Seton Hall University
Presidents Hall at Sunset

Statement on Academic Freedom Beyond the Classroom


In September 2020, the Board of Regents identified a statement concerning "Academic Freedom Beyond the Classroom," rooted in Seton Hall's Catholic identity, as a key objective for the forthcoming Strategic Plan. In December of the same year, the Board unanimously approved the University Strategic Plan, entitled Harvest Our Treasures, which called for the development of such a statement.

Led by the Provost's office, with a commitment to shared governance, an ad hoc committee was formed, composed of faculty, administrators, priests and students, and instructed to examine key documents from the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) addressing issues such as artistic expressions, presentations (speakers), operational concerns (free speech and demonstrations), honorary degrees and other awards. The ad hoc committee was also asked to review statements on academic freedom issued by a variety of institutions, with an emphasis on Catholic colleges and universities. Finally, the committee was asked to ensure the close alignment of the present statement with the established academic freedom policies found in the Seton Hall University Faculty Guides. Those policies remain in place and are not within the purview of this statement, which intends to offer general principles and guidelines for academic freedom outside the classroom.

The ad hoc committee, with ongoing assistance from an ACCU consultant, reviewed all the relevant documentation and, over the course of several months, met to discuss these crucial issues. The statement resulting from those discussions was presented to and approved by the Board of Regents and the Board of Trustees, and follows below.


Catholic Identity

Seton Hall University, like all universities, is an institution committed to critical intelligence and rational reflection. As a Catholic university, it holds that human beings can be intelligent and inquisitive thinkers—lifelong seekers after truth—as well as people of ardent faith. This conviction gives rise to the collaborative relationship between faith and reason, a relationship that is at the core of Seton Hall's identity and at the core of its unwavering commitment to academic freedom.

From the time of the early church, thinkers have been convinced that there exists a harmonious union between faith and human rationality, between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the best of thought, wisdom and culture. This confluence is implied by a foundational Judeo-Christian principle: All men and women are made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27). As such, rationality is a divine gift which we are summoned to use to the fullest.

Closer to our own times, Pope John Paul II has written at length about the healthy reciprocity characterizing the faith-reason relationship. In a statement now emblazoned on Walsh library, he insists that "faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." These two dimensions of human life are mutually supportive, offering to each other "a purifying critique and a stimulus to pursue the search for deeper understanding."

In an age that doubts not only the existence of God but also the existence of truth, a Catholic university stands firmly committed to both. It could not be otherwise: God identified himself to Moses as "I am who am" (Ex 3:13-15) and Jesus identified himself to his disciples as "the truth" (John 14:6). A Catholic university, then, does not fear the process of reasoning together—even about difficult and controversial issues—but embraces it with confidence.

This reciprocal, mutually enriching relationship between faith and reason, between belief and culture, gives rise to what is often called the Catholic intellectual tradition. By this term is meant the abundant and profound dialogue that has taken place between Christian faith and human culture over the course of two millennia. This tradition has produced a vast array of texts, compositions and artifacts covering a multitude of topics: theology and philosophy; art and architecture; music and literature; science and law; social and political thought; and many other elements of elevated and ennobling civilization. Crucially, this tradition continues to develop and evolve over time—building on the past while giving birth to the future. Faith and culture must remain in continual, productive, and vital dialogue. Just as Catholicism and Catholic universities grow and develop, so too does the Catholic intellectual tradition.

The cumulative wisdom of this tradition—as well as the enduring and treasured culture of dialogue which it represents—should saturate all aspects of a Catholic university’s life. It should serve as a guiding light and continual stimulus as faculty, students and administrators engage in fresh thinking and productive conversation about truth, goodness and beauty—about the relationship between contemporary society and the life of faith. This rich tradition of encounter and exchange encourages student initiative and invites students into spirited argument and careful deliberation, both inside and outside the classroom, about challenging and contentious issues. Indeed, all members of the university community, including administrators and staff who work closely with and for students, are deeply engaged in this ongoing culture of dialogue.

As Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a document dedicated to explaining the identity and mission of Catholic universities states, the university is "a primary and privileged place for a fruitful dialogue between the Gospel and culture." By engaging in this dialogue, a Catholic university fulfills its liberating educational mission.

Academic Freedom

As with all universities worthy of the name, Seton Hall encourages freedom of discussion and the bold exploration of new ideas. As such, the university insists upon the importance of academic freedom as an indispensable and essential condition for serious intellectual inquiry. Professors and scholars (including students, when engaged in scholarly endeavors) must have the ability to pursue the truth wherever their investigations lead—and to disseminate freely the results of their research. This position has been stated many times in the official documents of both academe and the Catholic Church. Seton Hall has long subscribed to the 1940 AAUP "Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom." The university notes as well the important statements on this issue offered by the Catholic Church. For example, Ex Corde affirms that academic freedom is 

the guarantee given to those involved in teaching and research that, within their specific specialized branch of knowledge, and according to the methods proper to that specific area, they may search for the truth wherever analysis and evidence leads them, and may teach and publish the results of this search, keeping in mind the cited criteria, that is, safeguarding the rights of the individual and of society within the confines of the truth and the common good.

Seton Hall resolutely adheres to these statements. It ardently affirms its commitment to robust and vigorous debate and discussion, and to the free exchange of ideas. For the university is rightly understood as a forum where ideas and artistic expressions, including novel, unpopular, and controversial ones, may be freely examined by all in the quest for truth.

Of course, all human rights and freedoms are conjoined with responsibilities and obligations—and so it is with academic freedom. It is important that the realm of free inquiry and exploration takes place within the boundaries of civil discourse and is informed by those who possess expertise and competence within their fields. Particularly at a Catholic institution, there should exist a strong spirit of respect for all parties and a deep concern for the common good. While respect for the dignity of others can never be used as an excuse to foreshorten the exploration of controversial topics, it should, nonetheless, provide the approach within which all such explorations and discussions proceed.

In the exercise of academic freedom, certain responsibilities are specifically attached to Seton Hall's Catholic identity. As Ex Corde states, a Catholic university offers a "living institutional witness to Christ and his message, so vitally important in cultures marked by secularism…." The university, then, encourages robust, free and vigorous engagement with a wide variety of differing viewpoints, bringing contemporary perspectives into lively exchange with and about Catholic teaching and with the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Catholicism is distinguished by a particular understanding of the meaning of life, of the nature of humanity, and of moral imperatives. It is strongly encouraged that this rich worldview of Christian humanism shape the intellectual engagement that takes place both inside and outside of the classroom. In this way, the dialogue between the Gospel and culture, which is the hallmark of a Catholic university, can come to fruition.

As a preeminent Catholic university, deeply committed to faith, reason and academic freedom, Seton Hall welcomes and encourages a spirited culture of dialogue. At the same time, it must be stated clearly that, unless otherwise indicated, no speaker, performance, presentation, exhibition, award or demonstration represents the beliefs or values of Seton Hall University.

Guidelines for Outside the Classroom

The guidelines presented here are built upon Seton Hall's established position on academic freedom and the university’s ardent commitment to a culture of dialogue and encounter.

We acknowledge that classrooms and lecture halls are broad and permeable realities, encompassing many different settings. For example, every health care locale, rehearsal hall and moot court is a "classroom" in the sense of constituting an educational environment. In a distinct way, student activity settings are also often scholastic in nature. Nonetheless, we are speaking, as will be clear below, of specific campus contexts, outside of the classroom, where the issue of academic freedom is necessarily involved.

As a Catholic institution, one founded by and related to the Archdiocese of Newark, Seton Hall promotes an environment where the virtues of justice, charity and scholarly humility are strongly fostered—and where profound respect for all others, in both speech and action, is a distinguishing mark of members of our community. All are expected to adhere to these high standards.

Of course, any event sponsored by Seton Hall necessarily involves the university's identity and reputation. In the interest of cultivating a spirited culture of dialogue and a challenging educational environment, all speakers, performances and exhibitions will ordinarily be warmly welcomed on campus. Nonetheless, it remains within the university's purview not to host those persons or performances egregiously opposed to the fundamental values and beliefs of Seton Hall. Members of the executive cabinet, according to their distinct areas of expertise, will be ultimately responsible for such decisions. This exception should be exercised with restraint and only in extraordinary circumstances.

Invited Speakers

Discussion, dialogue and debate belong to the very essence of a university which, by its nature, seeks to cultivate a lively and robust awareness of different ideas. Invited speakers, representing a diverse range of viewpoints, are indispensable to the culture of dialogue fostered by Seton Hall— and are therefore integral to the educational experience of the students. Speakers who respect our tradition of civil and open-minded discourse are warmly welcomed on campus.

At the same time, a distinctive note of a Catholic university is that it represents a unique place for dialogue between the Gospel and culture. Programs and panels hosting invited speakers are encouraged, when appropriate, to foster interaction with the Catholic intellectual tradition. This is particularly the case with speakers who are addressing controversial issues. Such interaction can occur either simultaneously or arranged over time so that students can fully participate in a vital and consequential dialogue between diverse points of view and the Christian tradition. The host of the program shall endeavor to cultivate and encourage this spirited dialogue.

Performing Arts and Artistic Exhibitions

As with guest speakers, so artistic performances and exhibitions are a crucial and integral part of university life. Seton Hall, therefore, welcomes a wide-ranging spectrum of such expressions and events. These compelling cultural productions are of great benefit to the students and, indeed, to the entire university community.

Such performances and exhibitions, particularly when treating of controversial matters, should also interact with the Catholic tradition so that students are exposed to a rich and robust dialogue. For example, academic panels might be held, explaining the meaning of a contentious play or artistic exhibit and how it compares with the Christian understanding. By so doing, Seton Hall fulfills the mission of a Catholic university in two ways: by encouraging critical and creative thinking among the students and by offering a "living institutional witness to Christ and his message."

Honorary Degrees and Major University Awards

Although Seton Hall bestows many different kinds of honors and accolades, the interest here is with honorary degrees and major university awards. It is not our intention to establish guidelines for other awards, such as those conferred by an individual school, by student services or by other organizations. It is however encouraged that those bestowing honors consider carefully the standards associated with the major university awards and clearly articulate the reasons candidates are deserving of such recognition.

While speakers may be invited on campus to address a wide range of issues, and may at times express positions at odds with the Catholic identity of the university, honorary degree and major award recipients are publicly and proudly celebrated as embodying the values and beliefs represented and espoused by Seton Hall. Such recipients are lauded by the university as role models for the graduates. Traditionally, such awards have been reserved for those who have offered noteworthy service to humanity and whose views are, as appropriate, and with due appreciation for the constraints that may be required of certain professional roles, in fundamental accord with the Catholic identity of the university. As Ex Corde states, "any official action or commitment of the University is to be in accord with its Catholic identity." The bestowal of honorary degrees and major university awards is a significant way by which Seton Hall makes clear its most foundational principles and its most profound commitments.

Student Demonstrations

Seton Hall respects and recognizes its students' right to peaceful on-campus demonstrations, provided such events do not unduly prevent other activities from proceeding or infringe on the rights of others. The university reserves the right to regulate reasonably the time, place and manner of such expressions, just as it reserves the right to regulate reasonably other campus activities, to ensure that they do not disrupt the ordinary work of the university. On all these matters, we refer to a standing Seton Hall policy.

This statement was approved by the Board of Trustees on January 21, 2022.

While this Statement cannot address every issue or question that may arise, the Principles and Guidelines that constitute the Statement have been carefully composed to assist members of the university community with their planning and decision making. Of course, with all of the issues considered here, the application of prudential judgment is necessarily involved.