Volunteer-credits decision sparks debate at St. Thomas law school

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 first.

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.

Dean Thomas Mengler
Dean Thomas Mengler

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.

Fundamental questions
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.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 04/30/2008 - 12:46 pm.

    As long as we live in a pluralistic society, educators should welcome every opportunity for students to learn about others with whom we share our democracy. We certainly don’t need the Catholic equivalent of Bob Roberts U in place of honest inquiry and respect for others’ beliefs, especially when training students for careers in the law.

    James Carroll writes in “Toward a New Catholic Church” (p. 92) that the Church needs to be wary of rejecting pluralism. “Internal Church policies have relevance here because the use of anathemas, bannings and excommunications to enforce a rigidly controlled intellectual discipline in the Church reveals an institution that has yet to come to terms with such ideas as freedom of conscience and the dialectical nature of rational inquiry.

    “The very idea of constitutional democracy begins with the insight that government exists to protect the INTERIOR [emphasis his] freedom of citizens to be different from one another, and to cling, if they choose, to opposite notions of the truth.”

  2. Submitted by Erwin Ransom on 05/01/2008 - 11:34 am.

    Bernice (and all), I completely agree that a law school should be a place “of honest inquiry and respect for others’ beliefs.”
    But think about what James Carrol is advocating:
    “government exists to protect the interior freedom of citizens…to cling to opposite notions of the truth.”

    What about a belief in polygamy? (We’ll soon be finding out just how consonant that practice is with our Constitution.)

    What about a belief that it’s right to lock one’s children in the basement for 24 years? (see Austria)

    What about our Constitutional freedom to view others as less human than ourselves? (see US Supreme Court in “Dred Scott”)

    Ok, so even in a constitutional democracy, there are still SOME truths about which we CANNOT disagree, right?

    Are you suggesting that abortion is now one of those issues about which we cannot disagree? All citizens of the U.S. are now bound to agree that fetuses are not human beings? If so, why? Because the US Supreme Court said so?
    What if we lived in 1857, right after the Dred Scott decision was passed, but still 5 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, and our Civil war? Would you argue that Harvard Law school (founded 1817) should have accepted pro bono work done on behalf of slave-owners, to help them catch a slave who’d run away?

    I hope not.

    Let not forget that all freedom must be bounded by certain fundamental truths–“we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights…”

    What do you say?

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