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Dorm life, policies elicit mixed emotions

Justin Tardiff | Friday, November 18, 2005

And our hearts forever, love thee, Notre Dame.

It’s a lyric that evokes emotion for tens of thousands of swaying, fist-pounding fans at the close of home football games. But even among the ranks of the Notre Dame faithful, there are disillusioned students for whom “forever” has lost its meaning.

“I love this place, and now I’m to the point where I’m going to transfer … I never thought I’d be here,” said a male junior who wished to remain anonymous. “It makes me sad. At this point last year, I wanted to stay in college forever. Now I can’t wait to get out.”

The junior, who recently paid his fourth visit to the Office of Residence Life and Housing, said he felt the University had been excessively severe and unreasonable given his particular violations.

He represents three generations of Domers, but he thinks it might end there.

“Which is really sad, for the future,” he said. “Kids like me are going to leave this school, and I don’t know if I want my kids to come here.”

It’s not every student, or even a majority of students. But students who are frustrated with the University’s residential system and disciplinary policies raise important questions about what direction Notre Dame will take in the future.

“You should leave here and go to Michigan State”

University founder Father Edward Sorin had a vision that Notre Dame would become “one of the most powerful means for good in this country.”

Today’s vision of the future Notre Dame is a little more concrete: four new dorms, cable and wireless in every dorm, an off-campus commercial district and a new or renovated student center.

And Notre Dame’s traditional residence life system is a big part of that picture.

“I think one of the things that multiple studies we’ve done in the last couple of years has told us is that in many ways, residential life is working at Notre Dame really well,” Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Ann Firth told The Observer in September. “Students enjoy the experience – they might like more space, they might like a few more features, but overall there’s a great sense of community.”

But some students say that community is pushing them away.

A female junior said when she tried to reason with a staff member of the Office of Residence Life and Housing this fall, explaining that she would pay her fine and do her service hours but didn’t need counseling, she was told Notre Dame wasn’t right for her.

“In an unnecessarily confrontational tone, [the staff member] told me, ‘That’s not the way we work here at Notre Dame. We see people like you who are obviously heading down the path to destruction, and we want to stop you before you hurt yourself even further. If you just want punishment for what you’ve done, you should leave here and go to Michigan State,'” the junior said.

The junior had returned to her dorm one night a few days after a painful breakup with her boyfriend. She had been drinking off campus and came back to the dorm crying, surrounded by friends trying to comfort her.

“The AR and the rector followed us to my room and questioned me about the night,” the junior said. “I coherently explained that I was really upset about this guy dumping me and I just wanted to go to bed. Upon hearing this, the rector said, ‘Well, I’ve been dumped by a guy before and I’ve never acted like this.'”

She said she was sent to the Office of Residence Life and Housing for “being intoxicated underage in the dorm.”

The process wasn’t “as bad as everyone says … it was 10,000 times worse,” she said.

Her bigger problem, however, was with the way she said her rector handled the situation.

“The day after the incident I described, I went to my rector’s room and opened my heart to her. When a person comes to their rector in need, they should not immediately be sent away to counseling,” she said. “That, I believe, is a fundamental problem with my own rector, and probably many other rectors here on campus, and it’s one of the major reasons that has pushed me to find off-campus housing for senior year.”

It’s not just students in trouble with the Office of Residence Life and Housing who feel the need to get off campus.

Senior Caitlin Evans moved off campus this year – an easy decision after spending a semester in Dublin, Ireland, she said.

“By the time you’re a senior, you’re ready to move out,” Evans said. “The support is great when you’re a freshman … but it can become kind of restrictive.”

“This place is not a paradise”

No co-ed, athlete-only or senior-only dorms. No Greek life. Chapels in every hall.

These aspects, said Director of Admissions Dan Saracino, make Notre Dame’s residential life “truly unique” and attract prospective students.

“There’s a sense of community that exists in Notre Dame halls that distinguishes us from virtually every school in the country,” Saracino said.

But that community isn’t perfect.

“This place is not a paradise by any means,” Saracino said. “I returned here [from California] because while I really believe it’s not perfect, it’s a very special place … I think the social life surely needs to be improved on campus and I’m hoping it will be [with the] property development south of campus.”

Saracino was referring to the future residential and retail development along the Eddy Corridor, an idea formally proposed by Notre Dame and South Bend officials last spring.

Saracino mentioned the “natural tension” about discipline that exists between students and administrators at an “intense academic institution.”

“I am concerned,” he said. “I’m concerned the students don’t have as many options [in terms of social life]. Drinking, I think, is more than it should be.”

His thoughts on the future?

“We’re not trying to be a Harvard, a Stanford or whatever – we’re just trying to be Notre Dame,” Saracino said. “I think the campus development plan is really going to develop the social life.”

The male junior mentioned above, however, has serious doubts about Notre Dame’s social scene.

“I think what’s going to happen is with incoming classes you’re going to get a school that’s not as social. You’re going to find kids who find out from other people that Notre Dame’s not that social,” he said. “As far as the future’s concerned … if they continue to alienate the student body, know what you’re getting into, because I certainly didn’t.”

His first three ResLifes came during his sophomore year. Two of the three happened after he had been “drinking responsibly,” he said.

After the third ResLife, he was told he had a week to move out of his dorm and placed on disciplinary probation until the end of the year, he said.

“You sit here telling me you think I have a problem, and you’re telling me to go sleep on somebody’s couch,” he said.

He said his fourth violation came when he was at a tailgate hosted by his parents celebrating his sister’s engagement to another recent Notre Dame graduate, while toasting with champagne.

Then he was approached by a group of Notre Dame Security/Police, Indiana State Excise Police and St. Joseph County Police officers and cited for minor in possession, he said.

He went to the Office of Residence Life and Housing and was given disciplinary probation through his senior year and 40 hours of community service.

Twelve days later, he received a letter from the Office saying “they, as a group, have decided” to send him to an intensive outpatient program to deal with his alleged alcohol problem, he said.

“My dad is up in arms,” he said. “My parents … my dad kind of wants me to leave. [And he’s always said] I can never quit anything in my life.”

He believes the University will be forced to clarify its policies in the future.

“When they do crack down, its so like, why did I get picked out, when there’s a tailgate three cars down the road with girls puking,” the junior said. “A kid sitting in a truck with his parents shouldn’t be ticketed. The University either has to take a stand on wet or dry. If it’s going to be wet, it should be wet and they shouldn’t crack tailgates.”

He’s been confused about policy enforcement since his freshman year, when he said his assistant rector applauded him after he threw a party with more than 1,000 beers.

“I was told I did a great job [since everyone was in the rooms], that I was a model for other kids, to the point that he would tell other kids to come talk to me,” he said. “I’m an 18-year-old freshman, I just held a party with a ton of people and beer, and I’m a role model, you know?”

These discrepancies frustrate students, he said. And they “alienate the student body.”

“They [administrative officials] are sitting up there all high and mighty,” he said. “Yeah, we are privileged to go here. But you should be f***ing privileged to have us. We make it a top academic school. There’s a lot of special people at this school … There shouldn’t be this animosity, tension between administration and student body at a Catholic institution. There should be at least the idea of penance and not the Gestapo.”

No “mass exodus”

As student body president, senior Dave Baron has dealt with the University administration more than the average student.

“Anytime I’ve been wanting to talk about a specific issue, they’re willing to talk about it,” he said.

But when asked if he felt the administration was open to change, Baron’s response shifted.

“In a lot of ways, no,” he said. “They’ve already been through the discussion [on certain issues]. I think they are willing to hear and talk about those issues, but [arguments] are not something they’ll necessarily listen to.”

Baron said he doesn’t predict a major change in residential life at Notre Dame.

As he pointed out, there hasn’t been a “mass exodus” of students moving off-campus since the ban on hard alcohol sparked uproar in 2002.

The numbers have been increasing, however, slowly but steadily.

In the past five years, the number of seniors living off-campus has increased from 54 percent to 58 percent, according to the Office of Institutional Research’s 2005 Factbook. In 1996, 50 percent of seniors lived off-campus.

In the past five years, the number of juniors living off-campus has increased from 10 percent to 12 percent. Overall, the number of students living off-campus has increased from 17 to 19 percent.

“I think the main thing is students do like the residential hall system,” Baron said, “keeping the dorm identity, keeping the tight-knit community.”

But for students like the male junior, torn between equal amounts anger and passion, it’s hard to know what to think about Notre Dame.

“It was one of the worst days of my life when I got waitlisted here,” he said. “I love this school, which sucks … I just love this school.”