Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Volunteer-credits at Planned Parenthood 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." MinnPost

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.

MinnPost is a new web presence here in the TwinCities. It seems that much of the writing is coming from reporters who took early retirement buyouts from the Strib or the PPD or were laid off from those organizations, supplemented by free lance writers who are in plentiful supply around here.

If you've got time, MinnPost is a good place to check out after you have consulted your primary news sources.

WCCO story on this issue

KARE11 story on this issue

My letter to Scott Goldberg, the author of KARE11's news article:

Mr. Goldberg:

Relating to your story of April 30 on KARE11, I would be interested in learning why you did not inquire of Tara Borton as to why she enrolled in a Law School that has had a record for at least nine years of not allowing its students to get graduation credit for volunteering at Planned Parenthood, the largest killer of babies in the United States of America. Is that the kind of legal research she will be doing when she gets out into the rough and tumble world of crime and punishment, right and wrong, legal and illegal?

Maybe she should have prepared better?

Or did she think that a Catholic University Law School should change its policies just for her?

You may think that Planned Parenthood is not involved in the killing of babies. But if the driver of an automobile crashes negligently into a pregnant pedestrian or a car with a pregnant driver, at a minimum that driver will be charged with some form of manslaughter.

You may think that it is not a baby. The law does. It's only semantics and political contributions and pressure that have made the murder of babies, ending the lives of human fetuses, in abortion mills exempt from legal prosecution.

I won't inquire as to why you didn't interview anybody besides a Planned Parenthood employee to determine if there was support for Dean Thomas Mengler's position. Feel free to explain that, though.

Ray from MN


Anonymous said...

Thanks for covering this story, Ray!

Last night, Kare11 news at 10pm aired this story as their LEADING STORY!!!
But, Kare11 only interviewed Tara Borton--it offered absolutely no perspective in defense of the dean's decision. The coverage was incredibly one-sided, and made it sound like "then Dean Mengler" forbade students from volunteering to save lives and help with cancer research!!!

See Kare11's coverage here:

Please write Scott Goldberg (the reporter) about his biased and unfair treatment of UST Law and Dean Mengler.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the tip on KARE11's story, Elwin.

I wrote an email to Goldberg and posted it at the bottom of my original post.