The decision by Providence College to cancel an event called “The Meaning of (Gay) Marriage” has ignited controversy and raised questions about academic freedom at the Catholic school located in the capital of Rhode Island. However, the cancellation became more than a typical controversy around Catholic higher education and LGBT issues when students organized a constructive forum to replace the event.
The New York Times reports that an administrator notified faculty members last Saturday that a lecture by John Corvino, a philosophy professor at Wayne State University, Michigan, was cancelled because it defied the school’s Catholic identity. The Times report states:
“In his e-mail announcing the cancellation, Hugh F. Lena, the provost and senior vice president of Providence College, cited a document produced by the American bishops in 2004, ‘Catholics in Political Life,’ to support the decision. And he said that college policy ‘dictates that that both sides of a controversial issue are to be presented fairly and equally.’ “
Nine departments and programs at the College were co-hosting the event scheduled for last Thursday, September 26th, and Dr. Dana Dillon of the Philosophy Department was to present the bishops’ position on marriage equality during the event. Cancelling in light of these facts caused many faculty to question the College’s commitment to academic freedom. The local chapter of the American Association of University Professors released a statement yesterday condemning the decision, which you can read in full at The Providence Journal. For his part, Corvino released two statements, one about the initial cancellation and one after the rescheduling, writing in the former:
“As a fellow scholar I am offended on Dr. Dillon’s behalf…For her provost to declare her unprepared, however, is an affront to scholarly autonomy and academic freedom. It also does not speak well of Provost Lena’s confidence in his philosophy and theology departments that he believes that no one there can persuasively articulate the Catholic position on marriage with a week’s notice.”
Student reactions echoed faculty concerns, but also wondered what message Providence College sent to LGBT community members in so brusquely treating Corvino and the issue of marriage equality. The campus LGBT group, called SHEPHARD, released a statement emphasizing the progress being made on campus.
Other students launched “Fighting for Academic Freedom” a Facebook page, as a form of protest.
In place of the cancelled lecture on Thursday night, students organized an open forum to discuss the administration’s decision, LGBT issues, and marriage equality. The forum included testimonials from students , as well as small group discussions wrestling with questions like, “Why is open and honest dialogue about gay marriage important to you? To the broader Providence College community?” and “How do we stay true to Providence College’s identity as a Catholic, liberal arts institution?” It ended with a larger discussion aimed at creating constructive next steps. One professor who attended wrote in an email:
“I attended the event last night and was bowled over by what came forth from our students; they compelled me to look at this whole thing with new eyes. The hurt that was expressed by our students with same-sex attraction (forgive me for being ol’ fashioned) when confronted by the efforts their college would go to prevent a gay academic coming to campus filled 64 Hall. . . .[I]t would take a person with a stone-heart not to be moved by their sense of injury that the college they call ‘home’ would act this way. I could not but help of thinking about the question Pope Francis posed when explaining his famous “who am I to judge?” comment: When God looks at a gay person, does God see a gay person or just a person? I heard lots of persons last night, and it alerted me to the reality that this is not simply a question about policy, about who said what to whom and when, but also a question of how Catholics speak about the issue of homosexuality.”
Providence College has announced that John Corvino will debate Sherif Girgis, a well-known anti-equality activist, this coming spring. Yet, for many faculty and students at the school this incident has been an occasion to come up with ways that the campus could be more welcoming of LGBT people and issues.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry