A University of St. Thomas law student is protesting the school’s decision to deny her academic credit for volunteering with Planned Parenthood.
The dispute boils down to one word: abortion. It has raised questions about the Catholic law school’s mission and how it intersects with one of the church’s core values, placed limits on volunteering that some students want removed or waived, and left some students worried about the public perception of a young law school hoping to attract a diverse student body.
It began last week; briefly, here’s what happened:
Tara Borton, like all law students, needed 50 volunteer hours to
graduate. The first-year law student signed on with Planned Parenthood
without a second thought, until a friend told her she needed approval
Initial approval, with conditions
In late April, she went to the student-run board that governs such things — which, after a lengthy debate, agreed to give her credit, provided she didn’t work directly with contraceptives or women seeking abortions (a requirement that Borton admitted would have been practically impossible). The board issued its decision on April 22, and several people immediately alerted Dean Thomas Mengler, who has the final say on all academic requirements.
Shortly after, Mengler announced in a campuswide letter that students would not receive credit for volunteering at Planned Parenthood or any other organization “whose mission is fundamentally in conflict with a core value of a Catholic university.”
“As a Catholic university, we have a right and a responsibility to be Catholic,” Mengler said in an interview on Tuesday. “Certainly, one of (the church’s) core values is sanctity of life.”
Mengler said his decision doesn’t mean the law school discourages students from volunteering personal time wherever they want. When students do things on their own time, they’re not acting as representatives of the school, he said. But as representatives of the school, they have a responsibility to uphold the school’s mission, which states that the school is “dedicated to integrating faith and reason in the search for truth through a focus on morality and social justice.”
Second time in a decade
Mengler said his decision was heavily influenced by a decision made by the university’s president, the Rev. Dennis Dease, 10 years ago — the first time St. Thomas dealt with this conflict.
In spring of 1999, an undergraduate who needed an internship for graduation signed on with Planned Parenthood to assist victims of acquaintance rape. The student asked for academic credit and the school balked. The school let the student graduate by waiving her internship requirement, but did not back down.
The school considered forming an internship policy then, said Doug Hennes, a St. Thomas spokesperson who worked for the university during the conflict, but instead decided to deal with requests on a case-by-case basis.
Concerns about precedent, diversity
Borton is fighting to have the dean’s decision overturned, though she admits that that outcome is not likely. More important, she said, she’s concerned that the decision sets a precedent that will eventually limit all students to volunteering for academic credit at organizations with “affirmatively Catholic” visions.
It has also changed her view on what she believed the school’s mission was. When she came to St. Thomas last fall, she said, “I thought Catholic doctrine would be reflected in the faculty and the curriculum, and it would be a safe place to talk about those issues, but not enforce them.”
She’s not alone.
Several dozen St. Thomas law students signed an open letter to Mengler earlier this week, which voiced concerns about the law school’s ability to attract a diverse range of students, both those who agree with the church’s teachings and those who do not.
“The future of our school’s reputation in the legal community, as well as in the community at large, depends on (that diversity),” the letter said.
Three students who agreed with Mengler’s decision also sent around an open letter, suggesting that the recent conflict demonstrates the school’s need to answer a fundamental question: What exactly does it mean for the school to identify itself as a Catholic law school? In other words, what is the school’s mission?
It’s a question the young school has yet to answer fully, and something that comes at least partly as institutional memory deepens. The school, after all, is only 9 years old.
The ultimate mission, Mengler said, is “about helping our students become the kind of professionals and lawyers they’re called to be. Not what I think they should be, but what they want to be.”
It’s worth pointing out that students and administration alike have remained clearheaded and respectful with the conflict, and with students now in the midst of finals, it has begun to slide into the background.
But until the school and its student body begin to wrestle with the big-picture issues the conflict has unearthed, Borton and others say, it will continue to return.
The rewarding thing, Borton said, is that the school has prepared her and her fellow future lawyers for the debate. After all, she said: “Law is inherently riddled with conflict.”
Brian Voerding, a free-lance journalist who has written for the Rake, Minnesota Law & Politics and Minnesota Monthly, reports on higher education, agriculture and food, and other topics.