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Involve students in rector selection

| Sunday, April 27, 2014

To the Office of Residence Life:

My name is Brian Israel. Next year, I will be a second-year law student and a first-year Assistant Rector (AR) in Knott Hall. I write this open letter in hopes you will reconsider student involvement in your method for hiring rectors.

Throughout the vetting process for Assistant Rectors, I had the pleasure of meeting with a number of rectors at various residence halls. At the end of the process, I was given the task of ranking the residence halls in which I hoped to work. During the entire process, I was constantly reminded selection as an AR was a “two-way street,” so to speak. The hall needed to want me to be an AR, and I needed to want to be an AR in that hall. This process, to me, ensured ARs could work in an environment they were comfortable with, with a rector who has a strategy that fits that of the prospective AR.

Upon hearing that Brother Jerome Meyer (a man whom I greatly respect, despite the short opportunity I have had to know him) was retiring at the end of the year, I was filled with sadness that I would not be able to work with the man who hired me. While I am sure such a circumstance is not unusual in the world outside of Notre Dame, I nonetheless grew concerned about the hall that I will soon happily call home.

In speaking with alumni of Notre Dame, it is easy to see hall unity is one of the things that resonates in the heart of each Notre Dame graduate well after they leave this special place. Generally, when I ask an individual what hall they lived in as an undergraduate, they say their hall name and mascot with unconcealable enthusiasm. Calling residence life important at Notre Dame is an understatement. Surely I don’t need to tell you that.

I believe the reason every individual I speak with holds his or her dorm in such high esteem is because each dorm has its own personality.  For that reason, my first act as the incoming Assistant Rector of Knott Hall is writing you this letter, in hopes I can help preserve the personality of the dorm that approximately 250 students today call home.

It is my understanding that the current hiring process for rectors involves a panel of current students speaking with rector candidates, though these students are not necessarily residents of the halls successful candidates are destined to inhabit. I understand successful rector candidates are chosen, pooled together and then assigned to a residence hall. Thus, they do not interview for specific dorm positions. I feel, though, this is the equivalent of having the board of one university hire the professors of an entirely different university. Though the two entities are similar in that they both are institutions of higher education, they still have different mission statements, beliefs and dispositions at their core. Each student on this campus is incredibly well-accomplished, and I am sure each individual who meets with prospective rectors will be an incredible representation of Notre Dame. My fear is they will not accurately represent the spirit and culture of the individualized residence halls that we have on campus, particularly Knott Hall.

I am particularly aware of two main reasons hall specific residents may seem unnecessary in the selection process of the next rector. First, departing rectors can describe the spirit and culture of the residence hall and provide it to you for your consideration. Second, almost all of the hall’s residents change every four years.

I accept both of these points are not only valid, but also strong. For a thorough and well-rounded analysis of an individualistic residence hall, however, residents should be asked for their input as well. The job description of a rector goes well beyond the position of a manager; rectors use interpersonal and relatable skills. An outgoing rector can describe the spirit of the hall to the potential new hire, but students who live the spirit of the hall day to day know how to recognize it in others.

As for the point that there is frequent student turnover, it is essential to note that even such turnover should not preclude input from current residents. These students may just have as good an understanding of their dorm’s spirit and character as a rector who has been living in the residence hall for four or fewer years. The incoming rector will not only be having daily interactions with many of these students for the next four years, which is not a trivial amount of time, but will also have to act as a bridge from 2014 onward. Though students frequently leave, the dorm’s spirit never does because there has always been one constant to ensure the consistency of the dorm’s personality. For many years, that constant has been Brother Jerome. Now that Brother Jerome is leaving, the men of Knott Hall must attempt to do the seemingly impossible: fill his shoes. It seems they just have some say in choosing the individual who will guide them in this journey.

Either way, one thing is certain: Knott Hall is a family. Unfortunately, however, this family is losing a vital member. Like a true family, Knott will be sure to support any new rector with the familial love that is characteristic of Knott. It is indisputable, however, that if Knott Hall residents spoke with him during the vetting process, it would be easier for them to authentically and genuinely support him. This would make the transition inevitably smoother both for the rector and for the students.

It is for these reasons I respectfully request that students of Knott Hall, chosen at your discretion, are given some say in the selection process of our next rector. While I understand the concern that exists in granting such power to students, I also understand Notre Dame prides itself in the responsibility, maturity and brilliance of these students. It seems odd to cut off their responsibility here, at a point that will immediately impact them. Additionally, I am not asking that the residents of Knott have the ultimate say, nor am I asking for some sort of confirmation hearing before the residents of Knott. I am simply asking that residents of Knott Hall be given an opportunity to ensure the dorm they hold near and dear to their heart is not stripped of its personality.

This University is famous for listening to its students. I can safely say few universities strive to accommodate their students in the way that Notre Dame does, and that is part of what makes living here so special. In fact, it is part of why, even as a graduate student, I am proud to call myself a Domer. Therefore, I urge you to at the very least consider my request. I will not pretend to know all the answers, and I acknowledge there are steps involved in this process that I do not know or understand. I do, however, hope we can have an amiable discourse.

Brian M. Israel
Law Student
Class of 2016

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Jesse Lacey

    I understand where you are coming from, but I think I have to respectfully disagree. I don’t think Knott has a prevailing culture that is in jeopardy. The students are largely in control of the culture in the dorm. New rectors come and go but the real leadership, the traditions, and the culture of the dorm is shaped by the student leaders more than the rector. The rector may change some things here and there but it shouldn’t change the dorm’s culture. Students in Zahm will probably tell you that their life has been drastically changed with a new rector. I must ask two questions though: 1) Is that “culture” worth preserving? As an AR I am sure you heard about the dorm’s less than stellar reputation. The new rector has changed some things but nothing that will really change the culture at this point. 2) What can a rector really do to change that culture? Students “become” Zahm kids. It’s the culture, not the rector that rules really. ND and dozens of rectors have tried to change Zahm’s culture. It hasn’t worked because the dorm wants to continue to act that way. As an AR, along with the rest of the staff, you will be one of the people influencing how the new rector sees the dorm. Helping to make that decision will not do much. I am sure as a law student you have interviewed a few times this year. It’s easy to “fake it” in an interview and a rector can do the same. ND has done a pretty good job over the years finding good rectors, and know what the “culture” is in each dorm and who would likely fit. I am sure ND could get you involved in the process, but what you say probably wouldn’t change their thinking about the person they choose. They have to make a decision about the future of the dorm, about the liability they may face, and about finding someone who will teach the values ND wants to embrace. Students may be able to do it, but I am pretty confident ND’s process will get it right more often than students.

    • S@DAARTh

      “I must ask two questions though: 1) Is that “culture” worth preserving?
      As an AR I am sure you heard about the dorm’s less than stellar
      reputation. The new rector has changed some things but nothing that will
      really change the culture at this point. 2) What can a rector really do
      to change that culture? Students “become” Zahm kids. It’s the culture,
      not the rector that rules really.”

      I will answer your questions: 1) Yes. Dorm culture is one of the very, very few things the Notre Dame social scene has going for it. As is, Notre Dame struggles to attract a large portion of students nationwide solely because of this backwards social scene. Shutting down the culture on which a dorm prides itself (albeit not “OCS friendly”) undermines the only widely appealing aspect of life at Notre Dame. The university cannot claim to foster unique dorm identities while at the same time use both overt and covert methods to alter a dorm’s culture to how they see fit.

      Now I understand that when a dorm’s culture gets out of hand, corrective action must be taken. But where is the line drawn? Let’s be honest here: ND social life is abundantly more supervised and tame than at most universities. This includes even the wildest on-campus experiences. In the case of Zahm, the “out-of-control party dorm” so to speak, is it the party culture of the dorm that led to its poor stigma (nb the rape incidences), or was it the bad decisions of a couple guys within a much larger community? I struggle to believe that “rape” would be a part of a dorm’s culture, passing this tradition on through the years.

      My point is that the university needs to either stay true to its word about fostering dorm uniqueness, or accept the fact that their social system is not as productive as they claim.

      2) A rector can change quite a bit. If he wanted to begin (or end) enforcing rules, knocking on doors during parties, writing up students for alcohol violations, banning dorm events with a history of offenses, he could do so. How would this not change or eliminate a prior culture?