Burcham reacts to unanimous Trustees’ vote on abortion

Originally published by the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Trustees’ vote unanimous – The Los Angeles Loyolan.

President David W. Burcham is ready to move this university forward. LMU’s chief administrator has spent the last eight weeks dealing with what he’s described as a “debate,” a “dialogue” and a process filled with “creative tension.” He, of course, is referring to the tension over removing elective abortion coverage from faculty and staff health care plans, decided this past Monday by vote of the Board of Trustees.

Now that the Board has unanimously voted to cut the coverage – while instituting a still to-be-specified Third Party Administrator (TPA)-managed plan that would allow faculty and staff to pay an additional premium for said coverage – Burcham is preparing to face some disgruntled community members on both sides of the issue. He’ll have the opportunity to do just that in one week’s time, when he addresses the LMU community in his convocation address.

It was a tense few weeks – stressful, he acknowledges with a laugh that feels like he’s releasing his anxiety and turning the page. But it won’t be as easy as laughing things off, which is why he’s not quite feeling relief.

“I know that we need to continue to discuss what it means to be a Catholic university,” he told the Loyolan in a sit-down interview the morning after the vote. “But I think more than anything, it’s anticipation of good things to come.”

‘Somewhat opaque in how this unfolded’

Weeks before the academic year began, the issue that would come to dominate the first half of the semester came to light: LMU had dropped elective abortion coverage from one of its faculty and staff health care plans. Or, they were planning to. Or, they were considering it. It wasn’t immediately clear.

According to a letter from Burcham and Board of Trustees Chair Kathleen Aikenhead, Board of Trustees Chair Kathleen Aikenhead, University officials have inquired with both of its health care providers, Anthem and Kaiser, about dropping elective abortion coverage in the past, but it was never a possible option. This year, however, Anthem made it an option and removed coverage – according to the letter – without the University’s knowledge. Kaiser was set to allow dropping of the coverage in January of next year.

When faculty and staff learned of the change, there were questions. Why weren’t faculty and staff consulted? Was the change permanent?

“I don’t think the process was handled very well from the beginning,” Nora A. Murphy, an assistant professor of psychology, said the day after the decision. “The Board and the President were somewhat opaque in how this unfolded.”

Fast forward through weeks of debate, dialogue and a highly anticipated Board of Trustees meeting, and the coverage is cut. Is LMU experiencing debate hangover?

“I don’t view it as a hangover; I view it as an ongoing process,” Burcham said. “And I think that’s something that’s really important for the community.”

The debate is over – for now. The new question is less “how did this happen,” and more “where do we go from here?”

‘Rip the school asunder’

In the Oct. 7 edition of the New York Times, a story appeared about a reported “rift” at LMU over the debate. The Times’ article brought national attention to the issue. Reporter Ian Lovett inferred about the story was that the abortion debate “threatened to rip the school asunder.”

“I would not have used that phrase,” Burcham said of the Times article. “I think that it, in some respects, brought out a strong quality of our community, that most of the discussion debates were civil; they were conducted with civility and respect for the varying views that people had. I think that’s the sign of a strong community.”

Strong as it may be, LMU has been suddenly brought to the forefront of an international conversation about abortion and the Catholic Church after Pope Francis’ comments in his first interview last month. Yet LMU isn’t alone.

“There’s not a Jesuit university in the entire country that won’t have to confront an issue like this – or hasn’t already confronted an issue like this,” Burcham said. “I don’t think it signifies anything other than that we have had this issue to deal with and done it in the most constructive way that we could.”

Internationally, what it means to be Catholic is a conversation that is just beginning. That’s reflected on our campus, according to Burcham, as “the need for much more dialogue among all of us as to what it means to be a university, as to what it means to be a Catholic university in the Jesuit and Marymount traditions” is now a priority for us.

The line between being Catholic and being a university “gets difficult on issues that have been politicized,” Burcham said. “That’s where you have people with strong opinions on an issue that are hard at times to reconcile. It’s a challenge, and the best we can do is to understand in a very full way what it means to be Jesuit and Catholic … and be faithful to that while, at the same time, keeping in mind our diverse community.”

ASLMU President Shawn Troedson, who was an ex oficio – or non-participatory –attendee of the Board of Trustees meeting, echoed Burcham’s call for a conversation, even among students. “I’m hopeful that students will continue to talk about everything,” she said. “The good and the bad.”

This dialogue is vital under LMU’s promise of academic freedom, a huge point of contention for Burcham. It’s something he said he will “go to the mat” for, as academic freedom is not only a cornerstone of the Jesuit and Marymount traditions, but of a university.

‘A constellation of interpersonal relationships’

Burcham will offer a coda of sorts on the last eight weeks in his convocation address next week. Though he’s still developing the speech, he’s sure that moving forward and focusing on all the great parts of LMU will be major pillars.

“We’re doing amazing things in a lot of areas,” he said. “I don’t want people to lose sight of that, and I want them to feel good about that.”

Along with the general State of the University theme, Burcham will focus on a theme of Dialogue and Reconciliation – including both how to move on and exactly how important it is, in the face of conflict, to build interpersonal relationships.

“When you think about LMU, most people think about buildings and architecture and views of the ocean and the marina,” Burcham said. “But when you really think about it, LMU is a constellation of interpersonal relationships, students-to-faculty, students-to-students and so forth. As the quality of those relationships strengthens or improves, LMU strengthens and improves.”

With those strong interpersonal relationships comes the ability to have the conversation necessary for moving forward – and after all the struggle and tension over the past eight weeks, Burcham is absolutely ready to move forward.

Abortion won’t be the last major issue that LMU faces – as Murphy, the psychology professor, warns, the University now faces a potentially slippery slope. But Burcham said he’s aware and excited for the University’s next chapter.

“It’s partly because I’m an optimist,” he admitted. “But it’s mainly because I have great faith in the collective wisdom of our faculty, staff and students.”

He smiled. “I love this place.”


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