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Full Transcript: Interview with University President Fr. John Jenkins, VP Student Affairs Harding

| Wednesday, December 5, 2012

 

JJ: University President Fr. John Jenkins

EH: Erin Hoffmann Harding, vice president for Student Affairs

JC: John Cameron, news editor

 

University President Fr. John Jenkins: So you know we’re here to tell you about an important step we’re taking in regard to students who are gay or lesbian, bisexual, transgender or just questioning their sexual orientation. You may know that since the 1990s, we’ve had a student standing committee more recently called the Core Council to advise the VP for Student Affairs on issues with regard to students who identify in this way. I do want to say I think they’ve done great work over the years. Many people worked hard to make it successful and I think we’ve made real progress. As you also know, we’ve had some proposals about how we can be more effective in serving gay and lesbian, bisexual transgender and questioning students. So, we’ve thought about it, and I thought it was appropriate to ask Erin Harding, our vice president for Student Affairs, just to do a comprehensive review. Let’s look at everything we do, all the support structures, and find out how we can do things better, if we can do them better, and what’s working well and what we can do better. She and her staff have had countless hours of [working] extremely hard and have submitted this plan, which I enthusiastically support and accept. It grows out of our mission as a Catholic university, it’s directed by that fundamental mission in a profound way, I think, and so I’m enthusiastic about it. What I’m going to do is just to ask Erin, who’s kind of worked on the details, to just talk about it.

 

Erin Hoffmann Harding, vice president for Student Affairs: Terrific. I’ll cover five points, briefly, and then I think we’re happy to take any questions. The first one, which Fr. John has alluded to, is just some clarity about the scope of the review. What Fr. John’s office asked me to do, in particular, was to look at how we serve our students, in a holistic and comprehensive way. So very deliberately, we have not just considered the club application, but looked as well at the core council and climate more generally, so in cases where we may be missing some elements, either in the club application or in the core council as its currently structured. So it was comprehensive in terms of the breadth, so that’s the scope. Second thing, is what did we actually do and what have we been up to really since you and I spoke earlier in the semester.

 

Three main elements. The first one was consultation with Church teaching. The parameter for this solution needed to serve our students well but be grounded fundamentally in our Catholic mission as a University. So we’ve spent time with theologians and members in particular of our faculty, who have given us advice on this matter and on Church teaching – that’s activity number one.

 

Second one is extensive conversation with students. You probably saw several groups of students we consulted along the way, first and foremost students on the core council, since it is our structure in place; students who applied for club status; we also spoke with students who were uninvolved, particularly with either effort. So we did two focus groups, one with undergraduate students, one with graduate students, to get their perspective and input on this issue; we consulted with student government; we consulted with a few students who just wrote me along the way, we had some conversations there. I counted the number of meetings and I’ve had almost four dozen meetings on my calendar alone.

 

EH: And as recently, actually, as right before Thanksgiving, still consulting and talking with students. The third thing we did, which the University has done quite a bit of as well in the past is just refreshed some external benchmarking, particularly looking at other Catholic institutions to see the breadths of structures they had in place to serve students who identify as gay or lesbian. So what did we learn? Couple of things, first and foremost, I’ve been struck throughout this process about how whether I’ve been talking to a student, an administrator, a faculty member, or leaders in our Church, that we share a common goal, that really this speaks back to the Spirit of Inclusion that the University adopted many years ago, which is to provide a welcoming and inclusive environment. So, second, it’s been a process that has benefitted really from the time we’ve spent on it. I personally have listened and learned from each and every conversation I’ve had along the way, and I think we’ve really worked hard collectively, whether it be our pastoral and theological consultants we’ve worked with or the students involved, to really work together to come up with a collaborative solution, and I feel very good that it arises from Church teaching and will serve our students well. Third thing we’ve learned probably quite a bit about is the Core Council and its effectiveness. As Fr. John alluded, there’s been a lot of programs started and launched by the Core Council that have added great value to the University, particularly, i think, when we welcome students to campus for the first time, our first year students, and training of our hall staff, that those are programs that can and should and must be continued. What’s interesting is the Core Council was started as an advisory committee and its size reflected that, rather than letting it grow to a programming body, so its size and composition of it being limited to eight students only and being limited to not include graduate students, but only undergraduate students, I think has limited its ability to grow with the growing needs of campus. And last thing, I was just speaking to Fr. John earlier today, that there’s been a real genuine interest on the part of students to learn more about the teachings of the Church, whether it’s related more generally to sexuality, or the sexual orientation or gender identity of our students, that they’re eager and interested in learning more about what the Church teaches, why and how that can apply itself in their lives.

 

EH: So you probably saw in the release, there’s a couple of things we want to achieve, and then I’ll open it up to you for questions. First and foremost, providing education to campus, about church teaching, about a welcoming and inclusive environment, so that’s the training aspect that really in many ways exists today but that we’d like to augment and do even more than we do. Secondly, is to offer and serve the students directly on our campus who do identify as GLBTQ, whether that is referring them to another University office, talking with them individually, we think we have an obligation to provide services and support to those students in particular.

 

EH: Third is a mechanism for students to provide support to their students to their colleagues and their peers, and provide service within the broader community in terms of many of the things our policies at the University reinforce, which is the elimination of harassment as a result of sexual orientation, students have an interest in participating in that [elimination], and I think will be of great value to our campus.

 

EH: And the last thing, which is actually what Core started as in the first place, but actually, given all its programming, hasn’t had much time to do, is offering input to my office, the fourth element. So those are our four goals, and you’ll see the structures we’ve outlined to achieve them really, underneath all of it, is the support of an individual who we’ll hire to have this full time responsibility to work with these structures and with our students on our climate and the spirit of inclusion that we all hope to do. That person will play several roles associated with a student organization to serve as advisor, that person will participate on a new advisory committee that will work with and give input to my office, and lastly will be responsible for the consistency of the training and the awareness that we build over time.

 

John Cameron, news editor: Great, so just a couple of questions I got from reading through the press release – again, thanks so much for sending that that was really helpful this morning kind of redirecting some of my questions. I think kind of the big question that I got was how – you specified this is not a club, not a political movement organization – why is it important that it’s not a club, and how does that differ in a practical way?

 

EH: Part of the importance is sustainability over time. A club, and that’s a University-specific term to Notre Dame, a club means a different place or a different structure potentially at different institutions. But here at Notre Dame, a club is actually in a sense a temporary structure. So it continues and does programming at the interest of the club itself. So our organizations have more permanence and more stature. So a good example of an organization on campus today is student government itself, is an organization and a club. There tend to be two distinctions between clubs and organizations. The first one is is that it’s part of someones full time job to advise that group, and that provides some of the sustainability and the consistency over time. And then the second one is related to the constitution and the purpose and the operation of the group. And an organization, like a club, still develops its own constitution, and puts in place its own practices, it elects its own leaders. But it does have additional input in terms of the approval of that constitution by the University.

 

EH: But those are the two main distinctions.

 

JC: Right, so can you tell me a bit about how the structure might differ? Obviously there was a big emphasis on the administrative liaison in the press release. What kind of role is that liaison going to play in kind of the day to day functioning of the organization and to what extent will there be more oversight to this group as opposed to a club or any other organization?

 

EH: I think it will be very similar to how our advisors work regularly with our other student organizations. That differs slightly, and we’ve not thought particularly about the specifics but there’s much regular interaction with an advisor of a student organization than a student club. I think what I’ve been struck most by in the process however is that in many ways the collaboration that we’ve gained as part of this process in working with our students and working with our faculty and our theological consultants has been an air of collaboration and trust in working toward that common goal that I expect would continue in the relationship as we move forward with the organization.

 

JC: This is probably a bit too early to answer a question like this, but would you anticipate this organization being able to meet independently or without necessarily having the presence of the liaison at each meeting?

 

EH: Yes, our organizations do.

 

Additional statement from Harding:

I wanted to offer a brief clarification to my short answer to your question about the new organization’s ability to meet on its own.  Students will and do meet and discuss organization issues beyond official meetings.  Because of the constitutional distinction I mentioned, official business is conducted with the advisor present who we describe in the release.  This is consistent with the practices and procedures of our other student organizations on campus.

 

JC: I guess just kind of another big question is why now? I know students have been pushing for some sort of recognized group or club for a number of years and I think at this point it’s kind of an historic move at this point, I’d say.

 

JJ: Maybe I could talk about that because I’m the one who instituted it. I mean, we have, if you look at the history there have been a series of steps to help the campus more effectively serve the needs of those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual transgender or questioning. In the 1990s as I said we created the standing committee in 2006 that was changed to the core council, and various initiatives were undertaken in conjunction with those efforts, and I see this as the next step to be more effective.

 

People came to us, students came to us, and said well we want this organization to fill these needs, and those were legitimate points. But what I wanted, when I asked [Erin] was a comprehensive look. Let’s not just focus on ‘here’s a problem, let’s patch that problem, here’s another problem, let’s patch that problem.’ Rather, Let’s look at it comprehensively. What are we doing well? If we’re doing it well, let’s keep doing it. What are we not doing well, what can we improve? In those areas, lets find a new structure or something. I see this continual development, and we were helped by those who came forward and said look we need some further structures, because it alerted us to genuine needs of the community.

 

JC: Why are you replacing the Core council, as you said you think it’s added value in the past. Why not have [the new organization] work in conjunction, rather than in place of, the core council?

 

EH: Core council as I think both of us have reiterated has done terrific work, it’s done a variety of programming and actually I think its an opportunity for us to do two things: one is to in some sense ask Core Council’s replacement to take on this advisory role that because they have been doing so much programming, they haven’t had as much time and ability to do. And two, I think the shift in composition is an important one, to involve our graduate students who haven’t had an avenue for input, today, I think is a very important change to the composition. I think the purposes of the two committees as originally designed is very consistent and in the same way the core council was the second name for a group on campus, this will be a third name to signify that we are doing something new and slightly different, but really consistent with our previous purposes.

 

JC: Just for clarity when you say the core council is being replaced, are you replacing it with this student organization or a separate group?

 

EH: A separate advisory council, that’s right.

 

JC: Can you say anything about how that advisory council will be put together, how you’ll decide who will be on it?

 

EH: We haven’t decided yet I think that will be part of the work of spring but I think the intention is to have representation from both undergraduate and graduate stude
ts and as well as core council has in the past, to have staff, administrators and faculty be members as well. But in terms of particular roles that’s not yet determined.

 

JC: Back to the liaison you spoke about, what are the criteria you’re looking for? I know you said in the release hiring would begin immediately. Do you anticipate the role will be filled within the school year?

 

EH: Our intention is to post it as soon as possible and we’ve been working on a position description. Our anticipation is that it is likely that the person will not be here full time at the University until July 1, and the reason for that is the cycle of recruiting in the student affairs profession tends to occur in the spring. So our intent is to hire as soon as we are able to fill it, and then the person would start quickly after that but I think it would be most likely to expect something closer to a July 1 timeframe.

 

JC: Thinking about all the different constituencies you have to consider, what’s the concern for potential backlash from certain groups within that, whether it be from alumni, religious officials, students…

 

JJ: Maybe I’ll say something and Erin can add. This is a contested area in society at large I think you know that so whenever an issue like that is present at Notre Dame it will get attention. And I expect some criticism from both people who say – who are on the left and on the right, that we’re too far or not far enough, but that’s ok. I think any thoughtful person – and, look, controversy is not necessarily a bad thing. If you avoid controversy, you don’t do anything, controversy’s ok. But I think if people look carefully at what we’re doing and really in a thoughtful way evaluate it, I think thoughtful people will see that makes sense, it makes sense for a Catholic university like Notre Dame to provide such structures to serve their students effectively.

 

EH: I think the only thing I would add is for me to sleep at night, I think about two things. I think first and foremost about the unique mission of this place and my obligation and my role to serve students. And we’ve been thoughtful along the way in our communication along the way and I think we have benefitted and actually changed our pastoral plan in particular based on input from others, and I sleep well thinking this is the next step in our evolution as a community. A common goal, where we’ve started from the beginning in terms of welcoming and inclusion, and I think this is our next step to work together.

 

JC: Speaking of the University’s Catholic mission, I know you said that was an important aspect of how you thought about this. Can you develop a little for me, what are the practical limitations of “activities consistent with Notre Dame’s Catholic allegiance and commitments?” What kind of practical limitations will this club have because of that aspect of the Catholic mission?

 

JJ: You know it would be impossible to state that in a sentence. It’s a rich teaching about the role of sexuality, about intimacy, about human relations, about responsibilities to the community, about relationships to the Church and I’m not evading the question but to put this in a ‘well you can do this, you can’t do that,’ is to distort the issue. I would just invite those who are wondering about it to look at this plan to reflect upon catholic teachings about these issues because I think this can be an opportunity for all of us to think about this more deeply, and at least that, that’s a wanted result. (Wanted?)

 

JC: And keeping with that, will there be any formal review process to make sure that the group is keeping consistent with that? Will you be checking in, or having any sort of probationary period?

 

EH: No planned probationary period, I expect it will operate as our other student organizations do which is in collaboration with our advisor and thoughtful conversation and discourse along the way.

 

JJ: You know, one thing I want to say, I do want to emphasize this, it would be wrong to think of this as ‘Oh there was this proposal, the administration said yes or no to it.’ What is really important to emphasize is that this result came about through extensive discussion by all parties involved, Erin led it, and what it led to is a sort of consensus, consensus may be too strong, but a sense of common purpose and a way in which we can work together to serve members of our community that need to be served in a way that’s appropriate. So if we think of this in a way that’s ‘well, what’s the administration going to let us do and what they’re not going to let us do,’ you miss the point. The point is that what this represents is a lot of hard work to lead to a resolution that people can buy into, all of whom have the same goal. Is that fair?

 

EH: I do [agree.] I think what I’m left most reflecting on is hope about what this will mean for our community and the belonging that all members of our community are open and welcome as members of this community. So I’m very hopeful, very appreciative of every individual we’ve talked to along the way who has collaborated and given us constructive suggestions and worked with us on trying to find a solution that works.

 

JC: I know obviously your office was tasked with this kind of review. Can you speak about who the ultimate decision came down to and maybe how, if at all, the Board of Trustees was consulted?

 

JJ: I can speak about that. This is an issue about serving our students. There are probably a number of issues that Erin talks about with the student affairs committee that I talk about with the Board of Trustees, and this was discussed. But ultimately, this is an administrative decision. It was my decision to ask Erin, ‘let’s do an administrative review.’ She made a proposal that I accepted on my authority to move this forward. Now we inform all parties who kind of have a stake in this of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, just as Erin did with the students and the graduate students so I did with members of the Board but ultimately it was a decision by the President to do this review and ultimately Erin presented to me and I accepted.

 

JC: I know you said this is a measure to expand on the idea for hope for people on campus, for different and diverse people. How do you think that will affect people in high school considering applying or accepting enrollment? There may be a stigma out there with any Catholic university about issues like this. How do you think this could improve the university’s perception by students seeking that diversity?

 

EH: I hope they take the time to read the spirit of inclusion which has long stood, and if the structures we are putting in place is the next step along this journey are attractive to students who are interested in Notre Dame and share those same values, that’s terrific. It would be impossible to predict one way or another what the result will be, but I hope they will look very thoughtfully at what we’ve put in place. We worked very hard on it.

 

JJ: I would just say if you look at how graduates of Notre Dame reflect on their experience, one of the things that comes out very strongly is that there is a deep sense of community here at Notre Dame and I think when you read this document people will see that that’s really front and center. And if people want to be part of that, then this is the place for them. Now if they don’t want to be part of that, you know, then this is not the place for them and we’re not trying to be something that we’re not. We are what we are. But I think anybody who’s thoughtful and wants a place like Notre Dame will see this as a very positive step.

 

JC: In recent years, I feel there’s been a big push in support of expanding diversity on campus, especially with the events last year with issues of racial harassment. How do you feel on a broader scale, not just talking about LGBTQ students, but as far as campus culture, how do you think this fits into your overall mission there?

 

EH: It’s actually the first thing our division is talking about when we think of our own individual unit’s strategic plan. As fr. john alluded, Notre Dame is blessed with a very strong sense of community, but we know that there are different populations, different interests and that our students do not always affiliate as closely and tightly as we would like. So we think we can improve. And never, and I think we talked about this in August, do we want to see a repeat on this campus of the activities that occurred last spring (with the Call to Action). So it’s the very first thing in terms of our strategic plan for student affairs to be thoughtful, broadly-defined about diversity. When I think of that, I think of race, I think of culture, I think of ethnicity, I think of socioeconomic background as well. So we really are working very deliberately as a division to try to address those issues in a variety of different ways of which I would consider this one.

 

JJ: Diversity isn’t just about having a bunch of different people all in the same place. It really is about building a community. As Erin said, we’re not there. We should never feel we’ve got this down. It’s rather we’re always trying to improve and it’s my responsibility and Erin’s responsibility to work on this, but it’s everybody’s responsibility. And I hope that people take this as Erin said a sign of hope. Let’s make it a better community. Let’s work together to make it a better community, more inclusive, more welcoming, more supportive.

 

JC: Is there any involvement of student government itself as far as the application of this? Is there going to be a student government liaison?

 

EH: You are correct that we’ve consulted student government leaders along the way which was a valuable part of the process and in terms of the implementation there’s many aspects where student government will have a role, among them thinking about funding of the organization and how that works and as well as the advisory committee. We haven’t made any decisions yet about particular liaisons…but certainly they will be involved in the ongoing conversations.

 

JC: Do you think, all the students who were pushing for this – I know this may not be a GSA per se – do you think they will find this sufficient to meet their requests as far as what resources they felt they needed?

 

JJ: You probably would need to ask them. But [Erin] has been in consultation with them so they are well-versed in what the plans are.

 

JC: As far as it is or is not a GSA per se, could you see that being its name, or do you have an official title? I know you want to distinguish it from similar groups at other universities.

 

EH: We don’t have a name at this point.

 

EH: Just reflecting back on what Fr. John said, I think, the comprehensiveness of this not only being about the organization is a very important element to the entire thing because of the education, because of the awareness, because of the support and interaction with other University offices, we think this is a plan that we believe and hope will be much more than around one organization. The organization, I understand, and we believe, is an important element of the plan but it shouldn’t be understood as it’s entirety.