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Concerns still remain in Irish community

Claire Heininger | Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Despite the hiring of Charlie Weis, some members of the Notre Dame community who vocally opposed the firing of Tyrone Willingham said Monday that their concerns still linger.

Paula Higgins, a music professor who initially sponsored the Faculty Senate’s Dec. 6 resolution against the firing, said on the face of it, Willingham’s dismissal still appears to be the wrong choice. Her shock at the decision’s abruptness and exclusivity – not to mention the negative external attention it brought the University – has yet to fade.

“This is our University,” said Higgins, who observed a dramatic increase in academic performance among the football players she taught during Willingham’s tenure. “[The firing] seemed to suggest that winning is more important than academics. After all, Notre Dame is not the NFL – even though some people want it to be.”

But the fact that Weis is an NFL coach does not necessarily speak for his academic credentials, Higgins acknowledged.

“He’s a Domer, he knows the drill,” she said of the 1978 graduate. “One would hope he understands the importance of academics at this University … I think he deserves all of our support.”

Though he stood front and center at the Weis announcement, Faculty Board on Athletics chair Fernand Dutile said afterward he stood by the board’s Friday statement about its concerns over Willingham’s termination. The statement listed speed, timing, a lack of faculty involvement and the role of two members of the Board of Trustees as the faculty board’s chief concerns about the decision.

The statement also asked University President Father Edward Malloy and University President Elect Father John Jenkins to meet with the board. Both have agreed to do so, and will hold separate meetings because of scheduling reasons, Dutile said.

However, Dutile expressed satisfaction with his inclusion in the hiring process.

“I was continually involved in the search,” he said. “I talked to [Weis] personally about the academic concerns of my job … in my view, he represents commitment to integrity, academic success and athletic success.”

Tim Kelley, a 1964 Notre Dame graduate who helped author a letter to the Board of Trustees last winter that criticized the University’s management of the football program, echoed Dutile’s endorsement.

“It appears there was a fairly well-managed selection process as opposed to what happened in the past,” Kelley said.

Kelley refused to take credit for influencing the coaching change, but said other alumni he had spoken with were pleased with Weis’ Notre Dame ties.

“He’s a Notre Dame graduate and he understands the issues … I think he is probably in a better position than past coaches to do it the Notre Dame way,” Kelley said. “He’s one of us.”

That mentality is troubling to Higgins, who said the University’s core academic and athletic values are jeopardized by outside pressures – alumni included.