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An open letter from current, former Zahm House student government to University administration

| Friday, March 19, 2021

As current and former leaders of Zahm House student government, we are deeply saddened to hear about the University’s decision to shut down our campus community, transitioning it into a swing dorm in order to wipe clean the “troubling culture” it determined to be unassailable by other means. A university administration outwardly dedicated to building community on campus is breaking up the very community thousands of men have called home. It is devaluing and disparaging the comfort and support we found in each other, in relationships that have been built for years, at our most vulnerable moments. 

Our hearts go out to all current residents of Zahm, especially to our first-year students. They have endured significant challenges in making friends and finding a home at Notre Dame this year during a global pandemic and will be forced to do it all over again. In a year when 40% of the student body is facing moderate to serious levels of stress and anxiety, we are disappointed that the administration decided to compound that stress for the 177 residents of Zahm. Neglect towards the wellbeing of these students is underscored by the two-week timeline to find future housing during midterms. When the Holy Cross, Grace and Flanner communities were ended, residents were given multiple years to determine their next move.

As campus leaders, we have long considered how to best promote positive growth in our community’s culture. Zahm is not perfect; it never has been and it never will be. But the Holy Cross charism teaches us to strengthen our positive values at the expense of our flaws. Honorary Zahmbie Fr. Ted Hesburgh was the shining example of this guidance. Fr. Ted met with residents of Zahm yearly, taking time to understand both our positive attributes and our failings. True to Catholic love and grace, he guided us as a shepherd with personal care, positive affirmation, and open dialogue. This became the basis of Zahm’s version of The Hesburgh Challenge: a yearly goal for the entire community to strengthen positive aspects of Zahm’s culture and cull negative ones. We are saddened that the University administration has neglected to adopt Fr. Ted’s pastoral approach towards the Zahm community.

In 2012, Zahm pledged to Fr. Ted to end the “Ole, Ole, Zahm’s gay” chant shouted by the entire student section at football games. After campaigning to the rest of the student body, the chant hasn’t been heard at games since. We are proud to have ended the spread of a message so harmful and exclusive to our LGBTQ+ friends and classmates.

Since Father Ted’s passing, we have felt our relationship diminish with the Notre Dame administration. This deterioration cannot be explained better than by walking through what the recent announcement cited as our history of “unusually high turnover of rectors.”

When the oldest of us arrived at Notre Dame in 2014, Zahm was led by Fr. Gary Chamberland, C.S.C. He was promoted two years later to head Notre Dame’s Masters in Divinity Program, a great promotion for a deserving man. His successor, Fr. Matt Hovde, C.S.C., left Zahm after three years to pursue his PhD in Belgium. Subsequently, Robert Francis served for one year before accepting his “dream job:” Director of Youth Mentorship at Xavier University in 2020. Father Bill Dailey, C.S.C. has now been with Zahm for about eight months. 

The University’s claim that our community is irredeemable because of staff changes is plainly misleading and unsupported. Throughout this turnover, residents have had no communication with the administration — nothing that can be considered a long-term vision for the growth of our community.

We point this out to add critically-needed context to a long-standing frustration of ours: it is incredibly challenging to change the culture of a residence hall when the RAs have had to form relationships with multiple rectors throughout their time in Zahm. We imagine the Notre Dame football team would struggle to build a strong culture and positive identity with a new head coach every other year. And yet, even without a stable leader at the helm, our rotating community of 18–22 year olds has tried to grow, improve our culture and rectify our negative reputation. 

After extensive talks with current and former Zahm House staff, residents and alumni, our community wishes to open a dialogue with vice president for student affairs Erin Hoffman-Harding, associate vice president for residential life Heather Rakosczy Russell, M-Div., associate vice president for student development M. Brian Coughlin, M.A. and University President Fr. John Jenkins to delineate an action plan that strengthens our positive attributes and diminishes our negative ones in a way that affirms, empowers and protects the mental health and well-being of current residents. 

We understand there is a need for change to address the administration’s concerns, and we hope we can look to the memory of Fr. Ted to best engender this growth. Our hope is that the administration takes on this challenge WITH us — the current residents of Zahm — to enact this change in a way that is beneficial for all at this University. 

We are greatly appreciative to the thousands who have shown support for our efforts thus far. While the student body may chant an expletive paired with our name at football games, we know it is done with the same love towards us that we share with all of you.

Yours in Notre Dame,

Will Brendza

Tommy Crooks

Nolan Downey

Alec Jbara

Carson Lance

Mark Moran

Austin Rotter

Hector Peralta

Luke Wurl

Alex Bonino

Chris Brendza

Chris Nunes

Jack Julien

Troy Prince

The current and former presidents and vice presidents of Zahm House, 2017-2021

Mar. 18

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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