Elite or incomplete?
Letter to the Editor | Friday, November 30, 2018
“This college will be one of the most powerful means for doing good in this country.” Fr. Edward Sorin, founder of the University of Notre Dame.
The University of Notre Dame is an elite institution with a loyal and committed fan base unlike any other. It prides itself on monumental amounts of school spirit and absolute devotion that students, alumni and even those with no relation show for the Irish. However, the mystical enchantment for our beloved Notre Dame sacrifices real critique. While Notre Dame is a beautiful place, the students are absorbed into a Notre Dame campus bubble. This bubble then serves as a protective layer, rarely penetrated by the issues and the daily lives of those in the South Bend community.
As a junior at the University, I find the issue of community engagement is a pressing one. One of the most common phrases on a campus dominated by students from large metropolitan areas is that “Notre Dame is in the middle of nowhere.” For over 100,000 individuals and families, however, South Bend, is somewhere: It is home. Even so, many students will never travel beyond the campus boundaries, other than the few frequented student bars. Many will graduate without attending a single community event in South Bend. Some might not even be able to tell you how to get to downtown from campus.
While this may sound cynical, it isn’t meant to be. My frustration is that we cannot simply define the issue, nor do we know how to precisely solve for it. Not only are there many different rich social activities and events for students to attend in South Bend, there are experiences that augment the vastly different circumstances than our campus experience provides. At the end of 2017, 22 of the 33 schools in the South Bend Community School district received a D or an F rating from the Indiana Department of Education. Naturally, these grades should not be oversimplified to assume incompetence of teachers or parents working tirelessly with commitment to the students. But, how can a “top 20” university coexist or even reconcile its ethos of educational excellence with an increasingly striking amount of failing schools in its own backyard?
Additionally, last year South Bend faced a controversy over the homeless population under the Main Street Viaduct. The city has requested that the people who live under the viaduct find an alternative accommodation. As the issue spurred debate among the locals, many on campus were just learning for the first time and are shocked to discover that there are people without a home in our own community. Again, how can we, Notre Dame, have a nationally ranked endowment of nearly $12 billion, and justify failing to give shelter to people experiencing homelessness?
This reality isn’t unique to Notre Dame. Many of the most competitive and most progressive universities in the country with multi-billion dollar endowments are confronted with communities of homelessness, underperforming schools and high statistics of crime without achieving reconciliation. It is impossible, though, for Notre Dame and other prominent institutions of social change to pride themselves on attracting and admitting students focused on “social change,” when the contradiction is that the University itself not does not have a deep-rooted commitment to its own community. Notre Dame, and many others, is instilling values in its students to instigate change in the country, and in the developing world. Nevertheless, in our idealistic visions, we cannot step right over the community surrounding our universities.
Among the Notre Dame student body and faculty, there are many examples of those who work to bridge the gap, yet we must do more. The administration of Notre Dame must serve as a leader — to the students and to other universities. While we enjoy the green grass and Mother Mary as she adorns the glistening golden dome, we need to confront this hypocrisy. An esteemed University, beloved and committed to Catholic Social Teaching, with our own community members suffering. As we outwardly present ourselves to others as the mighty Notre Dame, we need to also look inward.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.