Saturday, March 15, 2003

'Vagina monologues' expands into censorship debate

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Members of the Xavier Players who were cast in The Vagina Monologues, and others, cheer speakers at a rally on campus Friday.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
What started as a debate over production of The Vagina Monologues has become a debate over free inquiry and expression on Xavier University's campus, with students and faculty challenging the administration.

Aretha Franklin's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" was played on loudspeakers as a kind of battle cry for more than 200 students, faculty and supporters as they gathered Friday on the residential mall on campus.

The group spoke out against President Michael Graham's decision earlier this week to cancel three weekend productions of the controversial play, which examines women's experiences with their bodies. Graham cited concerns over content and language. The program began as a student-initiated project in January to raise awareness about violence against women and to raise money for a shelter.

The issue is no longer about just the play, students said Friday. Members of the cast, faculty and others want policies developed for student programming that include student input. And, they want Graham to reaffirm the university's commitment to free inquiry not only for professors, but for students outside the classroom.

"This experience has ended up transforming all sorts of people," said Nancy Bertaux, a Xavier economics professor. "This is exactly what Jesuit education is all about. We know (Graham) is under pressure, but we're going to help him face that pressure. We are behind him if he is behind us."

When Graham announced his decision to cancel the play, Bertaux offered to include it as part of her human resources class, one that is now focusing on gender issues. That decision settled the dispute over whether students could hold the performances because Graham said the classroom was an appropriate place to discuss controversial topics addressed in the play.

But it started a firestorm of debate about censorship, student input and academic freedom.

"Even people who are not supportive of the play are up in arms because they're afraid it's going to set a precedent," said Lauren Gray, a 20-year-old junior from Vermilion, Ohio. She did a five-minute excerpt of one of the monologues for the crowd. It's the story of a woman who participates in a workshop about vaginas.

"We picked it because it's one of the funny ones," Gray said. "It's about a woman empowering herself. It's about a woman who discovers herself."

The faculty came out in support of student expression only hours earlier, said Dennis Long, a social work professor and head of the Faculty Committee, the official representative body of the faculty. The full Faculty Assembly voted to send a letter to Graham asking that he reaffirm the words in the university's mission statement about unreserved commitment to free inquiry. He did not give a vote count but said the resolution was overwhelmingly endorsed.

"We are requesting that free inquiry and expression be recognized for students and not just faculty, as well as outside the classroom," he said.

Graham was attending a funeral in Florida but released a statement about the rally.

"I heard the disappointment and frustration of our students when I met with them earlier this week," he said. "I commend them for coming together this afternoon to passionately express their opinions and concerns. Like other members of the academic community, I am fully supportive of the principles of academic freedom.

"The points students and faculty have raised over the past several days, and how they relate to Xavier's Jesuit, Catholic, and university identity, will continue - as they always have been - to be embraced and discussed by the entire campus community."

The play will be performed at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. today in the Gallagher Student Center theatre.


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