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ND restructures GLBTQ group

Maddie Hanna | Monday, February 27, 2006

The University Standing Committee on Gay and Lesbian Student Needs will soon become the Core Council for Gay and Lesbian Students – a restructured group with increased student membership to better meet campus needs, University officials said Friday.

“It’s exciting – I think it’s a step forward in terms of service to our gay, lesbian and bisexual students and making sure we create a welcoming environment at Notre Dame, and all within the parameters of Catholic teaching,” Vice President for Student Affairs Father Mark Poorman told The Observer Friday.

The Standing Committee serves as an advisory board that helps Poorman and the Office of Student Affairs identify the needs of gay, lesbian and bisexual students as well as coordinate programming, and Poorman said the Core Council will continue to fulfill this role.

What’s really changing, he said, is the group’s composition.

The Core Council will have 12 members total, eight of them students – the majority of whom are gay or lesbian, Poorman said. There will also be four administrators representing the Counseling Center, the Gender Relations Center, Campus Ministry and the Office of Student Affairs.

A student and a representative from the Office of Student Affairs – possibly Sister Susan Dunn, who was recently appointed to Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs – will serve as the Core Council’s co-chairs, Poorman said.

The eight students and student co-chair position mark a significant increase from the Standing Committee’s current six student members, said Sister Mary Louise Gude, Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs and current chair of the Standing Committee.

Gude has served as chair since fall 1998 and believes the expansion of the Standing Committee into the Core Council – an expansion that includes regularly reserved space in LaFortune as well as a partnership with a new coalition of students drawn from student government – will help bring “more voices” into the discussion.

“The push for student involvement grew organically, if you will, and was shared by all of us,” Gude told The Observer in an e-mail Sunday.

In 2001, the Standing Committee’s student membership grew from four to six students – a jump accompanied by an increased workload, she said.

“The Committee became heavily involved in educational programming and had little time for anything else,” Gude said. “There was no breathing space for the creative energy that had marked the Committee’s work in its earlier years. Yet there was such energy elsewhere on campus – it just seemed like a good idea to reach out and create a mechanism for connecting with more students who support our gay and lesbian students.”

Poorman, who sits on the committee along with Gude, Director of Campus Ministry Father Richard Warner and St. Edward’s rector Father Tom Eckert, said he has attended most of the group’s meetings this academic year.

He said while the “serious considerations” to restructure were discussed during the past four to five weeks, the idea is not completely new.

“Elements of the discussion have been in the works for a while,” Poorman said.

Poorman said University President Father John Jenkins, who attended a Standing Committee meeting last semester, was briefed on the restructuring and was “comfortable” with the changes.

“Since the creation of the Standing Committee in 1996 and the adoption of our ‘Spirit of Inclusion’ [statement] a year later, Notre Dame has sought to better address the needs of our gay, lesbian and bisexual students within the parameters of Catholic teaching,” Jenkins said in a statement Friday. “I am grateful for the dedicated work of committee members the past 10 years, and, with the evolution of this new council, I am excited about this important step forward.”

Gude said it was “hard to say” what the long-term impact of the change would be.

“Better communication, certainly, among those interested in issues facing the gay community, and a chance to work together on given events,” she said,

The Standing Committee was created in 1996, emerging from a hotbed of campus debate. In January 1995, the Office of Student Affairs banned the unofficial student group Gay and Lesbian Students of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s (GLND/SMC) from meeting on campus.

The decision sparked clamor across and beyond campus, receiving national media attention. Then-Vice President of Student Affairs Patricia O’Hara released an open letter on March 6, 1995 establishing the Ad Hoc Committee on Gay and Lesbian Student Needs in order to “move beyond the painful polemics that have characterized the discussion in recent weeks.” The committee was given standing status the following year.

Since the Committee’s formation, Poorman said the group has directed educational programs on issues affecting gay, lesbian and bisexual students, hall staff programs, CommUnity sessions for freshmen, the Network program to help staff members promote “safe spaces,” coffee hours and events surrounding Solidarity Sunday and National Coming Out Day.

“Part of the impetus for this [restructuring] is we really would like to broaden our sources for this [programming],” Poorman said.

Tiffany Thompson, a senior who has served on the Standing Committee for three years, said she has seen “a greater desire” for change build among students during the past few years.

But she said there has always been a need for greater student involvement on and with the Standing Committee.

“[Students] are the ones that really touch what needs to be done,” she said.

Thompson said she hoped the restructuring would result in greater communication between campus groups, students and the administration.

“I’m very excited about the changes,” she said. “I think it will lead to a more efficient group and help connect the Standing Committee to the rest of the campus.”

Andy Magee, a senior who has sat on the Standing Committee for two years, said recent campus discussions surrounding topics such as the former Queer Film Festival and the unrecognized gay/lesbian student group AllianceND made restructuring necessary.

“There’s a lot that’s happened on campus in the past few years regarding gay and lesbian students, and a lot of times it seems the Committee has been behind a bit,” Magee said.

While Magee said he did not think the idea behind the restructuring to increase student involvement with the Committee substituted for AllianceND’s efforts to win official club recognition from the University administration, he believes it will provide an outlet for the unofficial group.

“Ideally under this new system they’ll be able to say, ‘Hey, can you help us with this?’ … The idea is that a student group that wants to do programming [can work through the Core Council],” he said.

Magee, who is pursuing a dual degree, will maintain his position with the Core Council next year as a fifth-year senior. Members who will be leaving the Committee include Thompson, who will graduate, and Gude, who will retire after the spring semester.

Eckert said he planned to keep his seat on the Council. Warner was not available for comment Sunday.

While there is not a specific timeframe for the restructuring, Poorman said he hopes to accept applications this spring from students interested in sitting on the Council. The next step is to elect a student co-chair.

Claire Heininger contributed to this report.