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Break the cycle: A time for justice

| Friday, May 7, 2021

The Derek Chauvin verdict has revived last summer’s hopes for transformative social change. The day following the Chauvin verdict, Fr. Jenkins called on the Notre Dame community “to seek justice, foster solidarity and fight racism and bigotry anywhere and in any form.”

While a number of laudable teaching and scholarly initiatives have been undertaken throughout the University to address racism and inequality, more needs to be done. It is important to acknowledge that racism goes deeper than overt bigotry or discrimination. The toxic legacy of centuries of oppression and violence includes not only unfair treatment by law enforcement and the judicial system, but also income disparities and unequal access to educational opportunities. It is time that we ask whether Notre Dame and other elite universities contribute to this legacy.

As Gerald Beyer notes, in his recently published book “Just Universities: Catholic Social Teaching Confronts Corporatized Higher Education,” Catholic colleges have a long history of racial discrimination. While small numbers of Black students were enrolled in private universities throughout the 1900s, Black students were generally denied admission to leading Catholic universities until the 1930s. The first Black student graduated from Notre Dame in 1947. Although Black high school graduates have made impressive gains in college enrollment, white students are grossly overrepresented at elite colleges and universities. Black students too often wind up in underfunded, open-access institutions. Fifteen percent of high school graduates are Black, but Black students make up only around 8% of the students in elite universities. Notre Dame enrolls half that average.

Selective colleges have the resources to play a crucial role in addressing the legacy of white supremacy and fostering upward mobility for all. Tragically, while appealing to meritocratic values, elite colleges recycle advantage and disadvantage with their skewed admissions policies. These policies favor those with access to better schools and the resources to pay for standardized test preparation, to allow for unpaid internships instead of paid jobs and to enable enrichment through travel and the like. On average, white families have 10 times the wealth of Black families, and this inequity influences who is admitted to elite universities and who is turned away.

Much of that racial wealth disparity is due to a long history of discrimination in the workplace and housing market, which forced Black families to live in segregated, low-income neighborhoods and to send their children to struggling schools. Today approximately 72% of Black children attend “high-poverty” schools, which puts them behind academically. On top of that, their families cannot afford the cognitive enrichments available to the more fortunate.

Those of us with privilege are accustomed to responding to injustice as individuals through our volunteer activities, public advocacy and voting. Addressing the systemic racism and inequality among the elites in higher education demands more. We must come together as a collective to make Notre Dame a leader in the struggle for justice in higher education.

A 2017 study by Chetty et al. reported in the New York Times revealed that Notre Dame had one of the least economically diverse student enrollments of any universities in the United States. Notre Dame pulls 75% of its students from the highest income quintile and only 1.6% of its students from the bottom quintile. Rather than being a force for equity in higher education, Notre Dame is a leader among prestigious universities who have been described by the Education Trust as “engines of inequality.” Even our Catholic rivals, Boston College and Georgetown, whose endowments are far below ours, do a better job of representing the “have nots.”

To be fair, Notre Dame has recently increased its financial aid to lower income students. Yet, the modest enrollment gains that have resulted pale in significance when weighed against our radically skewed enrollment. Clearly Notre Dame can and must do better, but what should “better” look like?

Here are a few places to begin. We should increase efforts to enroll more students of color and first-generation college students, and we should make permanent the current policy of not requiring SAT or ACT scores for undergraduate applicants. We should hire more faculty of color and ensure that all students encounter diverse voices and histories in the curriculum. We should guarantee a living wage to all University staff and scrupulously protect their right to collective bargaining. We should divest from stock in for-profit prison corporations, and we should support efforts in the South Bend community to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

Notre Dame built its faculty, campus and endowment through the largesse of its white and wealthy supporters and through its highly disciplined and aggressive business model. We have also carefully cultivated a Notre Dame brand that is both Catholic and corporate. All of us — students, staff, faculty and administrators — benefit from our enviable financial position and prestige. To question Notre Dame’s wealth-building admissions policies may seem dishonest or at least disingenuous.

At the risk of appearing unrealistic or ungrateful, we feel compelled to break the silence that unwittingly protects our corporate values, priorities and ambitions. The need for change is acute, and now is the time to act. All of us in the Notre Dame community, as well as our trustees, administrators and members of the Holy Cross Order, are responsible to uphold our mission and institutional integrity. We cannot continue to espouse principles of justice and Catholic Social Teaching while we are contributing to the inequality that we deplore. To paraphrase Mark 8:36: “What does it profit us to gain all we have, if we are to lose our soul?”

Next fall, all of us will be asked to participate in the University’s strategic planning process that will determine the targets for our next fundraising campaign. Before we identify the needs within our particular units, we must examine our collective conscience and reset our priorities as a University. We must engage now in a long-overdue dialogue that will set concrete institutional goals expressing a decisive commitment to anti-racism, justice and the preferential option for poor. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.”

F. Clark Power

professor of the Program of Liberal Studies

Stephen Fallon

professor of the Program of Liberal Studies and English

John Duffy

professor of English

May 4

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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