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Several departments at the University of Notre Dame, founded in 1842 under the patronage of the Virgin Mary, recently hosted a drag show on campus. In response to criticism, the Catholic university defended the event, citing the “principle of academic freedom.” The controversy has raised an important question: To what extent can a Catholic university rely on academic freedom as its core educational principle?

Professor Pamela Wojcik, chair of the department of film, television, and theater, brought a drag performance to campus on November 3. This semester, Professor Wojcik taught a one-credit course entitled “What a Drag: Drag on Screen—Variations and Meanings.” Posters invited all Notre Dame students, faculty, and staff to the event featuring performances by “Blair St. Clair” and special guests “Cordelia” and “London BaCall.”

St. Clair is a former contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, the reality TV show that crowns “America’s next drag superstar.” He is also an OnlyFans content creator who produces pornography for compensation. Cordelia is a senior student at Notre Dame. BaCall is a local drag “artist” who has performed at dozens of burlesque-style events across the Midwest. 

Those who hosted the drag event hail from the gender studies, American studies, and music departments, as well as from the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts and the Initiative on Race and Resilience—all under the umbrella of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters headed by Dean Sarah Mustillo. In the past couple of weeks, news that the university was permitting the performance has filled headlines, culminating in a protest outside the performing arts center on the night of the event.

I am a senior at Notre Dame. Three weeks before the performance, I enlisted fellow senior Jose Rodriguez to create a website, NoDragND.org. This website offered an accessible platform for Notre Dame students, alumni, faculty, and friends to email President Jenkins, Fr. Gerry Olinger (vice president of student affairs), Provost John McGreevy, Dean Mustillo, Professor Wojcik, and the chairs of the other sponsoring departments, asking them to rescind the invitation to the drag “artists” and instead direct funds toward supporting authentic femininity and human dignity. 

By the morning of the show, over 1,200 people had used the website's email template to contact these university administrators. In response, the Office of the President issued an automated reply citing a new statement on freedom of expression at Notre Dame as justification for authorizing this event: “Because Notre Dame is a university committed to the pursuit of truth through teaching, learning, inquiry, and dialogue, we are committed fully to the academic freedom of scholars to research and publish the results of their research and to teach in accord with their obligations and training.” The email response continued: “The event you reference is part of a one-credit course in Film, Television, and Theater on the history of drag, and the principle of academic freedom applies.” 

Following this logic to its conclusion, one must then ask: Would academic freedom applied to a course on pornography permit a strip show? Applied to a course on satanic religions, would it permit a satanic ritual? The logical answer is no, but this new policy seems to suggest otherwise. 

In 1967, University President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh released the Land O’Lakes statement on the “Idea of the Catholic University.” The document sought to define the role of the contemporary Catholic university, setting in motion the academic autonomy Notre Dame seeks to have from Catholic authority today. 

In 2005, University President Fr. John Jenkins gave two addresses on academic freedom to solidify the policy on events at odds with the Catholic mission of the university. (These talks were held shortly after he permitted The Vagina Monologues to be performed on campus—reversing his previous decision to forbid it.) The final guidelines were published in 2006. According to these guidelines, presentations “intended to be provocative” must be defended by their department chair as academically valuable and not “gratuitously offensive”; when touching upon a “significant issue” in Church teaching, the Catholic tradition must be presented. Events are also barred from using “framing and language” that gives the impression of endorsing perspectives “directly contrary to Catholic teachings.” 

In theory, these policies still reign today. The difference is that Notre Dame has since hired an abundance of non-Catholic faculty who believe it is their duty to host events and teach on subjects contrary to Catholic teaching and contrary to the objective mission of the university: the dedicated “pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake.” In 2006 the number of Catholic faculty barely reached 50 percent; today the university doesn’t even publish statistics on the religious identity of faculty. 

This situation is different from academic freedom debates at other universities due to Notre Dame’s Catholic identity and mission. While campuses across the country are forced to consider the harm of speech and the “heckler’s veto,” Notre Dame must choose between prioritizing its mission or offering complete license to its faculty to pursue any event, so long as it relates to a course in some distant manner. The university is claiming that academic freedom requires a classroom arena that university authority cannot intrude on, thus giving non-Catholic and Catholic faculty alike complete discretion in teaching and presenting their viewpoints. 

If Notre Dame focused on hiring faculty committed to pursuing the truth and supporting the Catholic tradition of the university, “academic freedom” in practice would not require Notre Dame to defend abortion doulas, sex workers, and drag shows. Without predominantly Catholic faculty, many will continue to push progressive activist agendas antithetical to Catholic teaching in the name of “academic freedom,” and the university will be able to do nothing to stop it. 

By indulging disordered sexual desires and failing to instruct on the realities of male and female—the reality of God’s wonderful creation—Notre Dame is allowing her students to remain indifferent to the truth. If Notre Dame wishes to regain a sense of its Catholic identity, administrators and deans must prioritize hiring faculty who support its Catholic mission. 

Merlot Fogarty writes from South Bend, Indiana. 

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Image by Michael Fernandes licensed via Creative Commons. Image Cropped.  

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