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Poorman reflects on term, expresses gratitude for opportunity to serve

Madeline Buckley | Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In an administrative position that requires communicating with trustees, University officers, faculty, alumni and students, Vice President for Student Affairs Fr. Mark Poorman said the core of his job is looking out for the individual student’s experience.

“Sometimes you never know when you get up in the morning how your day is going to unfold because with 11,400 students, there are a lot of stories, a lot of concerns and a lot of crises,” he said.

Poorman, who has headed the Office of Student Affairs for 11 years, announced in the fall that he will step down as vice president — a job which he said is one of the “most gratifying things” he has done as a Holy Cross priest.

Fr. Thomas Doyle, executive vice president at the University of Portland, will replace Poorman June 30.

“It’s time. There are some other things I want to do. I always loved teaching, and I want to return to theology and teaching,” Poorman said as the end of the year and the end of his tenure approaches. “I think it’s time for other people to assume leadership and bring ideas to student life.”

Looking back on the past 11 years, Poorman said a constant challenge as an administrator at Notre Dame was balancing academics and Catholicism at the University.

“We have said from the beginning that we want to have both true academic excellence and deepen Catholic character,” he said. “We live in a culture that sometimes wonders whether we can do both.”

But Poorman cited a strong campus ministry program and students active in religious life as evidence that it is possible to merge academics and religion.

“I think the Catholic character pervades everything we do,” he said.

Leading an office with a central focus on student life, Poorman said his tenure as vice president has had several focuses, namely integrating academics into campus life, overseeing construction of two new residence halls, as well as several other building projects and diversity initiatives.

Poorman led Student Affairs through the construction of Duncan and Ryan Halls, the renovation of the counseling and health care offerings in Saint Liam’s Hall and the use of Coleman-Morse Center to house Campus Ministry.

Ryan and Duncan Halls, as well as putting into place plans for the construction of two new dorms, were important initiatives for maintaining the quality of life in the dorms and solving the problem of overcrowding in the residence halls, Poorman said.

“There have been lots of initiatives to improve residential life over past 10 years,” he said.

“We want to un-crowd current residence halls to meet a national standard for personal space, study space and social space.”

Poorman said the renovation of Saint Liam’s Hall was part of a push to address student health concerns like alcohol abuse and mental health issues.

“I think we have a lot more students with serious issues like depression and anxiety. We’ve done some soul searching about the appropriate level of service for students with stronger needs,” he said. “That’s been with us, and we are constantly are strategizing about how to address it.”

During Poorman’s time in Student Affairs, the Office also created the Gender Relations Center and restructured the Core Council for Gay and Lesbian students.

“In the course of past decade, we have worked really hard to create and sustain a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students, including gay and lesbian students,” he said. “I think we have some terrific support for gay and lesbian students, like Coffee in CoMo and StaND Against Hate Week. I’m very proud of what been able to do in last decade.”

But he said the accomplishments of the Office in the past 11 years are a credit to a large staff.

“My colleagues in Student Affairs are shining examples of the superb educational and pastoral leadership that characterizes Notre Dame’s student life, and I owe them and others an enormous debt of gratitude for all that we have achieved together,” he said.

Recently, Poorman helped student government established a new Transpo route that runs Friday and Saturday nights, taking students off campus for the evening. Student government did the legwork to create the route and partially funded it, along with Student Affairs.

“I think at the beginning, we wondered whether the ridership would be strong, but after first couple weekends realized students would actually use service,” Poorman said of helping push through the Transpo initiative. “Our primary concern was the safety and welfare of students, and I think the service has been a great step forward.”

Former student body president Grant Schmidt, who worked with Poorman on the Transpo initiative, said the priest makes students his first priority.

“What’s so incredible is that despite his challenging responsibilities, he fulfills them with such a great approach — an approach that constantly keeps students as the focus,” Schmidt said. “And because of that, students flock to him.”

Poorman said forming relationships with students is central to his vocation as a Holy Cross priest.

“I live with students, I teach students, I pray with students, I oversee the quality of their lives as an administrator,” he said. “I’m very blessed in that all that contact gives me great access to students and vice versa.”

In the fall, Poorman will take an academic leave to serve as a visiting scholar at Santa Clara University in California before returning to Notre Dame to rejoin the theology faculty full time. He said he will possibly teach a class in the spring.

“I feel so blessed and grateful,” he said of the past 11 years. “My basic sense is just tremendous gratitude.”