The new president of Catholic University of America, John Garvey, gave the keynote speech at the New York Encounter cultural festival, which opened last night at the Manhattan Center in New York. After a thirty-five year career as a lawyer, last year he took up reins at the Catholic university founded in 1887 by all the bishops of the U.S. to offer graduate degrees in the pontifical faculties of theology, philosophy and canon law.
One year after President Obama was offered an honorary degree at Notre Dame, Garvey dissected the issue which created a firestorm in the Church and the university community. To the accusation of the hierarchy limiting academic freedom in this case, Garvey drew the distinction between allowing debate and dialogue on one hand, and on the other conferring an honor or award as happened at Notre Dame. The U.S. bishops had offered clear guidelines that politicians who did not support the moral principle of life could not be offered a platform or an award. Because of the magnitude and seriousness of abortion, it could not be put on a par with other favorable stands such as on universal health care or ending the war in Iraq. The problem arises from the symbolic meaning of conferring the honorary degree which creates scandal. In any case, Garvey suggested that both sides still needed to "tone it down a bit".
Garvey also discussed lawsuits involving student groups in both public and private universities. In Gay Rights Coalition vs. Georgetown, the D.C. Court of Appeals decided that while not required to offer official recognition, the school did need to give the student group a variety of services. In Christian Legal Society vs. Hastings, the students lost official status due to a required statement of faith and morals for its officers. While claiming to be neutral, these decisions favor a particular dominant opinion, restricting the freedom of both colleges and student groups to offer a distinct intellectual and moral view.
As opposed to the modernist theory that the best way to find truth is through many voices, Garvey emphasized that academic freedom must offer the possibility of carving out a distinct culture. For examples, he gave institutions like the New York Times or Fox News, or movements like the Chicago School of Economics or the Oxford Movement. Universities can foster such intellectual ferment only through the freedom to selectively hire faculty, admit students and offer lectures and courses. For Garvey, this is the "essence of intellectual construction." Although it is little appreciated, in fact, universities are "first amendment actors creating public culture".