Literature and Tolerance at the University of St. Thomas

Article excerpt

Faced with public hostility, a Catholic university explains the importance of exploring challenging ideas.

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 1999, IS A day that will live long in my memory and the memory of the University of St. Thomas. It was the day our first-year class assembled to hear Mark Doty speak about his memoir, Heaven's Coast, which we had assigned as a common text for the first course of our core sequence in literature and writing. It was a day that ended several months of controversy and of ugly words and behavior. And for academic freedom, it was a day of success.

Students in all sections of "Critical Reading and Writing I: Fiction and Non-Fiction Prose" read one book in common during the same week of the year, allowing for cross-sectional discussions and programs. Ideally, the week culminates in a visit to campus by the author. The idea is to immerse all students in one book-to make that book an exciting, much-talked-about affair on campus. Or, to put it another way, the common text is intended to be the university's intellectual campus for the week-a field for the mindful exercise of intellect and heart.

Since 1990, the department has used two criteria in selecting its common text: literary excellence and the potential of the book to deepen our students' understanding of diversity. One of our texts was Toni Morrison's Beloved; it worked so well that we chose it twice: first in 1991 and again in 1994. We have also taught Louise Erdrich's Tracks, Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary, and Carlos Fuentes' Old Gringo. Between 1990 and 1998, we dealt with all the "valences of diversity" noted in our departmental handbook-race, ethnicity, gender, religion, class, sexual orientation, and geopolitical positioning--all, that is, except sexual orientation.

The time had come, several of my colleagues felt, to address all the valences, and one of them nominated Heaven's Coast, a moving and beautifully written account of Doty's mourning of the loss of his partner Wally to AIDS. The choice was not unanimous. But most of the department felt it to be an important choice, a somewhat bold but not particularly radical one certainly not one incompatible with our identity as a Catholic university.

Heaven's Coast was chosen in May 1998 for the fall of that year. I had just been appointed chair, and my term was to begin July 1, 1998. I supported the choice wholeheartedly but agreed with my predecessor that we could not teach the book well with so little time for discussion and preparation. He and I persuaded the department to postpone it for a year, to fall 1999. (Some of our colleagues felt this delay to be discriminatory.) Then we began to think about how to teach this book by a writer Robert Coles says is "warm, honest, generous-a writer with so very much to tell us, teach us, and give to us."

My predecessor and I immediately met with the university president to inform him that the common text for fall 1999 would be Doty's book. We did not go to seek permission, nor advice. We simply wanted him to know about it in the event of opposition or criticism. It was a courtesy call. In turn, our president calmly and clearly lent his support. He and I agreed that the chair of the board of trustees, who is also the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, should be informed for the same reason that the department had informed him. The president wrote to the archbishop, and all was set until May 5, 1999, a kind of "day of infamy" that ushered in six months of commotion.

Bitter Words

On May 5, as I was putting on my coat to go to St. Thomas, a neighbor pushed under my door a page from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. On it was a sticky note saying, "You may want to read this before going into the office." The page carried an editorial, "St. Thomas Stoops Far Too Low in Its Next Common Text," by Katherine Kersten, an occasional columnist for the paper and a director of the Center for the American Experiment. …