Discomfort at the University of St. Thomas: An update

We have followed the University of St. Thomas’s refusal to allow Star Parker to speak on campus here and here. UST vice president Jane Canney asserted that no speaker sponsored by the Young America’s Foundation (as Parker was to be) would be allowed to appear on campus during her reign.

Yesterday UST partially backtracked and announced that Parker will be speaking on campus as scheduled on April 21, but under different arrangements. In the announcement, YAF is one of the two “external organizations” to which UST refers. Note the disappearance of Canney, the use of the passive voice to conceal the decisionmakers, and the emergence of UST executive vice president Mark Dienhart to speak on behalf of the school:

Star Parker has verbally agreed to speak at 7 p.m. Monday, April 21, in the O’Shaughnessy Educational Center auditorium on the St. Paul campus.

St. Thomas extended the invitation Monday after the decision was made to use St. Thomas funds to pay her speaker’s fee and related expenses, thus giving university officials more involvement in managing the event.

Parker, a syndicated columnist, is active in the pro-life movement. Critics of St. Thomas’ original decision not to invite Parker said the decision diminished the university’s position on pro-life issues.

“St. Thomas proudly functions within the Catholic intellectual tradition,” said Dr. Mark Dienhart, executive vice president and chief administrative officer. “We are now and always have been fully supportive of the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. This issue has always been about what is the appropriate involvement of the university in scheduling speakers, not about any particular speaker or his or her message. We are glad to have reached this agreement with Ms. Parker.”

Two external organizations not affiliated with St. Thomas previously had offered to pay Parker’s fees. A St. Thomas student organization had agreed to serve as a co-sponsor and submit a request for free space.

The university’s Student Life Committee, comprised of students, faculty and staff, considered the offer last month and chose not to approve it. The decision was supported by the university administration.

The Student Life Committee reconsidered the issue on Monday after learning university funds would be used to sponsor the event, and approved the invitation to Parker. A performance contract with her is expected to be signed this week.

The announcement continues with a somewhat inscrutable statement concerning the arrangements under which Parker is now to appear:

St. Thomas normally uses a student activity fee fund to pay for speakers and performers who are sponsored by student organization. In turn, the speakers and performers sign contracts that specify fees and guidelines for the events. Parker would not necessarily have had to sign a St. Thomas performance contract if she were paid by outside organizations.

Not necessarily! The announcement continues:

St. Thomas was not comfortable in accepting external funds for the Parker event because the university would not have had enough involvement in managing the event. Regardless of who pays for programs, Dienhart said, St. Thomas ultimately is responsible for their impact on the community and should be a primary party in agreements with speakers.

Oh, the discomfort when conservatives are allowed to speak on campus without bureaucratic supervision! In the chronology provided by the university, this past Monday is the critical day. UST’s announcement omits to mention that Monday was the day the Star Tribune published Katherine Kersten’s column publicly exposing UST’s shameful behaviorl behavior in this matter.

The announcement concludes:

Over the last two years, St. Thomas has refined its process with speakers who are paid with university funds, and performance contracts and speaker/performer agreements have been required since Jan. 1. Under these contracts, speakers and performers agree to payment terms and basic parameters for speeches and presentations.

What are we to make of this? The state of free speech on campus at UST remains conveniently muddied. Is a double standard applied to conservative students seeking to bring conservative speakers to campus? Are they subject to the diktat of Jane Canney and other university administrators, whose comfort level will control the scope of debate to which students are exposed?

Katie Kieffer is the founder of the St. Thomas Standard, the independent newspaper that was to co-sponsor Parker’s appearance. Ms. Kieffer and her sister Amie met with Canney earlier this month in a fruitless effort to secure permission for the event to proceed as planned. Ms. Kieffer comments:

As the founder of one of the two unnamed “external organizations not affiliated with St. Thomas” that “previously offered to pay Parker’s fees,” namely the St. Thomas Standard independent conservative newspaper, I am delighted St. Thomas has reversed its decision and is allowing our pro-life speaker on campus. It is disappointing though to think that without extensive media and alumnae pressure that St. Thomas would have quietly rejected a speaker who espouses the values that are supposed to be the bedrock of the University of St. Thomas.

I am concerned that the vagueness of the speaker requirements will be used to impede the ability of conservative organizations to present conservative speakers on campus in the future.

Does this press release retract the statement made by St. Thomas Vice President of Student Affairs, Jane Canney, when she met with my sister Amie and me on April 4, 2008 and declared: “As long as I am a Vice President at the University of St. Thomas, the YAF will never be allowed on campus?” What is there to hide? I’m concerned that the vagueness of the speaker policy conveyed in the April 15, 2008 St. Thomas press release subjects us to the whims of the Jane Canneys of the academic world.

What kind of assurance do conservative students have of equal treatment in the future? We need to know that the University will give equal treatment to conservative speakers and conservative student organizations. I have asked Vice President for University and Government Relations Doug Hennes to discuss how we can go about working with St. Thomas to present campus speakers in the future without the delays, lack of cooperation, and hostility that accompanied our request to bring Star Parker on campus.

What exactly are the terms of this speaker’s contract? My sister Amie and I pressed Jane Canney to show us the University’s process for bringing conservative speakers to campus, and she refused to show this to us. Again, what is there to hide?

Why does the University feel such a need to properly “manage” events sponsored by conservative students? Who was monitoring the students or groups who brought Barbara Davis and Al Franken to ensure that they did not offend the St. Thomas community?

These questions will undoubtedly be answered one way or another in the fullness of time. It is nevertheless the case that UST has conveniently left all the relevant questions hanging while it seeks to extricate itself from an untenable position of its own making.

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