s Creation with an aim of the ‘salvation of mankind’; it is under no obligation to honor its persecutor or to engage in self-immolation.”
The situation explains why Deneen, who has been a chaired professor at Georgetown for many years and founded there in 2006 the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy will leave that post in one month to join the faculty of Notre Dame “in the belief that it has the possibility of retaining its Catholic identity.”