WASHINGTON — The Catholic University of America's April 22 rejection of a student's bid to launch a campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has sparked a heated controversy — one that figures to still be percolating when students return to campus in the fall.
The school's primary reason for its negative response seems both simple and sensible. According to university spokesman Victor Nakas, the request “did not demonstrate the creation of this chapter would fill a need that wasn't already being met by existing organizations on campus.” According to Nakas, the decision was made by the school's division of student life.
The student behind the proposal, William Jawando, a 21-year-old graduate of the university who plans to return to its law school this fall, submitted the bid in November.
Catholic University has two organizations that represent its black students, the Black Organization of Students at The Catholic University of America and Minority Voices, an umbrella group for minority organizations on campus. Yet another organization, highly specialized, is the National Society of Black Engineers.
While redundancy with these other groups in itself proved decisive for the student-life division, a secondary reason might also have been considered: the NAACP's pro-abortion position.
“We did explain that the pro-abortion advocacy by the NAACP was of concern to us after we denied his application,” Nakas told the Register.
Pro-life advocates have taken notice.
Dolores Grier, a black woman who formerly served as vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of New York, supports the initial denial.
“They should not accept that organization into the school,” she said, “because they are not in accord with the teachings of the Catholic Church on abortion.”
In the past, Grier was invited to be the woman of the year by a New York City branch of the NAACP, but she declined the offer because of the organization's stand on abortion.
“We think this is wonderful,” said Cardinal Newman Society founder and president Patrick Reilly. “It's a clear sign that Catholic University is willing to take on a powerful organization in defense of its Catholic identity.”
Reilly, whose organization seeks to restore Catholic identity in Catholic colleges and universities, sees room for the university to renegotiate its current relationship with the NAACP.
“The proposal was rejected for two reasons that would be quite legitimate,” he said. “If the NAACP wants to renounce abortion, then at least one of those reasons would be eliminated.”
Kweisi Mfume, NAACP president and chief executive, held a press conference June 4 across the street from Catholic University's campus in Washington, D.C.
“This is outright discrimination, bigotry, prejudice and intolerance all rolled into one,” he said before threatening legal action.
Founded 95 years ago, the NAACP has chapters at 150 colleges, including such Catholic universities as Georgetown, Fordham and St. John's.
Vincentian Father David O'Connell, president of the Catholic University of America, met on the university's campus with Mfume on June 16 for a “frank and open” discussion. Also present at the meeting were Jawando, an NAACP counsel, Nakas and others.
A statement released by the university after the meeting explained that Father O'Connell praised the NAACP and said, “I don't believe our institution discriminates against people of color. My heart is broken that we are being perceived and presented in such a negative light.”
Last fall, blacks accounted for 386 of Catholic University's 5,740 students, undergrads and graduates combined.
Further, Father O'Connell indicated the NAACP's Feb. 24 press release stating that the NAACP had adopted a “historical pro-choice position” concerned him. Father O'Connell said that, if an NAACP chapter were to be formed on the campus, it could not promote abortion because that was against the university's “values and mission.”
At the meeting, Mfume explained that the pro-abortion position was not held by the full membership of the NAACP. He would be willing to stipulate in writing, he added, that an NAACP chapter on Catholic University's campus would not adopt positions contrary to the school's mission — as long as the same was required of all student organizations on the university's campus.
Father O'Connell was pleased with the NAACP's “expressions of flexibility on the abortion issue and its readiness to approve a chapter that would not engage in or promote activities contrary to the university's mission.”
During the meeting, Mfume called on Father O'Connell to take immediate action to reverse the decision, vowing to challenge the university “in the court of law and the court of public opinion.”
Father O'Connell pledged to Jawando and the NAACP representatives that he would meet with students when they return in the fall to re-evaluate the original decision.
“We need to have all our students come together and have a full discussion,” Father O'Connell said. “That's how to resolve [the matter]. If the result of that is change, then we will change.”
In the meantime, Catholic University is keeping the door open to dialogue with Jawando.
“From our perspective,” Nakas said, “there is no reason why this unfortunate controversy cannot be resolved in a manner that respects the responsibilities of the university, the requirement of the Catholic Church that sponsors it and the needs of our minority students.”
Mary Ann Sullivan writes from New Durham, New Hampshire.
- July 4-10, 2004