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Zahm struggles with culture shift

Maddie Hanna | Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a two-part series examining changes to residence life within Zahm Hall and what those changes mean to the campus community.

Its dorm-wide dining hall dinners are legendary, its residents are unabashedly rowdy at pep rallies and it’s notorious for sending hundreds of naked males to streak through LaFortune in the dead of winter.

Zahm Hall, a dorm widely regarded as both fanatical and close-knit, has drawn comparisons to a fraternity for years – but students and alumni say the basis for that connection is fading, and the dorm’s rector maintains the portrayal is far from accurate.

“One big, big problem with Zahm actually – this is something we don’t talk about often – is that the campus, I think, or at least parts of it, want us to be something like that. They want there to be a bad boy dorm, or a frat boy, frat house, that kind of dorm,” Father Dan Parrish said. “Because it kind of gives them a whipping boy, someone to make jokes about.”

That “bad boy” image, Parrish said, is an unfair – and unfounded – stereotype.

“It really concerns me that when my freshman parents show up on campus, that the guard at the gate says, ‘Oh, your son’s in Zahm, I’m sorry,'” Parrish said. “And that the usher helping you park and that the woman selling ice cream over at the Huddle and everybody says that, because it really worries the parents.”

But during the course of a few years, that’s been changing.

For a hall that so often finds itself in the University spotlight, a shift in community culture is significant. If students in Keough grew frustrated with their hall community, they might start moving off campus – but it wouldn’t be the same as the situation in Zahm, a dorm with an especially prominent reputation in Notre Dame history that residents and alumni say is undergoing a major change.

“I don’t think strict is the right word”

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact source of the Zahm culture shift, students and alumni cite the transition from former rector Father Tom Bednar to current rector Parrish in the fall of 2003.

“When I came here in the fall of 2003, Zahm was a mess, in every way,” Parrish said. “We were broke – flat broke. We had no money. … Our weight room was a pigsty, carpet torn up, just tattered, black smudges all over the walls. Common spaces were just dilapidated. The Foodsales kitchen was dirty, full of rundown broken refrigerators, carpets – everything was just kind of neglected.”

He cited the Zahm football team as “another good example” of why a broad change was necessary. The squad, he said, “didn’t have a whole lot of direction” until the dorm brought in a new coach.

Within two years, Parrish said, Zahm had won the championship.

“Some people resisted that change,” he said. “They said, ‘Hey, you can’t tighten things up.’ And we said, ‘Do you want to win?’ You know, you can be loosely organized and kind of let things fall into attrition and fall into neglect, and they’ll be boring … or you can be organized and disciplined and creative and forward thinking, and guess what – we won the first championship since 1992.

“So yeah, I don’t think strict is the right word. I would just say there’s a lot more care in the dorm.”

Students, however, frequently use the word “strict” to describe Parrish’s leadership style – an approach they say starkly contrasts with the one practiced by Bednar.

“None of your residents are going to like you all the time – that’s unrealistic,” said Kevin Gimber, an off-campus senior who lived in Zahm for three years and served as dorm president as a junior. “But I think there’s certainly a lot of … I guess unrest is the word.”

When Parrish took over, Gimber said the shift was anything but smooth.

“I think that in any transition of power, there are going to be changes,” Gimber said. “I think these were broad changes. Leaders who don’t get the business on board fail. … I think that at some levels, [Parrish] kind of skipped the step in getting the dorm on board with where he wanted to go.”

Joe Cussen, a 2006 alum, said a “heavy disciplinary crackdown was really to blame for the falloff in community.”

“From what I was told by Father Dan, it was the University wanting to tame Zahm Hall, the wild, college, Animal House-type dorm, to give off a more positive, healthy college image to alumni and parents,” said Cussen, who served as Zahm president from 2004-05 and lived in the dorm for three years. “In effect, the opposite happened. I think students had a worse experience. …

“Zahm sort of fell off the map.”

The “crackdown,” Cussen said, occurred when Parrish began sending residents to the Office of Residence Life and Housing for “childish pranks” that previously went unpunished, “things that I guess could have been considered hazing but weren’t that bad.”

One activity that came under fire, he said, was “visiting” -intoxicated juniors and seniors coming home from the bars and waking up freshmen. Cussen called it a “tradition.”

He also cited “paneling.” Again, the behavior involved intoxicated juniors and seniors who, upon returning from the bars, would sometimes knock one of six panels out of a Zahm door.

While Cussen said paneling was certainly considered damage to property, it was “something you fix yourself … easily fixable.” But he said the activity became “so heavily punished to the point where students were fined upwards of $500 for breaking a panel, when really it probably wasn’t as big as all that.”

Before Parrish, that type of activity “wasn’t something punished terribly,” Cussen said.

But students who say the dorm has become stricter are missing the point, Parrish said.

“Basically there’s only one rule for living in Zahm and that’s respect,” he said. “The worst offenses that I think people can commit would be disrespect against themselves, another member of the hall or the building itself. And the guys know that.”

When asked whether he felt certain behaviors had gone unchecked by hall staff before he became rector, Parrish said yes. The reason he and his staff have reported certain cases to the Office of Residence Life and Housing, he said, is for the benefit of the residents.

“If somebody’s dealing with a major issue our question is, how can we help him grow through this, mature, learn, become a better man through this experience? Sometimes that requires sending it to ResLife so that they can deal with it in an official way,” he said. “And that’s not just for the more serious things. Maybe it’s a small thing relative to other cases, but in that person’s life it might be bigger.”

A growing “bitterness”

Whatever the reasoning behind the enforcement, however, students and alumni said it’s driven upperclassmen off campus.

“I just remember a lot more seniors being in Zahm Hall when I was a freshman,” Cussen said.

Mark Seiler, a 2006 alum, also attested to a decline in senior leadership, attributing that change to a growing sense of “bitterness.”

“We should essentially be living in harmony with one another, but it wasn’t like that, and I especially felt that my junior year,” said Seiler, who lived in Zahm for three years, beginning in the fall of 2002. “The way the younger guys were still in the dorm and talking … that feeling grew larger as a result. [When I was a senior] there were juniors that moved off – and that was the first I’d seen of it.”

Seiler’s class set the off-campus trend, he said.

“Starting with my class, an unusual number of people moved off. Starting with my junior year, an unusual number of people got kicked out,” he said.

Statistics provided by Parrish, however, don’t indicate any sharp decline in seniors. During the past four years, the percentage of seniors went from 16.6 in 2003-04 to 13.5 in 2004-05, 16.2 in 2005-06 and 17 in 2006-07.

Director of Residence Life and Housing Jeff Shoup did not provide a similar breakdown from dorms across campus, saying that would be difficult due to a changeover in the Residence Life and Housing computer system.

He also would not provide statistics of students kicked out of Zahm in recent years because the relatively small number could point at specific discipline cases.

But whatever the numbers read, students have still noticed a drop in upperclassmen – and it’s a change they say significantly impacts the character of the community.

Junior and Zahm president Phil Drendall said there were “definitely more seniors” present and vocal in the dorm during his freshman year.

“It showed to me, at least, Zahm’s a great place to stay. You didn’t want to move off because Zahm is cool,” he said. “I don’t know if the freshmen are getting that now.”

The second part of this series will examine the implications of a culture shift at Zahm and the potential for future evolution of the dorm’s image.