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For Tara Borton, choosing a place to volunteer over the summer for school credit was a no-brainer. The first-year student at the University of St. Thomas School of Law was interested in women's issues, so she decided to donate her time to Planned Parenthood.
"I'd volunteered there when I lived in Florida," Borton explains. "I wanted to get involved again."
But Borton's choice, hardly worth a second glance at most schools, has become the latest political controversy to roil the University of St. Thomas. Last summer, St. Thomas infamously disinvited Archbishop Desmond Tutu from speaking on campus for fears that his Palestinian-friendly remarks would offend Jews. Shortly thereafter, a deal with Allina Hospitals & Clinics to set up a medical school fell through amid whispers that St. Thomas's Catholic views would be incompatible with standard medical training on sexual and reproductive health.
The latest controversy has forced St. Thomas's law school to weigh its secular, prestige-oriented ambitions, underlined by its recent ascension to third-tier status in the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings, against the pressure to hew to the Catholic Church's doctrinaire leadership, reinforced by Pope Benedict's stern speech to Catholic educators during his recent visit to America.
The current fracas was set in motion earlier this month, when Borton sought permission to meet her public service requirements by spending the summer working for Planned Parenthood. All students are required to complete 50 hours of volunteer service—anything from pro bono legal work for the poor to building houses for Habitat for Humanity—in an effort to encourage them to serve the needy.
Following standard procedure, Borton took her request to the Public Service Board, a student-run committee charged with lining up volunteer opportunities and deciding which projects are worthy of students' time. Last Monday, after a tense, hour-long deliberation, the board issued its decision: In a 10-4 vote, it ruled that Borton could work at Planned Parenthood on cancer treatment, adoption services, and sexually transmitted disease testing, but would have to refrain from any volunteer work involving contraception or abortion.
"They tried to strike a balance," says Vincent Thomas, the assistant dean who oversees the student board. "They said, 'You can do certain things that would benefit the disadvantaged, but nothing to contravene the school's core values.'"
Within hours, Dean Thomas Mengler's email inbox was flooded with dozens of angry emails from faculty, students, and alumni. The messages shared a common question: How can St. Thomas, as a Catholic institution, lend volunteer support to Planned Parenthood, a notorious facilitator of abortions?
Mengler acted swiftly. In an open letter he sent out the next day, before the board's decision had been publicly announced, the dean overruled the vote. "Volunteer service at Planned Parenthood, whatever the nature of that service, advances the mission of Planned Parenthood, an organization whose mission is fundamentally at odds with a core value of the Catholic Church," Mengler wrote.
But his edict was muddied by school bylaws, which don't explicitly grant the dean authority to overrule the Public Service Board without a grievance from the volunteer in question. By claiming that authority, Mengler angered a large contingent of students. Though the school is hunkered down for final exams, 80 students found time to sign an open letter challenging the dean's authority.
"A vocal minority of students and faculty were allowed to overturn a decision by a representative student body without a formal appeals process," the students wrote. "Law school has taught us to be proud of living in a democracy where people—right or wrong—are allowed their day in court and their opportunity to be heard. Ours has been denied."
Mengler, reached by City Pages on Monday, defended his decision, pointing out that students can still volunteer wherever they want—on their own time. "In my six years as a dean, this is the first time I have intervened with a student group in this way to ensure our identity as a Catholic institution," Mengler said.
Borton plans to appeal to Mengler to reverse his decision. If he doesn't, she says, she'll apply for a waiver from the volunteer requirement.
Regardless of what happens, Mick Conlan, a former Marine and first-year student at the law school, worries that the controversy will tarnish the degree he's pursuing.
"It sucks to spend $120,000 on a legal education that will be basically laughed at by other members of the community," he says.