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Thrown into a new job’

Megan Doyle | Thursday, December 2, 2010

Years before he was appointed Vice President for Student Affairs, Fr. Tom Doyle operated under a different title at Notre Dame — student body president.

“I remember I was just a kid from a small town in Washington state. After I was elected, I was worried I was not presidential enough. I talk slow and I have sort of folksy ways about me,” Doyle said. “I remember for the first couple of months trying to be what I thought was presidential but it was so hard for me because I was not good at it. I was not good at not being myself.”

Doyle served as student body president during his senior year at Notre Dame from 1988 to 1989, and his experience as an undergraduate leader stuck with him as he returned to campus to work for the University.

“Whenever you are thrown into a new job or new profession, there is not a platonic form of student body president or leader or priest. That role needs to become part of who you are. Coming back here to Notre Dame, I assumed a new role and have to constantly remind myself that I have to be the best version of me I can be,” Doyle said.

Dealing with the administration as a student prepared Doyle to be an administrator himself.

“I found that the administrators really cared a lot about students,” Doyle said. “As I think about myself now, I hope I am as good at understanding and navigating for students as an administrator as my administrators were for me.”

Doyle said he also learned how to handle criticism during his time as student body president.

“It is not such a terrible thing to have people critique or disagree or take issue with what you are doing or the way you are doing it,” he said. “You have to be convicted that you are following the values that you think are important to you and the promises you have made.”

Doyle began his career in student government as the president of Grace Hall during his junior year. Michael Paese, a friend of Doyle’s, suggested the two run for student body president and vice president despite their limited student government experience.

“We were outsiders. We were not student government insiders,” Doyle said. “We did not know how everything ran. But we kept talking about it.”

Despite his misgivings, Doyle and Paese turned their conversations into a campaign. During the weeks leading up to their election, the team campaigned by knocking on the door to every room in every residence hall.

Doyle said he and Paese saw the 1988 presidential election between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as an important part of their own term. The team led a voter registration and education drive, which registered over 2,000 students to vote, and held debates on election issues.

“It was our insight that Notre Dame is the premier Catholic university in the country,” he said. “Notre Dame and Notre Dame students should be at the forefront of issues that affect our country.”

Doyle said many of the same issues mattered students during his term are still important for the current student body. Current student body president Catherine Soler and vice president Andrew Bell focused on community relations after a spike in student arrests and tensions with South Bend police at the beginning of the year, and problems between students and police plagued Doyle’s administration as well.

“One of the things that we had to deal with in the fall was police and student issues as well. The issue was that they were using dogs to break up the parties,” Doyle said. “I only wish that we were as effective as this year’s student government at being a good broker and convoy between the South Bend police and the student body. These issues will come up again and again.”

Doyle said the current officers deserved praise for smoothing tensions between campus and its neighbors in South Bend.

“Especially with a lot of the off-campus issues, the reason that we have found a bit of a détente with law enforcement has to do with Catherine and Andrew and how they have been leaders among their peers,” Doyle said.

Doyle dealt with practical problems on campus as well as larger issues in the community. His administration set up the first campus 24-hour space outside the dorms, rented more portable toilets for football tailgaters and surveyed students on the University’s alcohol policy.

An editorial printed in the April 4, 1989, issue of The Observer said Doyle and Paese were “a tough act to follow.”

Doyle said his position was taxing, but his year with Paese taught him the value of working with a trustworthy partner.

“If you are going to do anything that is going to be stretching or challenging, make sure you do it with somebody whose deepest values align with yours,” Doyle said.

Doyle and Paese built their success on a friendship that remains after almost 25 years.

“[Paese] was a smart, articulate, fast-talking Italian from the East Coast, and I was a much slower, simple, nice guy from a little town in Washington state,” Doyle said. “In a lot of ways we could not have been more different from each other, but together we made a pretty good team.”

Despite the lessons Doyle learned during his term, he joked that the immediate rewards of his election were not what he expected.

“As student body president, I thought my social life would improve,” he said. “Being elected was not worth it for the social life.”