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‘Our students are carrying weight that is more than books into classrooms’: End Hate at ND panelists discuss University life

| Friday, February 21, 2020

A group of students, administrators and faculty gathered for “Identity and Belonging: Highlighting Diverse Voices in the Classroom and Dorm,” a panel discussion about diversity and inclusion Notre Dame on Thursday evening in Bond Hall. Sponsored by End Hate at ND, the Film, Television and Theater Department and the Gender Studies Program, the panel featured speakers who reflected on how Notre Dame could be a more inclusive environment for underrepresented students.

Tom Naatz

“Identity and Belonging: Highlighting Diverse Voices in the Classroom and Dorm” addressed inclusivity on campus, and featured the experiences of senior Savanna Morgan, an End Hate at ND organizer.

Senior Savanna Morgan — one of the principal organizers of the End Hate at ND movement — began by speaking about her positive experiences at Notre Dame.

“I’ve had some incredible experiences here as a student at Notre Dame,” Morgan said. “I’m studying something I love — theater and the art of playwriting and performance — and I’ve been afforded opportunities to participate in half a dozen theatrical productions, travel to half a dozen countries, sing the music I love with Notre Dame Jazz Band and for years I’ve conducted research on performance pedagogy with the support of several faculty across departments. I’ve met amazing people here and I’ve grown intellectually and spiritually in ways I couldn’t even have imagined growing up.”

Nevertheless, Morgan said the positives only comprise a small part of her experience at the University.

“While these accomplishments have been essential to my professional and intellectual growth, accomplishments have only made up a small piece of the pie that is my Notre Dame experience,” she said.

Morgan then described three instances of overt racism she has experienced during her time as a student. Once during her freshman year, a group of students in her dorm harassed her about her hair and addressed her in a disrespectful way. In a sophomore philosophy class, she said a white student argued that America’s wealth excused the enslavement of African Americans, as well as the “genocide” committed against Native Americans; the professor did not challenge these remarks. Finally, she discussed being the victim of hate speech in Stanford and Keenan Halls last November — the incidents which incited the creation of End Hate at ND.

Morgan condemned the systematic racism she said exists at Notre Dame.

“We fail to address the preferential treatment of white people and white things,” she said. “Every type of thing at this school is extremely white, even our curriculum. Black and brown voices are not equally prioritized in the classroom or the dorm, so how can we expect student and faculty to value our contributions as human beings? As equals? … Not enough has been done to promote cultural consciousness and awareness of the dynamics at play in regards to power in the world and on campus.”

Hugh Page, vice president and associate provost for undergraduate affairs, acknowledged that, though some progress has been made, Notre Dame has work to do in addressing issues of inclusion.

“The root problem I would identify is how to enhance belonging on campus in ways that honor the identities and embody the experiences of faculty, staff and students, and empower them to be change agents and move towards becoming a more fully engaged community of what I would call compassionate intellectuals,” he said.

While he mentioned some recent steps to alleviate the issue — including new administration posts related to diversity and inclusion, more affinity groups and college and school specific diversity plans — he lamented the lack of diversity at the school.

“Some of our undergraduates are likely to receive degrees without ever having been taught or mentored by a faculty-person of color. Some will leave without having encountered or heard the works of some women and scholars of color,” Page said. “Many may well leave Notre Dame without having had opportunities to think about how colonialism, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and race have shaped American history and have impacted privilege, heritable wealth, the wellbeing of people of color and even access to education at elite colleges and universities like this one.”

Justin McDevitt, the rector of Stanford Hall, spoke about his college years at the University of Houston. McDevitt said his school was one of the most diverse in the country, so the whiteness of Notre Dame was apparent to him.

“I remember one football Saturday last year, I was walking across campus taking in the sights, the sounds and the excitement of game day. The bagpipes, the green shamrocks painted on faces, the Celtic font on shirts and flags and buildings — the sheer Irishness of that experience,” he said. “For the first time, I admit, I wondered how Notre Dame got so universally culturally white. This was only reinforced when I turned the corner between O’Shag and Fitz and heard gospel music coming from a tent right in front of DeBart. About seven or eight African American students were selling burgers to raise money for their student group … in a sea of people at Notre Dame on a game day — and in plain sight of the stadium — not a single person was at their tent buying food.”

McDevitt said Stanford is committed to improvement after the hate speech incident and has introduced several measures to increase cultural sensitivity in the wake of that incident.

“After the protest, dozens of my guys came to me and said, ‘J-Mac, this isn’t us. We’re not like this. We’re better than this,’” McDevitt said. “To which I would always reply: ‘We may not have done a lot of harm in the past, but we also haven’t done a lot of good either. And it’s time to change that.’”

Director of the Gender Studies Program Mary Kearney said the school needs to work on creating more hospitable classroom environments to make underrepresented groups feel more comfortable. She called for adding diverse voices to syllabi and described how the gender studies program makes students feel welcome.

“We encourage students to always connect what they are learning to their own experiences, their relationships with other people and the social institutions they interact with and move through,” she said. “We make space in our classroom discussions and course assignments for that kind of productive, critical reflection. Much more of that is needed at Notre Dame.”

Director for academic diversity and inclusion Pamela Nolan Young called attention to the lack of diversity among Notre Dame faculty — particularly on the tenure track. While she noted there are several different types of faculty on campus, she said the lack of diversity in this group is troubling. She also noted that while the school offers cultural consciousness training for teachers, such workshops are optional.

“Our current tenure track faculty population is 908 … of that number, only 84 have identified as being two or more races, African American or Latinx. We have 104 Asian-American faculty; 247 of our faculty are female,” she said. “So we have a long way to go in diversifying our faculty.”

Arnel Bulaoro, the interim director of multicultural student programs and services, said his group has made progress in mentoring students from underrepresented groups as they perform undergraduate research. He stressed the importance of representation in education.

“For well over a decade, identity and belonging have been the words that have anchored my work at Notre Dame … These [words] over the years have taught me that we have to pay attention to … who’s in the room, and who’s not in the room,” he said.

Finally, Lyons Hall rector Kayla August described ways she thought dorm life could be made more inclusive. She offered several critiques of Welcome Weekend, noting that from the very first moment students arrive on campus they are exposed the school’s whiteness. As an example, she cited the songs dorms choose to use as their serenades.

August — who is African American — said the school’s lack of diversity is immediately visible to incoming freshmen.

“I have one-on-ones with all of my incoming freshmen,” she said. “I talk to them about how life is going at Notre Dame. One of my African American freshmen, the first time I had actually sat down with her, said, ‘I just feel like God put me in this hall. … I got a black RA and a black rector. You guys must’ve beat the system.’ It took her only two weeks to think that there was a system, and that someone beat it, and that she too needed to be invited into that community. I think that says something about what our students experience here.”

Speaking about how overwhelming Notre Dame can be for students from underrepresented groups, August said the same student later told her she was just trying to survive her time at Notre Dame.

“Our students are carrying weight that is more than books into the classrooms and into the halls. We need to help them,” August said. “It effects how they perform in the classroom, it effects how they get through campus. The same student … when I ask her how it’s going, she says, ‘I just got to get to senior year.’ She hasn’t even been here a whole year yet, and that’s the only thing I’ve ever heard from her when she walks into my hall.”

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About Tom Naatz

Tom is a senior at University of Notre Dame. He is majoring in Political Science and Spanish and is originally from Rockville, Maryland. Formerly The Observer's Notre Dame News Editor, he's now a proud columnist for the paper.

Contact Tom