Georgetown’s Folly: Refuting the Academic Freedom Scam

In February Georgetown University granted regular student-group status to an organization called “G.U. Choice.” That organization favors permitting elective abortion. Regular status means the group in question is eligible for all the funding and logistical benefits available to student organizations generally. Georgetown’s president points out that in giving this status “the university does not approve, sanction, endorse or authorize either the group or its activities” (April 11, 1991, letter to an alumnus). The analytic and moral force of this disclaimer is hard to locate, however, since university acceptance of student groups generally carries no such approval. In other words, G.U. Choice was put on the same basis as other accepted student groups at Georgetown. In that sense, the action had the foreseeable effect of routinizing and legitimizing an organization whose purpose is diametrically opposed to a very clear teaching of the Catholic Church. Georgetown’s action was not forced on it but was freely chosen, and, I will argue, the decision was unwise. Moreover, Georgetown’s choice did not honor the meaning and obligations of freedom and the legitimate pluralism that proceeds from it.

Recent History

In the last 40 years American Catholic colleges and universities have encountered several crucial forks in the road. Some of these divisions are familiar to general observers, and others, while known by university people, are less visible to outsiders. The first such moment of decision has to do with whether or not to guarantee to the faculty and the student body unfettered academic freedom in their educational endeavors. Are faculty to be free to follow their analyses and evidence wherever they lead? Are they to be free, also, to invite their students to accompany them on this journey?

There are schools which place credal limits on even this carefully construed freedom, and it is not irrational to do so. Colleges are human artifacts and can be shaped in different ways with equal legitimacy. Yet the great bulk of American Catholic colleges have chosen to guarantee unnuanced academic freedom, and the legitimacy of such a choice was affirmed in the recent Vatican constitution on Catholic universities. These schools, including Georgetown, are wedded to the idea that the faculty, in scholarship and in teaching the young people who come before them, are free to follow their intellects wherever those intellects take them. Indeed, as I have often noted, they are more than free to do so—it is demanded of them. One reason for this is that truth is one and, therefore, finally at peace with the faith. Another reason is that such academic freedom is the hallmark of credible academic activity in the United States, so that if you wish to establish a comprehensive Christian witness in the academic arena, it is advisable to provide customary academic freedom. It will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to recruit and retain the most effective and powerful faculty if you organize yourself any other way. Most Catholic parents want both religious witness and academic prowess, not surprisingly. For such reasons, most Catholic universities have chosen the path of standard American academic freedom for their faculty, with appropriate contractual guarantees.

The second major fork in the road for Catholic institutions is whether to establish the institution with effective institutional autonomy or whether to make it in some juridical sense subordinate to external religious authority. Most of these institutions in the last 25 years or so established themselves as autonomous institutions without a direct juridical tie to religious authority. The reasons for this have to do with such things as qualification for vital governmental programs; the relative attractiveness of that posture in terms of developing broad-based community support, which is extremely important if these institutions are to be strong; and also as a fitting accompaniment to the condition of academic freedom previously noted. That is, if the institutions are established autonomously, this can lessen the abrasiveness and tension which inevitably accompany the wedding of academic freedom and an authoritative Church. It is easy to be cynical about such motives, but it is footless to talk about wanting Catholic higher education to have a wide appeal without wanting the conditions which make it possible.

But asserting institutional autonomy while at the same moment promising strong and vibrant religious witness carries with it the obligation to find all voluntary ways to live out the promises implicit in a school’s religious self-definition. This is a heavy burden but a joyous one for institutions serious about their commitments. It is the way to reconcile the promise of religious character with the preconditions of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. It is the way to be a university and Catholic. And it is a crucial, though less well known, dividing point for Catholic schools: even though juridically autonomous, how rigorously will they search for all the ways to reflect their religious beliefs and to align themselves with the church whose name they take? Will they establish this witness as a formal obligation for all university elements, academic and otherwise, and hold subordinate leadership responsible? This is a far more muscular approach than simply saying, for example, “we are rooted in a Catholic tradition,” which, though interesting, is hard to put into practice as part of the school’s promise-keeping.

The loss of religious character at various Protestant-founded schools, especially the Ivies, is sometimes looked at as a forecast of what inevitably must happen at Catholic colleges when they are not juridically subordinate to religious authority. The analogy suffers on several fronts, the chief one being that the Catholic Church remains a strongly authoritative teacher. It defines itself that way, in sharp contrast to the so-called mainline Protestant churches in the United States. An institution which claims Catholic character anchors itself to a church which is much more vigorous, from a teaching point of view, than are the churches from which the Ivies drifted. Those schools never fought a revolution against their sponsoring religious bodies. The religious authorities became progressively palsied, the bonds eroded, and the institutions’ quite natural internal dynamics took them away first from religious control, then influence, and finally content. By contrast, Catholic colleges take the name of a vigorous teacher which, in Rome and in the dioceses, is quite able and willing to call for religious performance and note unnecessary incongruities. Moreover, most such schools remain under the sponsorship of religious orders which are in a position to insist on religious manifestation as a precondition for continued presence. Thus, though juridically free institutions, American Catholic colleges need not follow the Ivies path. If leadership is properly charged and held accountable, they can see to a manifold expression of a religious ethos in academic budgeting priorities and in all non-academic areas.

Yet another defining moment for the Catholic college comes when it decides whether to insist on a rigorous distinction between the definition of academic freedom and its scope. Those university constituents who want no institutional restrictions will naturally try to extend the scope of academic freedom to the widest possible degree. Under that umbrella they can argue that one determines the freedom which students should have in, say, residence halls, by deduction from the concept of academic freedom. If academic freedom can somehow be stretched to cover such things, then one may deduce that living in the residence halls, like research in the lab, should have no serious institutional restraints.

Recognizing Distinctions

By contrast, if institutional leadership insists on recognizing distinctions between distinct things, one sees immediately that in a modern university there are innumerable different kinds of activities, ranging from snowplowing to food service to residence halls to the essential academic activities defined above. And one sees, also, that each of these different activities calls for its own logic and arguments to establish degrees of autonomy. There is absolutely no reason to imagine before the fact that “academic freedom” will tell you what route the snowplows should follow, what residence hall policies to adopt, or what rules to establish for extracurricular groups. Whereas in the academic actions of students and faculty the university has ceded discretion and the capacity to intervene, it can retain discretion in all other areas, if it has the will. And if it retains such discretion, it will decide degrees of autonomy in the major areas of university life according to the nature of the activity in question, not as an inference from the abstract concept of “academic freedom.”

To illustrate the point, imagine that one of the Catholic university’s tenured sociology professors concludes that premarital sexual experimentation is prudent and writes an article to that effect. Commonly understood academic freedom would protect him from institutional intrusion. Let us say, then, that the school’s Director of Residence Halls reads the article and decides to encourage premarital co-habitation as a result. He is summarily dismissed for violating institutional principles and is unable rationally to appeal to academic freedom to protect him from the repercussions of his greatly imprudent act—unless the institution has lost its grasp of true and powerful distinctions.

Proceeding a bit further, to the matter of student organizations, we look at an area where university discretion is very great. Some such groups are purely social, others are service oriented, and still others come closer to the academic life by being forums for debate and discussion. It is normal in Catholic universities to extend considerable freedom to the last type of organization so that the customary academic dialectic can proceed under their auspices. Even then, there is typically a constant institutional reminder that the greatest freedom the students have to exercise is the freedom they used to choose this particular place, with its particular principles and their particular consequences. Once again, the basic point is that rational policy on the governance of student groups should reflect the institution’s fundamental character. Lines will be drawn, and institutional leadership must do the drawing.

To the extent they retain institutional principles and insist that the distributed authorities respect and manifest those principles in the institution’s life, then the sponsors and leaders of the Catholic university do not simply give over the institution’s life to the natural centrifugal forces which a modern university has within it. It is very important to realize that any modern university builds into itself powerful forces which, if left to their own devices, tend to sunder the institution and move it away from a central, harmonizing character. Operating in an undefined and formless atmosphere, academic freedom itself is an essentially tangential and centrifugal force. I do not mean it is at war with the university, just that it is not a positive, formative quality. Rather, it is mostly an absence of restraints. We hope it encourages free-spirited pursuit of truth, which is why we value it so highly, but by itself it cannot be expected to promote unity and structure.

Also characteristic of modern universities is an extremely high degree of specialization within and among the academic disciplines. That is necessary for mastery and scientific advance, but it also means the faculty are doing very different things, and often very narrow things. Again, the natural thrust of such specialization is centrifugal, not harmonizing. When one sees these qualities, and with them the natural desire of students to shuck off even normal restraints as they flap their wings, often for the first time, then one can see quickly that the modern college has strong, and not in themselves nefarious, dynamics away from unity and the honoring of institutional principles.

That calls for an energetic and vigilant countervailing institutional presence if the institution is serious about providing religious witness. If serious about institutional definition and commitment, the college will have to ensure that the principles implicit in the definition are brought to bear in every facet of institutional activity. In effect, the responsibility of leadership in such a place is to conduct a continuous inventory of institutional performance on religious witness, just as they routinely do on teaching, or research, or fiscal responsibility. Rigorous dedication to this kind of approach, reminding all college constituents of who and where they are, and asking how they can positively contribute to institutional promise-keeping, constitutes a genuine countervailing pressure. It serves to synthesize and utilize the centrifugal forces discussed earlier, rather than suppressing or denying them.

The Case of Marquette

Without calling Marquette University’s performance a model for all, it is nonetheless possible to see that at Marquette these distinctions have been made, these principles followed, and this synthesis sought. The religious dedication of the university has been put forth as the first principle, the greatest specifier of the place. It is not logically possible to subordinate a religious principle to anything else, obviously, so that if a college declares itself religious it needs to follow the implications vigorously. The faculty and students have regular, undifferentiated academic freedom, but its guarantees extend directly only to the scholarly and pedagogical activities of faculty and students. The degree of autonomy appropriate to all other facets of the place needs to be established by argument peculiar to the enterprise.

We have maintained rigorous distinctions between the discretionary and the non-discretionary areas of activity, and we established the principle that where discretion exists and clear Church teaching is involved we would happily honor such teaching. Thus, for example, when asked whether we would grant recognition or benefits to a group dedicated to legitimizing homosexual practice, we declined, on the ground that such action itself legitimizes a spirit and attitude which the Church clearly opposes. Precisely the same response has been given to persons and groups who would advocate abortion on demand. With clear Church teaching at stake and university discretion perfectly legitimate, why authorize an antagonistic witness when our raison d’etre is to give a specifically Catholic witness in higher education?

Georgetown’s actions seem to contrast sharply with such approaches. It seems to have eliminated distinctions rather than rigorously maintaining them. In the earlier case of whether to authorize a group promoting the homosexual lifestyle (the university finally gave in rather than exercise all legal recourse available), and in the more recent case accepting a group dedicated to abortion on demand, Georgetown chose to accommodate in discretionary areas the existence of organizations whose objectives are at war with clear Catholic teaching. Though not “endorsing” them, Georgetown’s accepting of these groups had the inevitable effect of legitimizing and routinizing them on that campus. The university also established precedents which, unless disavowed and reversed, seem to remove any institutional capacity to block student organizations on religious grounds.

In a March 17 story the National Catholic Register quoted a Georgetown professor as saying, “I don’t think there’s any logical or rational basis for saying ‘The gay group is OK. The pro-choice group is not.’ ” If Church teaching is not decisive in one discretionary area, why should it be in another? The Register reporter pushed the point with a Georgetown spokesman: would they also permit and provide for a Hemlock Society chapter? An Atheist Club? To which the university spokesman responded: “I have no idea. I don’t get paid to speculate.” It does seem safe to speculate, however, that as things now stand, and will stand unless repudiated by Georgetown itself, Georgetown has paralyzed itself in one vital area where Catholic universities have traditionally manifested their Catholicism.

Unreasonable Reasons

That is a serious business. How was it explained and defended by those responsible and their supporters? The defense is one large part red herring and one large part semantic confusion, and it adds up to no defense at all. I do not question the sincerity of the defenders. I assume it, as a matter of fact. But so assuming leads necessarily to another conclusion: they are themselves captive of several of the false categories now common in American discourse. This is clearly illustrated in the aforementioned April 11 letter from Georgetown’s president to a concerned alumnus, and in a March 16 America editorial supporting Georgetown’s action. The semantic confusion consists in insisting that G.U. Choice will not engage in pro-abortion advocacy or activity. Students associated with the group denied the efficacy of such restrictions, as well as any intention to follow them, but that is not the key point. The key point is that G.U. Choice is pro-abortion advocacy. It exists to broaden elective abortion’s sway. Though the university says the group’s activities will be limited to discussion, G.U. Choice forthrightly intends its discussions to be aimed at further routinizing the acceptability of elective abortion. G.U. Choice is pro-choice, in today’s mangled terminology.

But that confusion is minor when compared to the profusion of red herrings attracted to the case. Georgetown tries to defend accepting G.U. Choice by saying that without it the university cannot fulfill its obligation to be an intellectual forum. Thus the president says that “disallowing a student group or any public discussion of the issue of abortion on this campus—would not be educative.” And, he says, Georgetown is strong enough to accommodate “public debate while maintaining clear institutional policies.” He caps off this amazing excursion by noting that “an institution that excludes discussion will founder on its convictions rather than foster them.” Similarly, America proclaimed that what is at stake is the very “possibility of a free discussion of abortion.”

What is wrong here? As a practical matter, everything.

It is simply silly to equate disallowing a particular student group with quashing “any public discussion” of the abortion issue. It is sillier yet to suggest the capacity for “public debate” was at stake. And it is astounding to protest that excluding G.U. Choice is tantamount to excluding all discussion. Georgetown, as any university, is replete with academic and extracurricular forums dedicated to argument, discussion, give and take, on abortion or anything else of interest. Were that not the case, Georgetown would have ceased to be a university long before G.U. Choice ever presented itself. There are no illegitimate questions in a university, and no illegitimate discussion of those questions— and authorizing a group whose very existence is pro-abortion advocacy adds nothing to Georgetown’s ability to hear and discuss such questions.

The reasons given, in short, are unreasonable. That does not mean they are dishonest, of course, just that they sustain nothing. Georgetown did not have to accept G.U. Choice to fulfill its academic responsibilities. In accepting it, it eroded a bit more its capacity to be Catholic in all legitimate ways. In doing this, it may have made itself more like “universities in general”— but neither America nor the Church needs a lot more of those. What both need—America because it profits from vibrant rather than apologetic pluralism, and the Church because it wants a vigorous and clear presence in higher education—are Catholic universities which resolve to inspect every aspect of their lives to see how the faith can be applied and manifested therein. Catholic academies must resolve to resist every tempting erosion, every unnecessary accommodation. Doing otherwise lessens the institution’s witness and unnecessarily blurs the Catholic patch on the patchwork quilt of American pluralism.


Quentin L. Quade, when he wrote this article, was the Executive Vice-President of Marquette University. He later went on to open the Blum Center in 1992 for the purpose of collecting, organizing, synthesizing, and distributing information regarding school choice efforts across the country.

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