Letter to the Editor | Sunday, November 22, 2015
Several years ago, I began a Viewpoint letter I never finished, and I am grateful for never having finished it. In the fall of 2012, I took a medical withdrawal from Notre Dame to address my struggles with OCD and anxiety. The withdrawal and readmission process was stressful and disorganized, and, on the whole, left me with a negative impression of the administrators facilitating the process. When I returned to Notre Dame, my initial objective was to muckrake the University with respect to my experience and, pardon my language, to raise a little bit of hell. However, before I could finish my Viewpoint “exposé,” I received an opportunity to provide feedback directly to the administration. This led to additional conversations with various people who work in the iconic Golden Dome. After some time, I arrived at a shocking realization: These people cared. The University administrators cared about my story, about my experience, about me. I met with associate vice presidents in student affairs and directors of various departments; these were important people, and yet, these men and women were interested in my experiences as a student and as a human being, and they went above and beyond my narrow-minded perception of the role of an administrator to assist me in thriving as a student and as a person.
Through these conversations and other advocacy work, the withdrawal and readmission process has been greatly reformed and continues to be improved today. No one marginalized my experiences or took my words for granted. The administrators sought to improve Notre Dame based on constructive criticism provided through conversation. My understanding of the Notre Dame administration deepened and my perspective widened.
As some of you may know, Notre Dame has been in the news for more than its success on the football field in the past few days. As reported in The Observer on Friday, Oct. 30, a student has filed a lawsuit against the University, “seeking damages for alleged sexual harassment and racial discrimination by an employee of Notre Dame.” USA Today, New York Daily News, Sports Illustrated and the like have latched onto the story, as the media tend to do. I am most concerned about a Viewpoint column published Monday, Nov. 2, by Hunter McDaniel. This column, entitled “A troubling lawsuit,” arguably ventures down the road I almost traveled several years ago.
For those who have not yet read about this situation, a Notre Dame student alleges a University employee “initiated, directed and coordinated a sexually and racially motivated inappropriate and demeaning relationship” with the student. The entire lawsuit can be found on WSBT’s website — I encourage reading the document to better understand the intricacies of the lawsuit.
In his Viewpoint piece, Mr. McDaniel states: “The University’s reaction to this case has been severely lacking up to this point. I have heard nothing about this from the school itself, and nobody really seems to care. The administration in general seems to act only out of obligation rather than out of any sense of justice for the victims in sexual assault cases on campus, and currently that obligation does not appear to extend equally to male students.”
It seems that the knee-jerk reaction of many people in the Notre Dame community is to immediately assume the University has acted neglectfully when an issue arises. I understand this feeling — I was the poster child for feelings of angst and frustration toward the administration, until I started to build relationships with the people themselves. The present situation is messy to be sure, and I make no assumptions as to what is true or not with respect to the conduct of the accused former employee. I encourage students to be open to the possibility that the administration cares deeply for the well-being of each member of the Notre Dame family. Rather than immediately accusing the University of “victim blaming” and acting “only out of obligation,” I would encourage students to begin from a place of openness to the possibility that the Notre Dame administrators addressed this situation appropriately, though perhaps not publicly for reasons of privacy. Finally, I encourage attention to the response from Paul Browne, the Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications, who stated, “[The] plaintiff’s counsel made repeated, unsupported allegations that Notre Dame failed to act, when in fact the University acted immediately when it learned of a problem.” Browne goes on to state that an independent investigation was conducted and that the employee in question was fired early in October. This is not a call to blindly follow and accept all that the administration says or does; it is a call to openness, to the possibility of mutual care and concern for the Notre Dame family by students and administrators alike.
The Golden Dome, the most famous icon of Notre Dame, is certainly beloved among the members of the Notre Dame family. However, it is often seen as the distant ivory tower that houses the elite and untouchable University administration. The disconnect between the student body and the administration is felt heavily by both parties; it is my hope that this gap continues to be bridged through openness to conversation and to the notion that administrators are indeed legitimate and caring members of the Notre Dame family.
Disclaimer: As a current student intern within the Division of Student Affairs, it is important to note this article was not written under the auspices of this position. The content of this article represents the views of the author alone.