June 16, 2004
Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., president of The Catholic University of America, met today on the university’s campus with Kweisi Mfume, president and CEO of the NAACP to discuss the decision by the university’s Division of Student Life in April to reject an application to form an NAACP chapter on CUA’s campus.
Also present were William Jawando, the CUA student who originally petitioned for the chapter; Angela Ciccolo, deputy general counsel of the NAACP; Brandon T. Neal, national director of the Youth, College and Young Adult Division of the NAACP; Professor of Sociology Dean Hoge, who has served as the student’s faculty adviser in this matter; and Victor Nakas, executive director of public affairs at Catholic University.
Father O’Connell characterized the meeting as “open, full, frank, candid and respectful,” and Mr. Mfume concurred.
During the nearly hour-long meeting, Father O’Connell explained the rationale used by the Division of Student Life in denying Mr. Jawando’s request to form a chapter of the NAACP on the university’s campus. He said the university’s staff informed him that they turned down the request out of a desire to consolidate, not multiply, the number of student organizations on campus and because of concerns over the NAACP’s support for abortion rights.
Several times in the course of the meeting Father O’Connell “pledged” to Mr. Jawando and to the NAACP representatives to meet personally with students when they return in the fall to reevaluate the original decision. Responding to Mr. Jawando’s observation that the university administration doesn’t understand the need that the NAACP would fill that is not currently being met by existing organizations, Father O’Connell responded: “That’s why we need to have all our students come together and have a full discussion. That’s how to resolve [the matter].” Saying he has an “obligation to hear the students out,” he added that “If the result of that is change, then we will change.”
Mr. Mfume pressed Father O’Connell to reverse the decision denying a chapter without delay, calling it discriminatory and targeted specifically against the NAACP. Barring that immediate action, he vowed to challenge the university “in the court of law and the court of public opinion.”
On the question of abortion, Father O’Connell pointed out that the issuance by the NAACP of a February 24 press release indicating that the NAACP had adopted, in the words of the release, a “historical pro-choice position” was a source of concern and that, were a chapter of the NAACP to be formed on CUA’s campus, it could not advocate such a position, because that would run counter to the university’s values and mission.
Mr. Mfume responded that the pro-choice position had been adopted by the NAACP’s board of directors, not its full membership.
Ms. Ciccolo added that were an NAACP chapter to be formed on Catholic University’s campus it would not be required to adopt positions or engage in activities that were contrary to Catholic University’s mission. Mr. Mfume said that he would support an NAACP chapter on CUA’s campus making such a stipulation in writing if the same was required of all student organizations on the university’s campus.
Father O’Connell expressed his happiness over 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.
Father O’Connell praised the NAACP for its historic role in the struggle for civil rights and pointed out that the Catholic Church had joined in that struggle. As for Catholic University, he assured Mr. Mfume that “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,” added Father O’Connell.
Although Mr. Mfume endorsed a different strategy entailing legal action, Father O’Connell expressed the hope that the issue could be resolved on campus with the university’s students, not through a court of law. He thanked Mr. Mfume for agreeing to the meeting and expressed the hope that Mr. Mfume would be open to future conversations with him.
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