Sunday, March 11, 2007

DePaul Rejected Barbara Ehrenreich as Commencement Speaker

This article was originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Raise the Fist, a zine put out by the DePaul Activist Student Union.

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When DePaul announced it's final 3 candidates to replace Fr. Minogue as President of the school, and announced the times students could meet with the candidates to make their own comments on them, my friends in activism and myself decided to meet these people who we might be leading demonstrations against.

Fr. Holtschneider definitely stood out from the other two candidates. He was willing to listen and dialog about the issues we were concerned about- gay rights, sweatshops, etc, where the other two seemed like caricatures of old white businessmen. I remember my friend Giuseppe wore an anti-McDonalds t-shirt to the meeting with Holtschneider that simple read, “McShit.” Holtschneider complimented him on the shirt. Holtschneider has been very willing to talk to students and whenever I flagged him down before he was willing to discuss things with me

Which is why I wasn't surprised when I was standing by Fr. Egan's statue outside the student center with some friends and Holtschneider came up to us and started a conversation. We talked about my book, “A People's History of DePaul” and how it's coming along, and Finkelstein's tenure case (he claimed that except for the e-mail's he's been getting from both sides he hasn't seen a shred of paper from the official tenure process regarding it and he won't even think about it until June when he officially steps into the process.)

I had to ask him though: what's up with these rumors that you canceled Barbara Ehrenreich's speech to the graduating class of 2007?



Barbara Ehrenreich is one of the most fearless activist women of our era. She wrote the book “Nickel and Dimed” describing her experience trying to survive on minimum wage for a year. It is used as a college text across the country and I'm sure has sold tens of thousands of copies. Her writings for Harpers magazine, Time magazine, Z, The Progressive, Ms. Mother Jones and others have been read by millions and address important issues of our times- poverty, racism, sexual abuse, the war, etc. She is a board member for a number of organizations including the Democratic Socialists of America, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Students for a Democratic Society. She would be a great speaker at any convocation. I certainly know I would have been excited to have her speak at my graduation last year.

Well, Holtschneider told me that she had been recommended to him as a speaker, but that for a convocation, and granting an honorary degree, only he could approve speakers for that and that as a Catholic school, it wasn't going to happen for some one who was vocally “pro-abortion.” Yes, he said pro-abortion, not pro-choice.

Shade's of 1986. Back then the University formed a speakers committee to invite prominent guests. They invited Eleanor Smeal, then president of the National Organization of Women, to speak and she was canceled because of her pro-choice views. Students and faculty got organized and were able to have her speak as a department sponsored speaker. Holtschnider assured me that nothing prevents us from bringing Ehrenreich as a speaker through a student group or faculty group.

What this goes into is just how Catholic the school is. On one hand, events like this disprove the knee-jerk reaction of conservatives who think that just because the school doesn't have an anti-choice rally every day, photo-doctored photos of fetuses in classrooms, the stars and bars flying and students praying to cardboard cutouts of George W. Bush that DePaul is somehow liberal or even radical.

On the other hand, I have my own doubts about how dogmatically Catholic the school has to be. DePaul was never completely a branch of the church, it was always a separate legal entity, with it's own board of directors. The only definitive institutional ties to the church were that a certain number of the board members had to be Vincentian and the doctrinal status of the school. Well I don't think many trustee members are Vincentian any more and in the 1960's the school rescinded it's doctrinal status, which required it to teach material in accordance with the Church. What is so interesting is why the school rescinded such a status. Because they were afraid of losing federal funds. The school was expanding at the time, gentrifying the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and they had a choice, stay small but true to Catholicism, or go after the big bucks. They went after the big bucks.

So why the stink over pro-choice? Isn't DePaul past that? Don't we have a queer studies minor? Well, it still receives money from the diocese and from private Catholic donors. The school could be very afraid of losing that money. In 1996 when Fr. Minogue refused to allow Brigette Amiri to form a pro-choice club on campus, she asserted the same thing.

So what now? Well I think that the first step is for students and faculty to arrange to have Ehrenreich speak at DePaul. High level groups like Student Government, DePaul Activities Board, and Faculty Council should sponsor the talk. Then over time, we need to put pressure on the school to give an honorary degree to a very vocal pro-choice activist. Demonstrations, speak-outs, sit-ins if necessary. We can find alternative funding for the school to replace any money they lose from anti-choice donors. This can position the school as something outside the church, but in it's sphere of orbit enough to eventually influence Rome on this issue. We can have DePaul align itself more with groups like Catholics for a Free Choice.

I never understood the qualifications or standards for someone to be given an honorary degree or be a University speaker. Pro-choice? The school says no way. But the school let gay author James Baldwin speak as part of the series that Smeal wasn't allowed to. I asked Holtschneider who some of the other speakers he has not approved were and why he didn't approve them and he drew a blank. Having some sort of set critieria might be able to prevent the school from not approving certain speakers, then again, it might just give them a non-partisan cover to hide their real motives for denying speakers.

I never understood why the school would be so upset about fetuses, when we have an ROTC office in the basement of 990 and they train people how to kill. Or if it's about the life of something that isn't quite human, why not ban meat from the cafeteria? Or anti-bacterial soap? If the school really cared about preventing abortions they would let people distribute condoms on campus, and if the school won't approve of it students should 1.) organize underground condom distributions 2.) hold public distributions to challenge the school. Don't forget, there are plenty of lawyers who would defend an idealistic feminist for free.

To get involved in women's issues check out Feminists In Action who meet every Tues at 9:15 in the womens center (room 312 in the student center). Take Back The Night, an annual rally and march against sexual assault will be April 26, at 5:00 outside the student center. Visit www.depaulasu.net for more about progressive and radical activism at DePaul.


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