A match made in Heaven? Catholic colleges and defense research

By: Rachel Cain – News Editor

Throughout the 1960s, a debate circulated throughout UD’s campus as to whether the university should continue its ROTC program, considering the bleak shadow cast by the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, a controversy started surrounding optical computing research in Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative. In the 1990s, faculty investigated the ethical concerns in advances in stem cell research. UD has long been a place to provoke thought and insight about different public policy matters. The debate and challenge it faces today may be about conducting military and defense research at a Catholic institution.

At an academic senate meeting on Dec. 11, the senate, faculty and audience members discussed the draft of “A Statement on Conducting Research at the University of Dayton in Light of Our Catholic and Marianist Values.” Although the statement is about research in general at the university, this discussion sparked debate over what the university should or should not be investing its research in, particularly with regards to defense research.

The draft, written by the Rev. James Fitz, vice president for mission and rector, and John Leland, Ph.D., P.E., vice president for research and executive director of the research institute, was a response to questions raised in January 2015 by two of the board of trustees standing committees—the Committee on Research and Scholarship and the Mission & Identity Committee—regarding how research at UD corresponds to its Catholic and Marianist Identity.

According to Fitz and Leland’s draft, “Catholic intellectual and Marianist traditions inform and motivate areas for research and scholarship at the University. Hence, the University has a commitment to explore, develop and promote the betterment of humankind in areas such as the improvement of health, the protection of human rights, and the responsible stewardship of creation.”

The drafted document also delves into the research conducted at UD with regards to defense and military operations. The document will undergo further edits and changes prior to its presentation to the board of trustees. The draft is a statement and does not reflect any policy changes at UD.

According to the statement, “The University engages in significant sponsored research for the defense of our nation and protection of our military personnel. The Catholic Church calls for peaceful resolution of disputes without resorting to armed defense.”

Furthermore, the draft stated, “Defense research at the University of Dayton, therefore, follows the basic principles of the Catholic Church’s ‘just war’ doctrine and international agreements including the Geneva Conventions. These principles lead the university specifically to avoid knowingly conducting or participating in research on the development of chemical, biological, nuclear or indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction.”

Andrew Slade, Ph.D., chair of the department of English and secretary of the academic senate, presented an overview of the comments and feedback he had received from faculty members about the draft.

Slade noted that the comments he received could be placed into five categories: concerns about content, concerns about the implications of the document, statements of concurrence or agreement, specific language or edits and expressions of feelings, “in particular feelings of fear and being excluded,” Slade clarified.

“One concern [about content] is that the statement seems anthropocentric,” Slade said.

Anthropocentrism is the belief that humans are the most important beings in the universe, including God.

Another concern Slade noted is that the draft “insufficiently engaged with contemporary thinking in the ‘just war’ tradition. And, this matter in particular the statement is silent on positive obligations to peace-making.”

Faculty who observed that the drafted document did not correspond with current “just war” doctrine responded through documents and letters.
The Religious Studies Department unanimously approved a document that provides comments and recommendations for Fitz and Leland’s draft, including some regarding “just war” doctrine.

The department contends the discussion of “just war” with regards to Catholic Social Teaching needs to be “corrected, expanded and nuanced.”

For example, the department contends the use of “discriminate” weapons is immoral in an unjust war, that building weapons is not a “necessary part of a Catholic institution’s mission,” and that the draft’s use of just war “seems disconnected from other objectives of the University’s mission…including diversity, dialogue, and preparation for living in a global environment.”

A letter signed by 24 faculty members from seven departments raised several objections to the drafted document, including that the two aspects of “just war” doctrine, “jus ad bellum” (resort to war) and “jus in bello” (conduct during war) are “addressed in an insufficient manner in the draft document.”
“Here we see the dangerous blurring of the line between actual self-defense and preemptive war, the latter of which is morally prohibited and legally unsubstantiated,” the letter said. “That the critical complexities of ‘jus ad bellum’ are barely addressed in the statement signals an open-ended support for war that has become increasingly and problematically common in the post-9/11 era.”

The letter noted that “jus in bello,” conduct during the war, is referred to in “A Statement on Conducting Research at the University of Dayton in Light of Our Catholic and Marianist Values” by the university’s prohibition on chemical, biological, nuclear or indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction.

According to the letter, “The constraints of ‘just war’ theory far exceed the burden not to produce nuclear or biological weapons. The ‘indiscriminateness’ of weapons deployed from the sky, for instance, demands clearer stipulation given the tragically high rates of civilian casualties; the recent prohibition on the use of antipersonnel landmines provides a useful example. Rapid advances in military technology such as those UDRI is presumably working on are unsettled as matters of international law and the morality of their usage is highly controversial.”

The letter also noted that “we recognize the need to justify the research conducted by the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) as it pertains to the University’s mission, and broader notions of law and morality. However, we cannot support this policy statement for its failure to comply with widely accepted norms of international law and human rights.”

“I guess if there’s a question,” said Joel Pruce, Ph.D., a political science professor and one of the signatories to the letter, “that it would be if the statement is going to be revised and moved up to the board of trustees, that certain of these very important concepts, that are dear to the faculty here with the Human Rights Studies Program and the Human Rights Center, should at least be dealt with, with more care and concern.”

“From time to time, the question has been raised about whether DoD research performed at UD is in keeping with the Marianist and Catholic values and beliefs of the University,” Allan Crasto, Ph.D., associate director of UDRI, wrote in an email interview. “In answer to this, we are very careful about selecting the type of research we perform. UD has a policy regarding restrictions on research that can be performed and, in addition, UDRI itself has a vetting process with several levels of approval to ensure projects not only comply with the University’s policies, but that they also align with our Catholic and Marianist values.”

Leland explained that in their research to develop their drafted statement, they communicated with other Catholic colleges about their research. These conversations are already starting to take place.

“We did a fairly extensive looking at what other Catholic universities are doing, and in my endeavors to uncover what they do, I actually provoked some of the same questioning at their universities,” Leland said at the meeting. “There’s nothing out there like what we have at UD, but there’s universities like us realizing that they need to…seriously consider this issue and have a stance on it.”

Fitz acknowledged that these issues would require much time and much discussion to resolve.

“There are issues within the university that have not been solved, in terms of like our relationship to the Department of Defense,” Fitz said. “This was not trying to at all solve that question because those will be debated I think for a long time here at the university. But, it was an attempt to state where we are at the present.”

“I think that having an open dialogue like this is not only good for our university, it’s good for our country,” Leland said.
Carissa Kane, the senate president, explained that the next steps for the drafted documents would include the Executive Committee of the Academic Senate meeting with Fitz and Leland to discuss more specific edits to be made to the draft.

The Department of Defense has invested money in research at UD since 1949. That first investment helped create an arm of research that eventually grew into UDRI.

“Approximately 78 percent of the sponsored research conducted at UD is funded by federal agencies, including the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Energy, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and others,” Crasto said. “In [fiscal year 2015] UD’s sponsored research expenditures were approximately $99 million; hence, UD expended approximately $77 million of this amount on federally sponsored projects.”

“This money [from the Department of Defense] is used to research, develop, test and evaluate a variety of technologies of interest to the DoD,” Crasto continued. “Primary technical areas are materials, mechanics & structures, traditional and alternative sources of energy, sensor technologies, human performance, and the sustainment of aging systems…Technology developed under DoD sponsorship can often be applied to commercial projects as well, which generate industrial research revenue and also potential licensing fees for the university.”

In an interview with Flyer News, Fitz elaborated that research conducted at UD should not focus solely on defense and militarization, but also on peace and social justice.

“You’re never going to eliminate war unless you create a society that’s just,” Fitz said.

Fitz said that we are “at a transitional point in the history of humanity,” and that the world “needs an international organization to mediate disputes.” He does not believe the United Nations currently has enough power to uphold international justice.

“Any work we do with the Department of Defense is in the context of self-defense,” Fitz said.

However, it is this very concept of “self-defense” that has provoked some of the conversation about the matter.

“The debate is where do you draw the line,” Fitz said. “People of good will can have different opinions.”

“The debate is where do you draw the line. People of good will can have different opinions.”

“The policy and statement allows for research on war in if done for reasons of self-defense, but there is questions about where self-defense ends and preemptive war begins,” Erin Dingle, a senior political science and history double major and academic senate student representative wrote in an email interview. “This is also an issue about just limiting research to the ‘development of chemical, biological, nuclear or indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction’ because there is no clear definition of these kinds of weapons.”

“I cannot speak for all the students on the academic senate, but I can speak for myself when I say that after hearing more discussion on the topic, the statement seems to be encouraging research that is to help the military,” Dingle wrote. “This also suggests that we should not question what the military does, which we should never do. By questioning our actions and our leaders’ actions allows us to grow as a people and create a better way of conducting war.”

Andrew Eckrich, senior mechanical engineering major, recommends students engage each other in conversation about this issue.

“Just like the other issues that are being debated across the country and here at UD, speaking to people in person and in a constructive way is the only way to benefit from such discussion,” Eckrich said in an email interview.

He also remarked that most importantly “faculty who are involved in both University academics and UDRI (or [Wright Patterson Air Force Base]) research can be great resources in this discussion. They provide an insider’s viewpoint which is so valuable to understand rather than attacking or otherwise dismissing someone’s career and passion without knowing their side of the story.”

“Human life is human life, and even if UD is not directly developing nuclear warheads or biological weapons, much military research certainly falls in the gray area between protecting life and destroying it,” Eckrich said. “In short, I believe that as a Catholic institution we should be working for peace and prosperity rather than toeing the line of enabling destruction. After all, foreign enemies are still our human brothers and sisters.”

Photo of the university’s Chapel of the Immaculate Conception by Multimedia Editor Chris Santucci.