‘Our emotions are so high’: Zahm House residents protest news of community’s closure
Editor’s note: This story was updated March 16 at 3:10 p.m.
After the announcement, the unrest came quick. Zahm House residents marched to the front steps of the Main Building, gathering in front of the Golden Dome. In a few minutes, a small crowd of them had consolidated. Many sported Zahm merchandise. Several hung the dorm’s flag over their shoulders. One carried a megaphone.
This impromptu gathering occurred Monday evening after a Division of Student Affairs announcement that the dorm would be indefinitely closed to its community and turned into transitional housing, or a “swing hall,” in the upcoming academic year.
Junior and Zahm resident Glenn Fiocca said Zahm residents were told Monday night that students would have one week to decide between moving off-campus or transferring to another dorm for the 2021-2022 academic year. In a follow-up email Tuesday, director of residential life: housing operations Jonathan Retartha informed the community they would have an extra week, until March 29, to make the decision.
“The rationale for this decision is based on several years of unsuccessful intervention to alter a troubling culture,” the email to the Zahm community said. Nonetheless, it noted: “No single issue — reputational, conduct or COVID — is the reason for this change.”
Members of Zahm House were called to join a Zoom webinar that began roughly at 7:30 p.m., and was led by vice president of student affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding, associate vice president for Residential Life Heather Rakoczy Russell and Residential Life director of training and development Nathan Elliot. The dorm’s rector, Fr. Bill Dailey, and its chaplain, Fr. Gregory Haake, were both on the call as well.
“They gave us a webinar, no opportunity to chat with them at all,” junior Jackson Dooley, who lives in Zahm, said.
Dooley’s initial reaction was shock, he said. But, he added, “the effect of it hasn’t really set in yet.”
By 7:36 p.m., the Division of Student Affairs email had been sent to Zahm residents with the announcement. Residents of Sorin College also received emails from Residential Life and from their rector, Fr. Bob Loughery, announcing that they would move into Zahm as Sorin undergoes renovations in the upcoming academic year.
Zahm residents rally
Fiocca said many Zahm residents gathered in the residence hall’s chapel after the Zoom call in order to talk to Fr. Dailey and voice their opinions and concerns. After that, while people milled about, some Zahm residents went to different floors to gather people and go outside.
“It was sort of a collective decision — everyone wanted to do something, so naturally we went to the Main Building, to air our grievances,” junior and former Zahm resident Riley Kennedy said.
Kennedy, who now lives off-campus, headed to Zahm after listening in on the Zoom call — a friend had shared the link with him. Fiocca was also one of the people who rallied others.
“I said, ‘Put your jacket on. We have to do something. We have to go to the Main Building’,” Fiocca said.
And so they did. A group of approximately 20 to 30 Zahm students walked toward the Golden Dome. Once there, the group began chanting “We are Zahm House.”
They also kneeled in front of the steps, and some raised their arms to form an “X,” one of the symbols of the dorm.
The students also incorporated other Zahm traditions into their protest, such as flying the “Here come the Irish” banner, which is usually raised on football games.
Two Notre Dame Police Department (NDPD) officers stood by the steps, while a few others watched on from afar.
“The University has told us that Zahm makes worse of the members it accepts,” another protester told the crowd through a megaphone. “But I can say wholeheartedly, with every ounce of my soul, that this building has made me a better man, a stronger man, a man with closer brothers than I have ever experienced before.”
During Welcome Weekend, Zahm upperclassmen usually take first-years to see campus landmarks and then meet in front of the Dome, Fiocca said. Per the tradition, they then share anecdotes of life not going their way and conclude that, through it all, Mary is still their mother.
“It’s kind of just explaining that, because you’re at Notre Dame, you’re a part of this community where — regardless of what happens — it will always be there for you,” Fiocca explained.
So, the Zahm residents began chanting that reminder, to themselves and each other: “She is still your mother.”
Onlookers, others react to the news
By 8:30 p.m., hundreds of students had gathered to look over the Zahm crowd. Members of Sorin Hall also stood by — some in support of Zahm residents, as they told The Observer.
Sorin resident and first-year Gabe Pennington said he had mixed feelings about moving into Zahm next year.
“We love our Sorin, but we are hoping we can preserve our culture, unlike Zahm,” Pennington said.
Some residents of Fisher Hall gathered by the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue, oars raised in solidarity. One such student was sophomore Danny Brennan, who expressed confusion about the University’s decision.
“The University has … to look out for what’s best for the community, but we don’t think the total dissolution of a dorm is the way to do it,” Brennan said. “I come from a hall that loves its community and its togetherness. So, to see that being broken up, without too many answers or that much of an explanation, is a little bit troubling.”
Junior J. J. Dyke told The Observer later in the night he was “glad they finally did it.” Dyke transferred out of Zahm after his first year at Notre Dame.
“The culture in Zahm is not exactly in line with Notre Dame’s values as a whole,” he said. “There are great people in Zahm — there are definitely great people in Zahm. But the culture tends away from that.”
Dyke reflected on this culture — only vaguely referenced in the email as “troubling” — as one “that revolves almost exclusively around beer and women.”
“There aren’t a lot of social opportunities that aren’t related to alcohol and the larger Zahm culture,” he added. “… So, rather than being alone, people tend to accept the culture at some point.”
Mobilization across campus
After some time in front of the Main Building, the Zahm residents called for onlookers to join them in a change of location. Many ultimately followed — either to curiously observe or show their support — as the group of protesters marched down Main Quad to South Quad, walking on concrete pathways and shuffling through frost-covered grass.
As the crowd moved through campus, several NDPD officers flanked the group and followed from behind.
“Tonight was more about a spontaneous protest where we just wanted to gather as many people as possible,” Dooley said, distinguishing between the protester’s walk and Zahm’s Welcome Weekend tradition. “And us walking around campus, going past dorms, going to the library, was more just trying to gather people rather than what Welcome Weekend is like.”
The crowd then made its way back to the Main Building, where some students climbed the steps. No one entered the building.
Afterwards, the Zahm House students led the crowd toward Hesburgh Library, rallying a crowd that overflowed into the reflecting pool — which has no water in it during the winter months.
The crowd continued to chant, led mostly by the words of megaphone-wielding Fiocca. Many at the front were unmasked, and others crossed their arms over their heads again to form an “X.”
“[The University is] effectively evicting not only the juniors who are going to be leaving anyway and the seniors who are leaving us, but the freshmen and sophomores that are all in community, who love Zahm and love the people they have met and cultivated relationships with this year,” Fiocca said.
The group dissolved at around 9 p.m., after singing the Alma Mater under the watchful eyes of Hesburgh Library’s Touchdown Jesus.
Zahm residents reflect on the news
Some Zahm residents, like junior Michael McCarthy, were hopeful for the future of the Zahm brotherhood.
“I see the Zahm community outlasting this,” McCarthy said in a text message. “Our traditions are decades-long and our alumni have already been reaching out.”
Others, like junior Brian O’Donnell, urged solidarity from the wider campus community.
“It’s easy to hate on Zahm, just because we’re kind of a scapegoat,” he said. “But for everyone else, I would just say: Imagine this happened to you. If they just came to your dorm, unannounced, out of the blue, and told you that they were shutting it down. How would you feel?”
Some also expressed concern for their residential community and their uncertain futures, like junior Kieran Emmons.
“Considering people have already signed leases for houses and apartments months ago,” he said, “… they really should have told us about this at least months ago, and should have given us some sort of warning.”
Kennedy also expressed concern about the effects of this decision on the mental health of Zahm residents.
“A lot of other people in the dorm have leaned on each other through this extremely tough time here at Notre Dame,” he said. “And that community is the most important thing to me … to a lot of people here at this university, especially the freshmen who weren’t able to branch out.”
Many Zahm residents will have to deal with deciding where to live next year in the next week or so, Kennedy pointed out.
“That’s just a level of uncertainty that no one needs right now,” Kennedy added.
What comes next
Before the Alma Mater rang out through Library Lawn, Fiocca called on those gathered to wear red on Wednesday — Zahm’s official color — to show support for their residence hall and against its closure.
“Tomorrow, if you wear red around this campus, I will assume it is in support [of us],” he said.
In many ways, the future is uncertain for many members of Zahm House. But in other ways, they also seem to be sure of the steps they are taking in the next few days.
According to Kennedy, Zahm’s hall council president is working on a petition and alumni are being contacted to put pressure on the administration. And for Friday, Fiocca said, Zahm residents already have a demonstration planned.
“There’s not a single person that I’ve seen in this hallway that doesn’t have their head in their hands to try to figure out another way to do more,” Fiocca said. “… This is something so unprecedented that we’re trying to struggle with, but we’re also trying to bear the weight for the others, a little bit.”