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Lecturer Dismissed from Catholic University for Class Content “Unaligned with Mission and Identity”


Photo Credit: PEN America


The politically polarized atmosphere in the United States around reproductive rights following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which had established access to abortion as a federal right, continues to have a serious impact on academic freedom. Especially in states with legislatures and governors that strongly oppose abortion, faculty are increasingly under pressure as colleges, facing threats like being sued or have their state funding taken away, act quickly to prevent professors from speaking about controversial issues. Endangered Scholars Worldwide (ESW) had recently covered the case of Tamara Kay, who was targeted with a campaign to oust her from her job at the University of Notre Dame. Kay was accused of promoting abortion after she posted signs on her office door about access to healthcare.

 

The impact of this polarized atmosphere created by the overturning of Roe v. Wade has reached beyond the states with the toughest crackdowns on access to abortion. Melissa Goldberg, a lecturer at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. was fired from her position because the content of one of her classes was deemed unacceptable. On January 30, 2024 the university’s President Peter Kilpatrick, announced in a letter addressed to students and staff that after reviewing evidence on the content of Goldberg’s class, they decided to fire her because the material was not “consistent with [their] mission and identity as a faithful Catholic university”.[1] The class in question took place on January 23, 2024 when Goldberg invited Rachel Carbonneau, the director of an organization called “Family Ways” that provides doula services, to talk to her “Lifespan Development” class about her experiences.[2] According to Carbonneau’s statements to Inside Higher Ed, they had an open discussion about anything the students were interested in concerning  her work. During the discussion, one of the students asked about abortion. Another student in the classroom recorded Carbonneau’s statements about her experiences with abortion and then shared them with several conservative media outlets. As a consequence, Goldberg and Carbonneau started facing pressure within and outside of the university. Carbonneau even received death threats after the recording was made public. Goldberg was fired from her job after a week.

 

PEN America criticized Goldberg’s dismissal and called it a “gross violation of academic freedom”.[3] They underlined that although, the Catholic University is not legally obligated to uphold the First Amendment within their campus as a religious university, this decision severely contradicts the university’s self-proclaimed commitment to upholding academic freedom.[4] Catholic University of America is also on the censure list of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).[5] The 1990-dated censure was issued because the university placed restrictions on the teachings of one of its faculty members following pressure from the Vatican.[6]

 

As polarization over highly contested issues such as abortion and reproductive rights remains high in the United States, it can only be expected that universities will continue being impacted. ESW calls on all university administrations in the US to uphold the right of all faculty members to freely teach and disseminate their work. Furthermore, we call upon the Catholic University of America to reinstate Goldberg to her position. It is the responsibility of university administrations to ensure universities remain places of free knowledge production and public debate.


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