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How we know our University has failed

Daniel J. Myers | Friday, January 15, 2010

I’m not a big fan of mission statements. They usually either just state something that everyone already knew or are so meandering and vague they couldn’t possibly guide anything. But a good one can actually tell us something about our aspirations for the outcomes of our work. In the case of this university, one of the most important outputs is the character of our students — and our mission statement says so:
“The University seeks to cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings, but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice, and oppression that burden the lives of so many. The aim is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.”
Note especially the phrases “a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression” and “a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good.” If students walk away from Notre Dame without these, we have failed. Those failures should both sadden us and strengthen our resolve to work toward a better outcome, especially when confronted blatant evidence of our failures.
Case in point: Tuesday’s comic “The Mobile Party.” In case you missed it, the comic poses the question “What is the easiest way to turn a fruit into a vegetable?” And answers, “A baseball bat.” The strip can be viewed on the strip’s blog as well (themobileparty.blogspot.com). Can the authors (students here at our beloved university) explain how this comic is an expression of a disciplined sensibility to injustice and oppression, or reflecting human solidarity, or concern for the common good?
What’s worse is that the blog also posts a version that was apparently rejected The Observer in which the response isn’t “a baseball bat,” but “AIDS.” Again, solidarity? Concern for the common good? The post also includes a gmail chat in which the Observer staffer rejects the AIDS version because they “prefer not to make light of a fatal disease.” They don’t mind, however, making light of beating another human being with a baseball bat until that person becomes a “vegetable.”
This is no isolated incident on our campus. Last year, for example, during the bookstore basketball tournament, there were two teams whose names referenced Chris Brown/Rihanna (“Unlike Rihanna, we get our hands up on defense” and “Chris Brown’s Greatest Hits”). It’s no surprise that these kinds of cultural references come up in team names, but it is appalling. Even worse, the organizers chose these names as members of their “Top 10 Team Names” list and presented them at the Captains meeting as if they were exemplary — ones we should think are funny, or appreciate, or, God forbid, emulate! Is this really funny: “The Los Angeles County court affidavit alleges that Mr. Brown, 19, repeatedly punched ‘Robyn F.’ [Robyn Rihanna Fenty] — in the face and arms, bit her, held her so tightly in a headlock that she almost lost consciousness and threatened to kill her…”?
On this campus many students, faculty and staff work hard to combat violence. Getting a cheap laugh at the expense of the abused, bashed, disabled and even murdered not only belittles these horrific experiences but encourages more violence. Instead, our student leaders — elected leaders, organizers of campus activities and the editors, writers and cartoonists in our main public forum — ought to also be leaders in supporting our mission. If we can’t even get these people on board with our core values, then we truly have failed.

Daniel Myers is a professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.