Thursday, November 6, 2008

Prizing Academic Freedom

Recently, the Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham University School of Law in New York City awarded its prestigious Stein Ethics Prize to Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer. Fordham University calls itself the Jesuit University of New York and continues to see its Jesuit founding as an integral part of its teaching students to serve the community and be good citizens. However, the question of the relationship between the Catholic Church and Fordham Law School came into question when Justice Breyer was awarded the Stein Prize.

Seemingly due to his authorship of the Supreme Court's decision that overturned Nebraska's ban on late-term abortion, Cardinal Edward M. Egan, archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, reportedly rebuked school administrators. The cardinal's spokesman was quoted as saying, "As a result of these discussions, the cardinal is confident that a mistake of this sort will not happen again."

Fordham Law School students and professors were immediately incensed. An on-line petition was started as students decried the parochialism of the Catholic Church and the erosion of academic freedom. Many in academia would agree that blanket statements barring the law school from engaging in certain activities or giving awards to a Supreme Court justice smacks of censorship and harms the integrity of the academic institution.

However, this disagreement raises some fundamental questions that both academia and religious institutions have failed to deal with effectively. On many levels, religious leaders have failed to continue to play a real and relevant role in academia without impending academic freedom. With the fight over teaching intelligent design raging on in the public schools, the debate over the meaning of academic freedom continues in Fordham Law School and throughout the United States.

Religious leaders and academics both seem incapable of engaging each other in meaningful discussions. Instead of rebuking administrators after the decision, why wasn't there engagement with the decision making process? It could have been during that time that someone would have pointed out how Justice Breyer and the Church share a commitment to social justice and civil rights. That may not have been enough to satisfy the cardinal, but I've always thought education is really more about learning to live with people you disagree with than anything else. Although, that may simply be too much to ask of priests and lawyers.

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