The next step’
John Cameron | Wednesday, December 5, 2012
After a decades-long push by members of the Notre Dame community for official recognition of a gay-straight alliance (GSA), the University has announced plans for a student organization tasked with providing services and support to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning (GLBTQ) students and their allies.
Though this is a historic decision in Notre Dame’s efforts to better serve a diverse student body, University President Fr. John Jenkins said the plan for the unnamed student organization is a natural progression of previous initiatives.
“In the 1990s, as I said, we created the Standing Committee [on Gay and Lesbian Student Needs]. In 2006, that was changed to the Core Council [for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Questioning Students], and various initiatives were undertaken in conjunction with those efforts,” he said. “I see this as the next step to be more effective.”
The decision comes at the conclusion of a five-month review process commissioned by Jenkins and conducted by the office of Erin Hoffmann Harding, vice president for Student Affairs.
“[Harding] and her staff have had countless hours [working] extremely hard and have submitted this plan, which I enthusiastically support and accept,” Jenkins said. “It grows out of our mission as a Catholic university, it’s directed by that fundamental mission in a profound way, I think, so I’m enthusiastic about it.”
The plan, titled “Beloved Friends and Allies: A Pastoral Plan for the Support and Holistic Development of GLBTQ and Heterosexual Students at the University of Notre Dame,” details the establishment of a “new support and service student organization for GLBTQ students and their allies,” as well as a new advisory committee and the establishment of a full-time student development staff position focused on GLBTQ issues, according to a Dec. 5 University press release.
Harding said members of the Notre Dame community should consider more than the establishment of the student organization when evaluating the plan.
“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 about one organization,” she said.
Harding explained the significance of the planned group’s intended status as a student organization rather than a club, a distinction she said is meant to ensure the continuity of the organization over time.
“Here at Notre Dame, a club is actually in a sense a temporary structure,” Harding said. “It continues and does programming at the interest of the club itself. So our organizations have more permanence and more stature.”
Harding said the status of the planned group as a student organization positions it closer in structure to student government and similar groups than typical student clubs.
“The first [distinction] is that it’s part of someone’s full-time job to advise that group, and that provides some of the sustainability and the consistency over time,” she said.
This new position will fulfill a number of responsibilities ranging from administrative to advisory.
“Underneath all of [these goals], is the support of an individual who we will 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 [live by],” Harding said. “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.”
While the University has greater oversight of organizations than clubs, Harding said organizations have a high level of autonomy.
“An organization, like a club, still develops its own constitution and puts in place its own practices, it elects its own leaders,” she said. “But it does have additional input in terms of the approval of that constitution by the University.”
Members of the student organization will be free to meet independently, but official matters must be dealt with in the presence of the advisor.
“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 [Dec. 5 press] release,” Harding said. “This is consistent with the practices and procedures of our other student organizations on campus.”
The timeline for the establishment of this organization will hinge upon the filling of the new position, which Harding estimates will occur early next summer.
“Our anticipation is that it is likely 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,” she said.
As these plans take shape, the new advisory committee will replace the Core Council and take up many of its functions, while incorporating a structure more conducive to performing its intended advisory role.
“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,” Harding said. “So its size and composition … I think has limited its ability to grow with the growing needs of campus.”
Citing the limits of the Core Council, a group of eight undergraduate students and a number of representatives from her office, Harding said the new advisory council will likely include graduate student representation, as well as staff, faculty and additional administrators.
Harding praised the achievements of the Core Council, and said the new advisory committee will maintain and build upon these programs.
“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,” she said. “These are programs that can, and should and must be continued.”
The road to a decision
Harding said the process to develop her office’s proposal to the Office of the President included months of consultation with the various constituencies involved.
“The parameter for this solution needed to serve our students well and be grounded fundamentally in our Catholic mission as a University,” she said. “So we’ve spent time with theologians and members, in particular, of our own faculty, who have given us advice on this matter and on Church teaching.”
Jenkins said the organization’s roots in Church teaching had a broad practical impact, but these roots are not meant to serve as a basis for limitations the University could theoretically impose on the group.
“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,” Jenkins said. “To put this in a ‘Well you can do this, you can’t do that,’ is to distort the issue.”
Once the theological guidelines were defined, Harding said her office tapped the opinion of the constituency most heavily tied to the issue, the student body.
“[There were] 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,” she said. “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.”
Harding said her calendar held more than 40 such meetings by the end of the review.
Looking outside the community, Harding’s team compared Notre Dame’s existing structures with those of other institutions.
“[We] 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,” she said.
Throughout her office’s review, Harding came to see a commonality amongst many of these sources.
“I’ve been struck throughout this process, how whether I’ve been talking to a student, an administrator, a faculty member or leaders in our Church, that we all share a common goal that really speaks back to the Spirit of Inclusion the University adopted many years ago, which is to provide a welcoming and inclusive environment,” she said.
With the vast amount of consultation and research conducted by Harding’s office, the final decision came down to Jenkins.
“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 graduate students, so I did with members of the Board [of Trustees], but ultimately it was a decision by the President to do this review,” Jenkins said. “[Harding] made a proposal that I accepted on my authority.”
Sending a message
Despite the challenges of tackling the controversial topic at Notre Dame, Jenkins said he is confident in the plan, which he expects will garner both positive and negative responses.
“This is a contested area in society-at-large … whenever an issue like that is present at Notre Dame, it will get attention. I expect some criticism from both people who say – who are on the left and the right – that we’re too far or not far enough,” he said. “Controversy is not necessarily a bad thing. If you avoid controversy, you don’t do anything.”
Jenkins said he believes the soundness of the plan will withstand the scrutiny it is bound to receive from concerned parties.
“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 this makes sense,” he said. “It makes sense for a Catholic university like Notre Dame to provide such structures to serve their students effectively.”
Regardless of potential controversy, Harding said she stands by the plan’s compliance with the University’s mission as well as its ability to better meet students’ needs.
“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,” she said. “I sleep well thinking this is the next step in our evolution as a community.
Jenkins said prospective students who truly believe in the University’s mission will likely find value in the plan.
“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 at Notre Dame, and I think when you read this document, people will see what’s really front and center,” he said. “If people want to be part of that, then this is the place for them.”
While Jenkins said expanding the diversity at Notre Dame is part of the administration’s duties, he said the responsibility does not end at the steps of the Main Building.
“Diversity isn’t just about having a bunch of different people all in the same place. It really is about building a community,” he said. “As Erin said, we’re not there, we should never feel like we’ve got this down. … It’s my responsibility and Erin’s responsibility to work on this, but it’s everyone’s responsibility.”