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A duLac compromise

Observer Editorial | Friday, November 18, 2005

Notre Dame is not paradise. It’s not prison, either, despite what many disgruntled post-ResLife students may say.

The reality is somewhere in between – and the University community could debate indefinitely about where that balance lies.

Recent history of disciplinary policy changes – and the quick student outcry they prompt – indicates there has long been tension in the Notre Dame family between those who make the “in loco parentis” rules and those who are expected to follow them. For the past few decades, there have always been administrators and rectors who detest parietals violations, and those with a more relaxed approach. There have always been students who set duLac in flames at the first hint of a tightened underage drinking leash, and those who won’t touch a beer at a tailgate even after they’re legal.

Chances are, there always will be.

And while open discussion of policies that fundamentally shape the Notre Dame undergraduate experience should always be encouraged, it’s in students’ best interest to recognize that the rules aren’t likely to collapse anytime soon under the weight of their complaints. Policies that are the University’s trademark – strict punishments for parietals violations, premarital sex, hard alcohol and drugs among them – are also grounded in the University’s values, as administrators stand by all rules that, they say, protect the community’s status as a positive, Catholic educational environment.

Immersion into that environment and all its benefits – the all-encompassing “Notre Dame experience” ranging from academics to athletics to faith – also means immersion into residence life and the regulations that come with it. Students who embrace seemingly every aspect of the University community while simultaneously blasting its rules should recognize the hypocrisy in their arguments. Like it or not, the rules are a part of the package, and choosing to attend Notre Dame implies consent to their consequences.

But that doesn’t mean the University should have free reign to enforce those rules irregularly or alter their consequences on a whim – which is how many frustrated and confused students perceive the current system. Interviews and statistics indicate that enforcement hinges on a variety of factors, including the offending student’s gender, dorm and rector and the RAs and hall staff involved. Particularly troubling are the stories of students whose rectors allegedly set in motion the students’ disciplinary processes without so much as a timely one-on-one conversation – contradicting their own counseling roles and the punishments’ “educational” intent. Equally damaging is the “boys will be boys” mentality that seems to justify stricter environments and harsher punishments for rule-breaking in women’s dorms than in men’s, as holding female students to a so-called higher standard of behavior only serves to paint Notre Dame as lagging behind the times in its perception of gender equality.

No disciplinary system is flawless, and administrators acknowledge the University’s is imperfect. But they also claim there’s an overall consistency when it comes to enforcement – “even if students don’t see it.”

There’s the problem. Students must see it. Students asked to obey relatively strict regulations need to have confidence not only that the system is designed for their best interest, but also that they are being judged fairly amongst their peers. Students who feel the system is unfairly skewed will begin to distrust the University’s motivations, and will be more inclined to break rules they feel are unjust. They will be less inclined to associate the residential experience with closeness of community than with overbearing discipline, and they will leave the residence halls to live off-campus with little remorse.

So how to show students the system is fair?

Transparency, for one. Any aspects of the disciplinary process that appear secretive – such as hall staff avoiding direct communication with offending students – should have no place in it. Same with ResLife punishments – students should know exactly why their offense equals 20 hours of community service, where that $100 fine will end up and what those requirements are intended to accomplish. There is also no excuse for some incoming freshmen to learn about parietals only when they arrive on campus for Orientation Weekend, or for students who get in trouble off-campus to discover weeks later that ResLife can and is also levying a punishment. Posting duLac online is not enough – Notre Dame must find a better way to open the channels of communication with students if it expects the student body to trust its policies and enforcement.

Respect, for another. Treating students like children – barging in on closed doors, causing students to feel “terrified” in their own dorms, “protecting” “girls” more than “boys” – demonstrates the University’s disregard for students’ abilities to develop their own maturity. Treating students like adults – even when they make fairly childish decisions – will demonstrate the University’s respect for students’ abilities to deal with the realities of independent adulthood.

The rules aren’t going anywhere, and reasonable students and administrators can and do – and will undoubtably continue to – disagree about their fairness. But there should be no debate about the fact that students deserve to see and experience a fair, consistent disciplinary system at Notre Dame.