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Under the Dome: How student leaders navigate rules and restrictions

and | Monday, April 25, 2022

Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series examining how student groups run as part of the larger Notre Dame community.

The first goal of the University, outlined in the student guide du Lac, is to “Ensure that our Catholic character informs all our endeavors.” To understand how the University upholds these Catholic values, The Observer spoke to several student leaders about how they align their groups with the mission of Notre Dame — and what happens when that is not possible. 

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

Catholic character: Aligning with the mission of Notre Dame

For student groups with beliefs at odds with those of the University’s Catholic identity, jumping through restrictions from administrators in order to exist on campus is a delicate balance. 

Matheo Vidal, senior and co-president of College Democrats (CDems), explained that the club steers away from issues that are in conflict with “Catholic values.”

“We, as a club, just generally avoid posting or commenting on events that involve reproductive rights,” he said. “This manifests as we obviously don’t comment on those issues, we don’t bring speakers to talk on those issues, and we don’t host alumni that work in advocacy of those issues.”

Vidal said when he first became co-president, the restrictions surprised him, but he understood the gravity of the situation. 

“It was kind of a rude awakening to come into limitations, the biggest frustration being because we can’t comment. You could maybe assume our position or take our silence to mean something or other, but the end of the conversation every time is that it’s better for students for us to exist than not to exist,” he said. 

Some student groups cannot push for policy change on campus due to classification restrictions.

Sophomore Dane Sherman, co-historian of PrismND, explained how the group is limited in its abilities and is fundamentally a programming group. Sherman said in one instance Prism wanted to co-sponsor an event with the LGBTQ Law Forum within Notre Dame Law School but was not able to due to its mission as a programming organization.

Sherman explained that part of Notre Dame’s Catholic mission should include establishing an environment for discourse on difficult topics.

“If we’re only allowing a lot of these students to hear half the viewpoint on abortion or gay rights or literally any issue that’s controversial in the modern church today, we are setting all of our students up for not being able to enter the world in a really great way because they just haven’t had those conversations,” Sherman said. 

The result, Sherman said, is that many times, policy changes cannot pass due to the mission of Notre Dame — something that can be an obstacle to pushing for change.

“I think institutions have power, and I think that power can be used to make policy changes. But the problem is that those institutions’ power, it can only go so far,” Sherman said. 

Women’s History Month: Restrictions limit Stanford Hall event

Residence hall programming must also go through all avenues of the Student Activities Office (SAO), just like clubs and student organizations, and can be denied approval for events that do not align with the stated mission of the University.

Senior Allan Njomo served as Stanford Hall president for the 2020-2021 term. He said that as hall president, he “created opportunities for community” in the dorm.

During his term, Njomo said most of the events were internal as pandemic restrictions made it difficult to organize outside events. Internal events did not require working with SAO, he said.

As a leader of a residence hall, Njomo said he felt that while he had to go through the same processes as other groups, he understands that his job may have been easier than others.

“If I’m comparing against clubs or against special interest organizations, I think we are afforded a little bit more flexibility and privilege and how we coordinate our events, because for a lot of our events that we have as a dorm, [they] do not have to be approved by SAO,” he said.

Njomo only recalled one instance where Stanford scrapped an event. It was toward the end of his term during the month of March 2021. The dorm wanted to hold an art showcase on themes of womanism, feminism, woman’s empowerment and womanhood in honor of Women’s History Month.

“The premise of it was that we wanted to create an environment where we could really engage, especially like with Stanford Hall, like as men engage with arts on one hand, but also have thoughtful conversations about womanhood, feminism and women’s empowerment,” he said. 

Njomo said Stanford co-sponsored the showcase with the Gender Relations Center (GRC), student government’s department of gender relations and Shades of Ebony. Part of the sponsorship with the GRC came with monetary support for the specific event.

A week before the showcase date, Njomo said he was informed that the GRC did not approve of a portion of the art that was to be displayed because it did not align with the department’s mission and its definition of women’s empowerment. Njomo said it was based on the fact some of the illustrations had nudity.

Rather than turn down some artists’ work, Njomo said the hall decided to just cancel the event. 

“The GRC has a stated mission and they have to abide by that, and we understood that because they are inhibited by their mission. They cannot continue sponsoring the event as it stood,” he said. “We never argued, we never went back and forth with them. We truly understood.”

Irish 4 Reproductive Health operates on the fringe

Irish 4 Reproductive Health (I4RH) is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization that, contrary to what the name may suggest, is not affiliated with the University. 

The group, which was founded in January 2018, aims to “advocate for reproductive justice at Notre Dame and in our surrounding community,” according to its Instagram. This includes providing sexual education, free condoms and other contraceptives and a place for open conversation regarding sexual health topics, sophomore board member Lily Storrs said. 

“The purpose of our club is definitely to resist the stigma that can oftentimes be associated with any sexual health topics, particularly for LGBTQ + groups on campus, as well as creating a safe space where everyone is included, and everyone is part of the conversation without any feeling of judgment or any sort of Catholic guilt,” she explained. 

Storrs, a political science and global affairs major, explained that I4RH must exist on the fringe of campus to avoid being shut down by the University or prosecuted by fellow students. 

“I heard that from [upperclassmen] experience [operating on campus] got completely frustrating because every time they tried to organize anything, it would get shut down immediately, or people particularly from organizations that very much oppose being pro-choice or access to contraceptives, they would try to find ways to undermine any meetings,” she said. 

Operating on the fringe, for I4RH, means they don’t have access to any University meeting space or funding. Luckily for I4RH, Storrs explained that the group receives funding from outside organizations, such as Whole Woman’s Health, whose mission statement align with their own. 

Although Storrs could not give an official statement on the group’s struggles with the University, she noted that the group has faced pushback from the administration in the past. 

Pushback may have come in the form of litigation, as I4RH — through the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the Center for Reproductive Rights — filed a lawsuit against the University and the Trump-Pence administration in 2018. 

The lawsuit, which was the subject of much controversy on campus, was over the University’s “backroom” deal with the Trump-Pence administration and the decision to make University insurance plan holders pay for access to birth control. 

I4RH issued an official statement on the lawsuit.

Everyone should be free to make their own decisions regarding basic healthcare with the guidance of their healthcare providers … the right to birth control coverage without out-of-pocket costs is guaranteed under the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act, but the University’s decision (and deal with the Trump-Pence Administration) to stop covering all contraceptives creates illegal barriers to access for basic healthcare,” the statement reads.

Litigation surrounding the lawsuit is still ongoing, and I4RH was unable to provide any further comments. 

Storrs said she believes I4RH is a “breath of fresh air” on campus. 

“The most successful part [of I4RH] has been to create a safe space for any individuals to come to in terms of their sexual health, their gender identity, their sexual identity, their sexual orientation — just creating something that’s very welcoming and open to any students on campus,” she said.  “Students will reach out to us and say that they’re so grateful for the work that we’ve done and that it gives them faith in the University that we exist.”

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About Alysa Guffey

Alysa is a senior and served as Editor-in-Chief for the 2022-23 term. She is pursuing a major in history with minors in digital marketing and journalism. While she calls Breen-Phillips her home on campus, she is originally from Indianapolis. Follow her on Twitter: @AlysaGuffeyNews

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About Bella Laufenberg

Bella Laufenberg is a junior biological sciences major, who likes news much more than organic chemistry. She is also in the journalism, ethics and democracy minor. At The Observer, she currently serves as the Notre Dame News Editor.

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