Rectors can’t do their jobs while handcuffed
G. Matthew Molinsky | Thursday, April 16, 2020
When the rectors of Notre Dame residence halls are unobstructed from doing their jobs, their roles resemble that of fathers and mothers. As parents do with their children, rectors share a life with their residents and in an intimate home. They eat meals together, celebrate holidays together and pray together.
However, certain policies from the Office of Community Standards (OCS) and the Office of Residential Life debilitate the role of the rector and, consequently, the fruitful relationships rectors have with their residents all in the name of consistency.
After years of students complaining about unequal punishments given to residents of different halls for similar offenses, especially between men’s and women’s halls, OCS took greater control over deciding punishments for Standards of Conduct violations, limiting rectors’ authorities to only deciding the punishments for small, first time offenses.
This was done with the goal of consistency, but as an RA, I witnessed more than a few cases of inconsistent punishment for what appeared to be the same offense. Under the current OCS policy, each student violation is handled by a single member of OCS. For this reason, it’s likely that students who commit similar but separate violations have different people who decide their punishments. In my experience, some students were met with leniency and understanding, but others were held to a much harsher standard and some even stood before administrators who seemed completely uninformed on the student’s situation or even the matters of the alleged violations. In this system where decisions are made by individual OCS members who do not know a student’s character or situation like their rector does, inconsistencies still abound.
Contrary to popular thinking in the Notre Dame administration, a system where rectors have the final say on most punishments offers students the most consistency. This system enables rectors to communicate their expectations and what students can anticipate when those expectations are not met, while also giving rectors the flexibility to bring their knowledge of individual students’ circumstances into the discussion when necessary. This system would allow rectors to establish consistent enforcement of the rules within their dorm, even if that enforcement doesn’t seem consistent with other dorms. The benefit of this is that every student knows what is expected of them within their home.
And if there is a dorm where rules are either being under-enforced or, on the other hand, members of hall staff are acting in a way that starts to resemble police officers rather than community builders, a change in individual members of hall staff may be in order, not an overhaul of one of our most prized traditions here at Notre Dame.
The latest overreach by the Office of Residential Life is the on-off campus differentiation policy. Under this policy, seniors who live off campus will be barred from participating in most activities within their dorm including attending dances, playing on interhall sports teams and leading hall events and activities, unless they are granted an exemption for each particular activity they wish to partake in. The worst part about this policy is that rectors do not have the authority to grant these exemptions. The decisions on who is granted an exemption will be made by three members of the Office of Residential Life. As inconsistent, unfair, uncompassionate disciplinary actions are currently made by uninformed administrators, so too will decisions be inconsistently made on who can and can’t be a member of their community, a community these administrators are not a part of.
Rectors have been handling the problem of on-off campus differentiation for some time now. Not every dorm has allowed off-campus seniors to participate fully in their previous dorm community. While most rectors have communicated to past and present residents that they are always welcome, whether they are currently sleeping within the dorm walls or half a mile down the road, other rectors have had to limit the role of off-campus students in order to give more opportunities and resources to those who choose to live within the dorm, and that’s OK, too. Rectors have a better understanding of what’s best for their community than any other employee of Notre Dame.
The job of the rector is moving toward some strange combination of police officer and guidance counsellor, and this must stop. If the goal of the Offices of Community Standards and Residential Life is consistency, for students to have an idea of what is expected of them and what to expect from their dorm community, more authority must be given to rectors. The job of rectors is to lead their communities, to be fathers and mothers to their families of college students. Notre Dame administrators need to humble themselves and admit they often don’t know what is best for individual students. They can do as many small discussions as they like and read all the studies in the world on how best to run a university, but their understanding of a student’s needs will never surpass a rector’s, someone who has truly entered into the realities of their students, someone who has earned students’ trust and respect. Administrators can offer many resources to help rectors do their jobs, but they must stop getting in the way. In order to do their jobs, rectors must be given the freedom to make decisions they believe is best for their halls.
Matthew is the 3-Talley RA in Alumni Hall, from Cincinnati. He majors in civil engineering with an itty bitty minor in theology. Writing this column is the last in his long list of shortly lived passions. He can be reached at [email protected] and @coltonjorge on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.