‘At the heart of the student experience’: Hoffmann Harding discusses 9 years as vice president for student affairs
Alysa Guffey | Monday, June 7, 2021
In 2005, Fr. John Jenkins, a former professor of Erin Hoffmann Harding, was elected president of the University of Notre Dame. That same year, Jenkins invited Hoffmann Harding to work alongside him at the University.
“I came back really in a very direct way to try to serve the alma mater that I had loved so deeply,” Hoffmann Harding said.
On April 29, the University announced that Hoffmann Harding would be stepping away from her position of vice president of student affairs after holding it since 2012 and previously working in strategic planning for the University from 2005-2012.
Hoffmann Harding graduated with an undergraduate degree from Notre Dame in 1997 and lived in Siegfried Hall for four years, right before it was converted into a men’s dormitory.
In her role as vice president for student affairs, Hoffmann Harding served students’ needs and worked to assist students. She described the role as “very close to the heart of the student experience.”
As a result, she said she believes her office is more inclined to receive student feedback.
“I actually think that’s a really good thing,” Hoffmann Harding said. “I think when the University and the leader of [the student affairs] division or the administrators and staff members who work in this division listen well to students, making this place better comes from the voice of the students and how we work on that together.”
Despite putting student voices first, Hoffmann Harding said the possible reactions of the public are not thought about when her division is making vital decisions.
Instead, “We ask ourselves first, ‘what’s the right thing to do?’ she said.
Then, her office considers possible reactions and how they fit into the equation — but only after they have decided the best course of action.
“What drives us is trying to serve the students as well as we can, and if there are decisions that might bring with them controversy or criticism or feedback, we welcome and acknowledge that but don’t make decisions with public perception in mind,” she said.
Throughout her years in the office, Hoffmann Harding oversaw positive developments in student life, including the opening of Duncan Student Center, the foundation of the Office of Student Enrichment, the introduction of the GreeNDot program and the creation of the McDonald Center for Student Well-Being, among others.
She said she is most proud of her team for creating a welcoming environment for “students who might not naturally have found their home quickly at Notre Dame.”
“I think our team, not perfectly, but intensely and deeply, is committed to making sure that every student can flourish here, and anything I’ve been able to do that’s made a difference for those vulnerable students, is something that I will always cherish,” she said.
In the past few years, the Division of Student Affairs has also had its fair share of complaints about policies, from the 2017 differentiation policy for student housing to the recent closing of Zahm House. Hoffmann Harding said she and her office try to be as transparent as possible to students with big decisions, specifically regarding the Zahm closing.
“We felt we had to be honest and transparent with Zahm men about why we were making the decision we were, and then importantly trying to be as helpful as we could and give them agency and choice about where they might make a new home,” Hoffmann Harding said.
On May 10, Jenkins named former vice president for mission engagement and Church affairs Fr. Gerard Olinger as Hoffmann Harding’s successor. He began his new position June 1.
Hoffmann Harding praised Olinger as a “wonderful colleague” and said she has confidence in him serving the students in his new role.
“I just wish him every success on behalf of our students and know that he too will have their best interests at heart, in any of the decisions and any other priorities that he puts in place,” Hoffmann Harding said.
After a difficult, pandemic-stricken academic year, Hoffmann Harding said she sees both challenges and possibilities awaiting her successor as signs point toward a more “normal” year starting in the fall. Thus, she views increased communication as a possibility for Olinger in the coming year.
“It’s my hope that many of the traditions or practices or ways of engaging with one another can return to a much more normal fashion in the summer and then the fall ahead,” Hoffmann Harding said.
Hoffmann Harding will return to McKinsey & Company where she will work in the education practice. She said she and her family will be staying in South Bend, where she will do remote work while commuting to the firm’s Chicago office.
“It’s a nice opportunity for us to remain part of this South Bend area where we have such deep personal ties,” Hoffmann Harding said.
After 9 years, longer than she has held any professional or educational role, Hoffmann Harding said she had been thinking about what was next for a few years.
“I’m hoping I can make a difference, not only at Notre Dame, which has been such a wonderful way to get back to this place that means so much to me but at other universities at a time of great uncertainty and higher education,” Hoffmann Harding said.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misspelled Erin Hoffmann Harding’s last name and Fr. Gerard Olinger’s first name. The Observer deeply regrets this error.