Residential Policy Changes and Their Implications for the Student Body
When midnight struck on Sept. 13, a message from Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., hit the inboxes of the student body.
Many of its announcements seemed initially underwhelming. Two new residence halls will be built to accommodate a higher number of undergraduates on campus. After 2018, Fischer Graduate Apartments will only represent about 12% of graduate and professional students (including law students). University Village, the married student apartment complex, will be demolished next spring.
But the biggest news of all: Beginning with the matriculating class of 2018 (graduating class of 2022), undergraduate students will now be required to live on-campus for the entirety of their freshman, sophomore and juniors years (including semesters spent abroad).
The next night, a Town Hall discussion took place in DeBartolo Hall, in which Vice President of Student Affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding and Fr. Jenkins explained the nuances of their plans and fielded questions from students.
Many students had mixed feelings — even more so came to the Town Hall perturbed by the announcement. And the discussion only furthered student concerns on the policy’s effects on transfer students, sexual assault victims and students intending to apply to the university. While some appreciated the administration’s transparency, others, such as student government’s Kaleem Minor, felt that “important questions were dodged,” especially regarding diversity and inclusion.
It was only the beginning of a campus-wide debate that has sparked discussion on not only the future of minority identities at Notre Dame, but what their place has been on campus all along.
From the Administration's Point of View
In an interview conducted the day after the Town Hall session, Hoffmann Harding and Associate Vice President for Residential Life Heather Rakoczy Russell described the housing requirement changes as a shift from a “reactive” process to a “proactive process."
According to Hoffmann Harding, the administration had long been aware of the growing trend of seniors moving off campus.
“We knew about seniors choosing to move off campus all of this time — it wasn’t as if it was occurring to us overnight,” Hoffmann Harding says. “This was a challenge, was a trend that we weren’t excited about ... we thought it was a missed opportunity for seniors to really flourish and play leadership roles.”
It was only after Dunne and Flaherty Halls opened, however, that the administration was able to take action.
The first step was figuring out why so many students were leaving.
According to Director of Residential Life Margaret Morgan, the Office of Strategic Planning and Research conducted student focus groups, comprised of both on- and off-campus students, to answer that very question throughout the spring and fall of 2016. In the spring of 2017, Morgan began researching further what was motivating seniors to move off, and what incentives could convince them to stay. She visited off-campus apartment complexes, studied the demographics of students who tended to move off campus, and observed which of f-campus locations were the most popular destinations. She also led student focus groups to brainstorm incentives, comprised primarily of off-campus seniors who were able to describe what could have convinced them to stay. Morgan also met with the Diversity Council, Campus Life Council and Senior Class Council.
Morgan says that “responses as to why students were leaving and what would have helped them to stay on campus were consistent among the groups,” and included a desire for proximity to friends, financial reasons, better amenities off campus, residence hall culture and the “freedom of real world living.” As for what could have convinced the seniors to stay on, the majority cited “financial incentives, including leadership positions with stipends, cheaper room and board and more flexibility in the meal plans.”
“Speaking to culture, students asked for a more inclusive and welcoming environment in their communities and a call for greater consistency across the residence halls,” Morgan says.
For Hoffmann Harding, one of the most concerning opinions voiced was that of “students who didn’t feel as if they had a home and felt as if they belonged,” Hoffmann Harding says. “That’s a missed opportunity and a missed conversation and a missed challenge for us to be better on campus, for whatever reason that might be, [including] academic interests … the background that the student comes from, the experiences they’ve had prior to Notre Dame, some views that they hold … That’s the antithesis of what we hope to be, which is this welcoming and inclusive community.”
Morgan says that many other university leaders and departments, including the Deans, Board of Trustees and President’s Leadership Council, were included in discussion and decision-making throughout the research and focus group process.
“There was not one task force that made the decision,” Morgan says. Ultimately, the university’s Executive Officers approved the strategy of offering senior incentives and adopting an extended residency requirement.
“To be completely candid with you, we could’ve probably come out ... in July,” Hoffmann Harding says. The administration ultimately felt that doing so wouldn’t honor the student feedback they’d collected, and wanted to wait until a time when campus would have a chance to react “knowing that not everything would be popular and not everything would be decided. We deliberately didn’t drop it through the first two home games and waited until (the week of Sept. 13) really intentionally to try to prompt some of the conversation.”
And conversation was certainly prompted.
On-Campus to Off-Campus
Director of Housing Karen Kennedy pointed to Off-Campus Connector as a resource with information for students considering or actually going through the process of moving off campus. Off-Campus Connector, which is currently being redesigned to offer a referral service and other helpful features for undergraduate students, lists 15 independent apartment/ condominium companies that are prevalent in the area, as well as 11 independent rental housing companies and five independent townhouse companies. While these vary in price, proximity to campus and overall appeal to students, the university strives to ensure that it does not specifically endorse or support any of the companies listed.
In addit ion to the off- campus accommodations, single graduate students may opt to live in the Fischer O’Hara-Grace Residences (FOG), operated by a third-party company on behalf of the university. These provide a convenient option for graduate students, especially those coming to the university from other institutions.
“At the time that I applied and was accepted — during my senior year at Georgetown, the spring of 2016 — one of the very first things that came up after I was admitted was that now I could apply for on-campus housing,” Matt Grisier, a second-year law student who lives on the Fischer side of the FOG property, said. “I don’t really feel like, at the time, I had a very good grasp on what the alternatives to that were, knowing about places like the Overlook or other options available to graduate students. It just seemed like an easy enough process to live in FOG that I went for that and never really considered living off campus.”
Grisier did point out, however, some issues with the FOG residences, namely that their management by a third-party presents an incongruence between the company’s regular “9-to-5” schedule and the schedule of graduate students that is just the opposite.
As noted, there are currently a plethora of options available to students wishing to live off campus. The key word, though, is currently — in 2014, the university announced plans to close the O’Hara-Grace Townhouses, Cripe Street Apartments (housing for married graduate students without children) and University Village (for married graduate students, with children) at the end of the Spring semester in 2018. Thus, graduate students, especially those who are married, have significantly fewer options from which to choose.
In an effort to remedy this situation, the university had proposed that graduate students consider a one-bedroom or studio apartment at Overlook at Notre Dame, just to the east of campus. Overlook is the first and only residential community designed for faculty and staff, as well as graduate, professional and MBA students. Overlook, though, offers many amenities — fully-furnished units, included cable and utilities and more — that spike the cost of rent, which makes even the smallest accommodations near-unreasonable for the tight budget of graduate students, regardless of marital status.
“I don’t know if [the closures] are motivated by profits, but the university has claimed that the complexes are ‘approaching the end of their useful lives,’” Grisier said. “I’ve seen what an O’Hara-Grace townhouse looks like — it certainly could use a renovation. But I don’t know if that’s an excuse to tear it down and not offer the students who live there some direct kind of replacement.”
To criticism of the impression that by forcing students to live on-campus for three years, the administration hopes seniors will be influenced to stay, Hoffmann Harding clarified that that isn’t the administration’s intent. Furthermore, she voiced voiced a fear that it would backfire and encourage the opposite.
“I actually don’t think that the three year requirement will help the senior conversation,” she says. “What will help the senior conversation is if we give the incentives. I truly do believe that — this is a costless and silly thing — but by saying out loud to seniors, not just to RAs, how much we believe they matter, that’s not something we’ve said before … I actually hope that by the university better characterizing the maturity and the mentorship and the leadership that the seniors bring to the halls, that naturally will be an encourager in and of itself, but we also want to make these incentives work as effectively as possible and really reward seniors for the contributions that they make … I think it all rests on the senior incentives.”
Additionally, one of the starkest pieces of feedback was the sentiment that they were taking away students’ choice. Rakoczy Russell noted that in addition to the freshman residency requirement, only 2 – 3 % of sophomores and 11 – 15% of juniors live off campus.
“So when our students are voting with their feet and telling us what they are choosing, they’ve been choosing to stay for three years … We’re solidifying the trend that we’re already seeing,” she says.
What About the Minority?
At the Town Hall, Rohit Fonseca, a senior International Economics major formerly of Fisher Hall, poised a question of what the housing changes may mean for the diversity of the student body.
“The root of the question is … how much do we value people who don’t believe in our ideals or don’t fit necessarily exactly into what we’re going for with the hall community?” Fonseca says, recalling the inquiry he asked during the question and answer period. “We have atheist students here, we have LGBTQ students here, we have people who for racial reasons or whatever minority group they fall into … feel excluded by the dorm community or the hall life.” Fonseca noted that he posed the question without meaning any comment on the merit of any aforementioned group.
“At Notre Dame is it important to value that input, being the country’s best known Catholic institution? It’s a discussion that needs to happen that I don’t think we’re having as much as we should.”
The response he received from Fr. Jenkins was surprisingly swift.
“... I think it would be a mistake for Notre Dame to say, ‘We want to be everything to everybody. Notre Dame’s for everybody.’ It’s not. We want to be Notre Dame. We want to be a place that prizes community in a special way. We make no apologies about that, no one should come here with any confusion about that. People should take a look, and if that’s what they want, they should come here. But if that’s not what they want, there are many other places to go to. What we want to be is what we are, in a clear way that emphasizes the kind of education we want to give. But it would be a mistake to say we’ve got to make everybody happy. Cause we will fail and we will become vanilla pudding.”
Fonseca said that he wasn’t taken off-guard by Jenkins’ abruptness — but many others were.
“Immediately, I wasn’t really shocked or anything,” Fonseca says. “If you despise core elements of the school, ‘Don’t come here’ is not a creative answer … But it does raise questions. When he said that, what it immediately had me thinking about was, ‘So who are those students who maybe don’t need to come here? Is that atheist students, is that students of a transgender background? Is that ‘insert minority group here’?’ Are they valued here? And if not, does that take away from being a university, a place of open dialogue?”
Rakoczy Russell says that that’s not what Jenkins intended to mean.
“I think that there might have been some misinterpretation of the question and the answer last night, and I think how some students or some people might have heard it was that Notre Dame would be okay or satisfied if we didn’t continue to receive the quality of diverse and rich applicants that we’re currently receiving,” Rakoczy Russell says. “That’s not true. I think what I heard and what I also believe is that if students who are now in high school start to self-select out of applying to Notre Dame because they don’t want to live in community, I actually think that’s really good for our community. The community should still be very diverse, always, in race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, nationality, you name it. … I think that is some of what will happen as a result of this housing requirement, and I think that’s a good thing. I think it will create a richer community.”
According to Hoffmann Harding, data gathered from student focus groups reveals wealth as “the biggest predictor” of off-campus moves. In other words, wealthier students tend to move off campus, while students on scholarships — as well as students belonging to minority groups — tend to remain on campus. (Other notable statistics include the percentages of sophomores, juniors and seniors who move off campus: 2–3%, 11–15% and around 67%, respectively.)
Some students who belong to minority groups, on the other hand, argue that moving off campus allows them to avoid discrimination. Scholastic spoke to Adrian Mark Lore, author of the recent Observer Viewpoint article “Structurally, Notre Dame is Designed for White Americans,” about his opinion on the matter. Even if the cost of living does not vary between campus and off-campus housing, Lore argued, students who feel marginalized frequently wish to leave.
When asked about specific instances of discrimination that might drive students off-campus, Lore cited incidents experienced by some of his acquaintances: a racially charged comment made by a campus worker, for example. In another case, one of Lore’s African-American friends felt a “strong vibe” of suspicion coming from white parents watching her move into her dorm.
Lore argued that many students who perceive discrimination wish to remain on campus for the convenience, even if others choose to leave. Lore criticized Erin Hoffmann Harding’s attitude toward on-campus living: “It seems like she’s trying to essentialize the question down to — ‘Oh, you’re on campus, you like it. You’re off campus, you don’t like it.’ That’s way too simplistic.”
Lore views the six-semester policy as an extension of a deeper set of issues. He accused the university administration of only adhering to the values of Catholic social teaching when those values align with conservative policies. He argued that the university administration remains slow to act on issues that other top universities have already embraced, such as carbon neutrality. When asked for his general opinion on the policy, Lore stated, “I just feel like ultimately, the policy is just one element of a very complex thing. I would just try to remember that—- that when talking about this policy, it’s not as simple as saying, marginalized students this, period. Or, like for example [Hoffmann Harding] was saying, ‘You’re on campus, therefore you like it. You’re off campus, therefore you don’t like it.’
“Because a lot of people do move off campus because it’s cheaper,” Lore continued. “And a lot of students do remain on campus, because it’s convenient … If there’s one takeaway from what I’ve said, probably embracing complexity, which I don’t think Notre Dame likes to do.”
During the Sept. 13 Town Hall, one student stood up during the question and answer period and asked if there would be any exceptions made to the three year requirement — specifically with sexual assault survivors in mind. This took both Hoffmann Harding and Rakoczy Russell by surprise.
“Everything ... that was shared by the students was something that we’d heard in focus groups … and understood were no risks as we were weighing what direction to move forward,” Hoffmann Harding says. “That one surprised me and is something we had not heard before.”
She says that exceptions will be made for students who, for various reasons, feel strongly that their best choice is to leave the hall communities — but that an exception process has not yet been deliberated.
One thing that is clear is that whatever process is decided upon will fall under Rakoczy Russell’s jurisdiction, likely in consultation with directors of the residential life housing staff.
“We will never intentionally do something that we feel will be detrimental to our students,” she says, describing that the “waiver process” will never be “one size fits all.”
“It will never be if you fall into one of these categories, you’ll have a waiver,” she says. “It will be file a waiver and let’s have a conversation. … In some of those instances, that will be [leaving campus]. For another student, he or she might come in thinking that the waiver is what they need and then by the end of the conversation realize there’s another resolution that hadn’t been imagined previously and might even be better than the waiver. The existence of the waiver becomes a mechanism for having a good conversation.”
Administrators, however, allege that students who have had waiver-worthy experiences have a responsibility to their fellow students to start these conversations themselves.
Rakoczy Russell described a group of students approaching her after the Town Hall and describing “bad experiences” they had endured that prompted them to want to move off campus. After listening to their descriptions, she asked them one question: “If not for the residency requirement announcement yesterday, would you have told an administrator that this was your experience?’”
They said no.
“One woman got it immediately and started tearing up,” Rakoczy Russell says. “I’m actually somebody who could make it better. And more importantly, you are someone who could make it better for your friends. [She said], ‘I hadn’t thought of it that way.’ She has a responsibility and the ability to not only improve her own situation, but [those of others] … The only thing we can’t solve it what we can’t talk about.”
Amongst uncomfortable experiences, others have experienced sexual assault or minority marginalization.
Scholastic spoke with Isabel Rooper, student government’s director of gender relations, to find out her opinion on the matter. Rooper’s misgivings about the six-semester policy lie in its potential effects on sexual violence survivors. Rooper cited statistics describing high rates of depression and PTSD among these survivors. She argued that being forced to live on-campus, where survivors could run the risk of encountering their abusers, could exacerbate these problems and raise the risk of dropping out. (Rooper defined “sexual violence” as “an umbrella term” for “sexual harassment, sexual assault, stalking, dating violence, domestic violence — really all kinds of sexual violence within that spectrum.”)
Rooper went on to state that at Notre Dame, as many as 90% of sexual violence survivors do not report the act of violence to the administration or to the police (a statement that the 2016 Campus Climate Survey, run in The Observer in March of that year, can confirm). “[The administration has] said that they’re open to hearing exceptions to the rule,” said Rooper. “But the problem that I see with that is that if someone were to want to move off campus for one of these reasons, because they’re a survivor of sexual violence, they would essentially have to out themselves to the administration in order to get that exemption. And that’s especially problematic, especially if people are choosing not to report in the first place.”
Opening the Conversation
There’s no doubt that the various residency changes have sparked an onset of debate and conversation across campus — and ultimately, the administration claims that that may be the biggest positive to come out of the (changes).
“While students are feeling anxious about the residency requirement, I actually think it might open conversations that otherwise wouldn’t have happened,” Rakoczy Russell says.
“I’ll be honest, I think that engaging in this process and rolling out the announcement and listening to students has been really enriching, but also takes a little bit of the wind out of my sails because I end up thinking ‘Gosh, have I not been doing enough to serve students well?’,” Hoffmann Harding says. “But the other side of that coin — and I flip the coin pretty quickly — is the potential that it holds … Might the requirement actually be the instigator of honest dialogue that wouldn’t have otherwise happened? I sure hope so.”
“I think even for people who can’t yet get their head around something good about the residency requirement, I actually firmly believe in my heart that there will come a moment when they’ll say, ‘Wow, there was some tremendous good that came out of that.’”
Correction: Oct. 5, 2017. An earlier version of this story had misspelled the name of Erin Hoffmann Harding, vice president for student affairs.