New vice president of student affairs starts term by listening to student voices
Bella Laufenberg | Monday, September 6, 2021
As Fr. Gerard (Gerry) Olinger C.S.C. starts his position as Notre Dame’s new Vice President of Student Affairs, he intends to listen to concerns of the university before forming a plan of action.
Born and raised outside of Philadelphia, PA, Olinger is the oldest of four siblings and has three younger sisters — one being 13 years his junior.
Although Olinger completed his history and government undergraduate degrees at Notre Dame, he did not head into the Holy Cross Congregation straight out of school. Olinger instead went to Notre Dame’s Law School to, as he put it, delay his seminary work.
“I was [during my undergraduate years] often thinking about the seminary, but just wasn’t, as a senior, ready to fully commit. So, I often laugh that I went to law school as a bit of a delay tactic,” Olinger admitted.
Olinger did finally decide to join Congregation of Holy Cross during his third year of law school and went into formation for seminary following his law school graduation. While in formation, Olinger also completed a master’s of theology and divinity at Notre Dame.
Olinger said he continues to have many close friendships with priests he met there, including Fr. Pete McCormick.
Olinger was then assigned to the University of Portland in Oregon and served in residence life and campus ministry. In his second year there, he was invited to work in administration.
“I was asked to enter into administration [my second year], so I spent eight years as an administrator at the University of Portland, including four years as vice president for student affairs,” Olinger said.
During his time in Portland, Olinger was simultaneously serving on Notre Dame’s board of trustees from 2014-2018. He officially returned to the university as of 2018 to take on the role of vice president for mission engagement and church affairs. He also moved into Alumni Hall as an in-residence priest — where he is still currently residing.
Olinger said his position mainly focused on church relation within and outside of Notre Dame.
“I was responsible for helping Notre Dame to deepen and strengthen our Catholic and our Holy Cross identity; I worked as liaison with the Vatican, with the U.S. Bishops Conference and with the congregation of Holy Cross,” Olinger said. “It was a job that really required working across the different divisions of the university.”
After the news of Erin Hoffmann Harding returning to consultant work, Olinger said he was approached by Fr. Jenkins about assuming the role.
At first, Olinger said he realized he would be inheriting a large role with many responsibilities, but he was being called.
“I recognized it was a really big job,” Olinger said. “There’s a little bit of intimidation, right, to recognize all the responsibilities. I really did have a strong sense that God was calling me to this work.”
Since Olinger has only been in his new role for a couple of months, he said he is still in a process of listening to different groups around campus to contextualize the campus’s issues.
“One of the things I’ve committed to as I’ve begun is to listen broadly and deeply,” Olinger said. “So, I’m meeting with every director in the Division, every rector in the division, each of the departments. A lot of our partners from external partners, from outside of the division and then members of the Board of Trustees committee for Undergraduate Education and Student Life. And so, it’s over 100 meetings.”
He added that he has only just begun the process of listening to student voices as well.
Olinger said he was overjoyed to hear many great things about the university from personnel.
“[I] ask people what we do well, it’s about care of students by people who are absolutely dedicated to our students — who give everything for them,” Olinger said. “It’s been life giving, to hear that.”
Olinger said he also has consistently heard a couple main themes of issues throughout all his conversations — implications of the pandemic, issues of diversity and inclusion and the reality of religious disaffiliation. He said he plans to take these issues into consideration when he partakes in strategic planning during next summer.
“I think it’s important that I not to come in with a set of priorities, or, you know, a fully baked plan, but really to begin with listening and my hope is that the themes that emerge from these listening sessions will become kind of a foundational part of our upcoming strategic planning process,” Olinger said.
One issue that is particularly significant to him is the importance of mental health. Olinger said he hopes students can find balance between academic and personal development.
“If I had a word of advice that I want to give our students, it’s finding that balance between doing what we’re passionate about and really being able to engage it, but also finding that space to understand who we are, our deepest level as a beloved child of God and how God has blessed us and calls us to use our gifts on behalf of others,” Olinger emphasized. “That doesn’t often happen in the busyness of life, but often happens in that kind of quiet moment.”