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The State Road 933 divide

Observer Editorial Staff | Friday, March 1, 2013

State Road 933 is just a stretch of concrete, just two lanes of local traffic in each direction, just a road.
But State Road 933 also acts as a physical divide between Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, and the divide is much wider than four lanes of asphalt.
This week, The Observer has published a series titled “Her Loyal Daughters,” a five-day stretch of stories to mark the 40th anniversary of coeducation at Notre Dame. We have written about a possible merger between Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s in the early 1970s, when both were single-sex universities. We have written about the memories of the first women on this campus and their male classmates. We have written about the men and women who walk down Notre Dame Avenue and the Avenue at Saint Mary’s today.
Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s have been neighbors since the mid-1840s. Holy Cross sisters founded the College in 1844, just two years after Holy Cross priests began Notre Dame in 1842. A co-exchange program developed between the two schools in the mid-20th century so students at each college could capitalize on the resources of the other. A merger made sense. But we’ve heard it again and again this week: “I’m glad the merger fell through.” Graduates of both schools have expressed thanks for their unique degrees.
University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh wanted Notre Dame to become a top Catholic research university, a distinctive voice in higher education. It made sense to search for the brightest minds in the country to achieve that goal, and that search needed to include women. So Notre Dame went coed and today is a top-25 university.
When Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s discussed a possible merger, there were more than 300 women’s colleges around the nation. It has been 40 years since those talks failed, and there are now fewer than 100 women’s colleges in the United States. Fewer than 40 of those schools have a Catholic identity. Saint Mary’s has built itself on the goal of providing strong liberal arts and a Catholic education for women, and it is both one of the top 100 liberal arts colleges and one of the premier women’s colleges in America.  
Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s have different missions, but both excel. Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s have different strengths, but both graduate top-tier students. Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s are on different sides of State Road 933, but are neighbors.
So why does that narrow strip of concrete often feel like a gulf between us?
We all know the stereotypes. Notre Dame women aren’t as pretty as Saint Mary’s women, but they’re smarter under the Dome. Saint Mary’s women are easy. We throw the word “slut” around without a second thought. Notre Dame men who strike out with their female peers on this campus can easily find a “Smick Chick.” We ride the “Sluttle.”
These stereotypes are disgraceful, inaccurate and uninformed. And we – men and women, Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame – are responsible for allowing them to continue. We perpetrate them without considering their consequences. We laugh at jokes on the annual Zahm House ticket for student body president and vice president about a monorail between Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, so women could more easily find their way to men’s dorms. Debate about Saint Mary’s students’ chances in the BCS National Championship Game ticket lottery became really nasty, really quickly.
It starts with freshman orientation. Frosh-O welcomes new students to school traditions, but it also sets the tone for dorm and gender relationships on campus. Women’s dorms serenade men’s dorms, and men escort female students on “dates” to various brother-sister dorm events. But freshmen generally don’t collaborate with other dorms of their same gender, and the first time Saint Mary’s women enter the mix is on the sweaty dance floor at Domerfest, taken aback by the misperceptions they often face. Freshman orientation does not foster positive relationships between Notre Dame students and their own gender outside the immediate dorm community, and it definitely doesn’t introduce Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame students in a setting that encourages them to form friendships. There is awkwardness to this structure, a sense of competition among one gender for members of the other.
It starts with freshman orientation, but it continues beyond that first weekend. How many Notre Dame students have walked up the Avenue? How many Notre Dame students avail themselves of the classes we can take at Saint Mary’s? How many Saint Mary’s students eat after club meetings or band practice in the dining hall at Notre Dame, where obtaining a co-exchange meal is unnecessarily difficult?
How many students have thought about the jokes we pass to younger students, the flippant comments we make and their consequences?
Administrators and students at both schools should remember this era of coeducation and return to its original principles – Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s are two schools, on two different sides of the road, striving to accomplish two different missions. We are different, not better.
Let us drive the administration to reform the freshman orientation experience and set a more positive tone for gender relations.
Let us build a sense of sisterhood not just in our individual dorms, but also between all female students.
Let us demand more convenient options to share meals together and to travel from Notre Dame to Saint Mary’s.
Let us foster collaboration between clubs, between those studying abroad in the same cities from different schools and between individuals studying similar subjects.
Let us rid our language of terms like “slut.”
Let us embrace coeducation in the best sense of the word – a community of men and women, studying together, learning with and from each other.
Let us make this road we travel down together into a two-way street.