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Where in the world is Erin Hoffmann Harding?

| Thursday, September 19, 2019

In the past two years, there have been a tremendous amount of changes to student life at Notre Dame. Baumer Hall has its first residents. A new women’s hall is nearing completion. Pizza Pi opened up in place of Reckers (RIP) and serves alcohol on campus. The football program added another building as it continues its slow takeover of the entire campus. And oh yeah, now everyone has to live on campus for three years, you can only swipe into your current dorm and off-campus students are being relegated to second-class students.

Those are some big changes. Thankfully, they were well planned out with input from a diverse group of students, faculty and staff. There was careful deliberation and an honest discussion with the student body before announcing these changes. Yes, God bless Campus Dining, who have been relatively transparent and receptive to student input during its entire development process. Hopefully Notre Dame residential life is taking notes.

Do students even know who the people making these decisions are? They rarely meet with the student senate, let alone open-campus groups. Yet they hold immense power over our lives and wallets, forcing changes down our throats without so much as a period for public comment. There was one meeting over the three-year housing mandate, and it was back in 2017. There were zero meetings about relegating off-campus students to a lesser status or restricting dorm swipes. I encourage readers to email Heather Rakoczy Russell, our associate vice president for residential life, and share their respectful and professional opinions on the new changes. Not a student anymore, or never were one in the first place? Notre Dame loves to promote its family atmosphere, so that means your opinion matters too.  

Perhaps your dissatisfaction is particularly strong, or your concerns expand beyond that of residential life alone. I would direct you to Erin Hoffmann Harding, our vice president of student affairs. Unlike Rakoczy Russell, however, she does not post her email publicly on her biography on our website. That is very understandable. She is a part of the president’s leadership council with the other VPs and the provost, so she presumably does not have time to answer mundane student emails on a daily basis. After all, it is not as though I can simply text Sen. Charles Schumer when I am upset with a new congressional action at home in New York. 

Sen. Schumer, the current Minority Leader in the Senate, does travel around New York during recesses to meet with his constituents. A quick glance at his website shows he has even visited my home county, Onondaga, a few times in 2019. This shows me he is at the very least pretending to care about all the residents of New York, not just the wealthy donors of Lower Manhattan. Since this is not a political column, and in the interest of nonpartisanship, I also want to point out that my Republican U.S. Rep. John Katko has hosted town halls across Onondaga County as well.

My home county has a population of approximately 465,000 people. New York as a whole is home to over 19 million people. Notre Dame has, on average, 8,500 undergraduate students from year to year. Graduate students are people too, and their concerns are equally valid, but they are much less impacted (so far) by changes to residential life and dorm policies. Despite this much smaller “constituency,” there has been one town hall since the first change to housing policies were announced, and that was over two years ago. Some of the freshmen on campus for that meeting are 21 now.

The conclusion I am drawing is simple: Our university’s professional leadership needs to be more accountable for its decisions and actions. Meet with students more and in less formal settings than student senate. Ask for our feedback before making changes. Even asking at all would be an improvement. Give more power to student government, whose biggest changes year to year seem to be which artist they can book to fail to show up to a show in Stepan. 

And to student government: Do your part to hold our professional leadership more accountable. They seem marginally more willing to meet with you as a body, so take advantage of this. Pass resolutions condemning unpopular policies. Encourage your friends and dorm neighbors to show up to senate meetings and make their voices heard. This campus is apathetic to a fault, but even we seem to have a breaking point. More than 1,000 students showed up at the Golden Dome last spring to protest the housing policy changes. 

I was genuinely sad I was abroad and unable to join in on the first major subversive action taken in my time at Notre Dame. I was also extremely proud of my fellow students, and of my old RA who started the petition denouncing the exclusion of off-campus students from campus life. It should be noted that despite the unprecedented display of protest by their students and the petition with over 6,000 signatures, there was no response from University officials. Former President Barack Obama took time to respond to official We the People petitions on such diverse issues as funding the Death Star and freedom to choose your own cell phone network. I think our president’s council, which lists among its commitments “Build a Notre Dame community in which all can flourish,” can take the time to address a petition with a backing equivalent to almost 75% of our undergraduate population. It is far past time for our professional leadership to be more accessible and for our student leaders to demand this of them. Do your part, stay informed and get involved.

Ben Testani is a senior studying international economics, Arabic and Spanish. He comes to Notre Dame via Central New York and, while currently residing off-campus, will always be a proud Alumni Dawg. He welcomes feedback at [email protected] or @BenTestani on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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