University hosts town hall to discuss changes to residential life
Courtney Becker | Thursday, September 14, 2017
University President Fr. John Jenkins and vice president for student affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding hosted a town hall–style information session Wednesday regarding the recently-announced changes to residential life at Notre Dame.
Jenkins said these changes — to be implemented starting with the class of 2022 — arose as a way to provide “an education of the mind and heart” at the University.
“When we talk to graduating students about their Notre Dame experience … one thing that stands out, dramatically stands out, is that at Notre Dame there is just a stronger sense of community,” he said. “That’s what students tell us, that the school has a strong sense of being part of something more than yourself. Not just you and the school, but you and the community. And … we think the residence halls are a critical part of contributing to that and strengthening that and deepening it.”
Hoffmann Harding said the most controversial change requiring all students live on campus for at least six semesters will, in reality, not affect most students.
“Actually the predominant norm, the super majority of almost all is the experience for our sophomores and juniors on campus already matches what we’re asking for the new classes going forward in terms of sophomores or juniors living on campus,” she said. “So we are solidifying a trend that already exists and has been quite stable over time.”
The timing in applying the changes, Hoffmann Harding said, both allows students who have already made off-campus housing plans to keep those commitments and allows potential students to make informed decisions about attending Notre Dame with the new policy in mind.
“What we wanted to make sure is that we held current students harmless knowing the trend that we have heard students about signing leases early,” she said. “And we didn’t want to put any student in a difficult position — who is here — in a position to have to change plans due to a change in policy for the University. So that’s the rationale behind the timing, but we wanted to signal, for new classes and new students, that this is an important value that the University holds as we go forward.”
When asked whether or not she believed this new regulation would deter potential students from considering Notre Dame, Hoffmann Harding said the new policy only differs slightly from what the admissions office tells applicants about residential life now.
“It’s something we at least partially looked into,” she said. “So what we did is consulted our colleagues in the enrollment management division and actually sat down with the folks who admit students and actually go on the road to high schools and meet with them. … What at least our admissions experts shared with us is that the most typical question they tend to get from prospective students and family is, ‘Is there enough room for me?’”
Hoffmann Harding recognized that the six semester requirement may not be the best situation for some members of the community.
“You saw, I hope, in some of the materials that we may have good work to do in terms of what and how might exceptions be good for our students and good for our communities in some of these situations,” Hoffmann Harding said. “We’re happy to hear and learn examples of when you think that might not make sense … how we manage and implement that and think through that, in terms of different policies and procedures for a potential waiver process, is still very much to be determined.”
Multiple students pointed out that one potential reason to request a waiver to move off campus would be if a survivor of sexual assault wanted to be farther away from his or her attacker, something Hoffmann Harding said she welcomed discussion about.
“I think in general, my overall reaction would be, gosh that’s a conversation I would love to know about in terms of before making that decision,’” she said. “‘What didn’t make you feel safe about campus? How can we make that better?’ And if that’s a distinction between one community versus another to be able to share that information with us, and certainly I don’t have a definitive answer of what would qualify, but … our first and foremost care is for all of you as students to try to help you have a wonderful experience. And that’s the objective here.”
While some students voiced frustration over paying the same amount for room and board despite varying quality of facilities, Hoffmann Harding said varying the price of housing would create unwelcome divides in the community.
“Would that cause an unnatural and unhelpful and ultimately potentially unhealthy segmentation of choices of where students would live that wouldn’t provide the integrated community that we hope to be?” she said. “ … So that’s been part of our rationale for not charging differently, because we didn’t want to create socioeconomic challenges and benefits for the community that would not be helpful to the integrated communities we hope to build.”
Upon one student pointing out that certain aspects of residential life — such as dorm Masses and parietals — do not appeal to every student at Notre Dame, Jenkins said Notre Dame is a University that remains true to its identity rather than striving to please everyone.
“I think it would be a mistake for Notre Dame to say, ‘We want to be everything to everybody, Notre Dame is for everybody.’ And it’s not,” Jenkins said. “We want to be Notre Dame … we want to be a place that prizes community in every way, and we’re a place of faith. We make no apologies about that, no one should come here with any confusion about that. And that’s why we’re delaying any requirement until the next year’s class comes in. People should take a look, and if that’s what they want they should come here, but if that’s not what they want there are many other places — great places — to go to. So really it seems to me what we want to be is what we are in a clear way, in a way that emphasizes the kind of education we want to give.”
Although the changes to residential life were largely prompted by a desire to convince more students to stay on campus for their senior year, Hoffmann Harding said the incentives to attract seniors are still to be determined.
“That was necessarily a bit vague in what we shared because it’s still to be worked out,” she said. “And what we wanted to do is open up the conversation to the extent that some of those things cost money. I actually have to ask through the division of student affairs through the University’s regular budget process … to see if some of those would be possible. And so there’s this very funny sense of get it out so that we can have further conversation about it, and I think you’re right, though, that we’d love to have more specifics.”
These incentives, Hoffmann Harding said, are vital to the University’s plan. Without the incentives, she said, the new requirement could actually end up driving seniors to move off campus for their final year at Notre Dame instead of achieving the intended goal.
“It’s probably our most significant worry about it,” Hoffmann Harding said. “Which is why I think as we’ve thought about it, it has to be dually and creatively and — we hope — actively paired with senior incentives. … But it’s number one on top of my worry list, is that it would have the opposite effect if we can’t get the senior incentives right, which is why we need more help and more work on that.”