In response to the nation’s growing racial justice movement, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. announced several efforts the university is making to enhance diversity and inclusion, including modifications to the Moreau First Year Experience course and the creation of a diversity center.
At Notre Dame there is one universal academic experience: Moreau. Because it is required, its directors are aware of the role it can play in priming students to have conversations about diversity and inclusion.
Moreau “really challenges [students] to embrace unpredictability and also take ownership and really identify: ‘what kind of person do I want to be when I graduate?’” said Andrew Whittington, a program director for first-year student engagement.
Lauren Donahue, who serves as the program director for new student engagement said she both loves and is challenged by working on the course because it is “ever-evolving.” Though the course changes almost every semester, “students experience the Moreau course one time and then the hard part is that they don’t, unfortunately, see the ways we have modified or fixed it.”
When it comes to reworking the course so it’s more conducive to discussions about topics like racial injustice and antiracism, Donahue emphasized the university is not simply reacting to the past few months.
“I don’t want it to come across like, ‘Ooh, we’ve suddenly started to talk about doing these things, because there has been more of a robust movement — appropriately so — in our society to talk about and actively address systemic oppression and racism,’” Donahue said.
She added that the university has been considering how to incorporate these adaptations into the course for the past two and a half years that she’s held her role as a program director.
“The reality is that a student’s not ready to have that conversation in the way that we need to have the conversation in the third week of the semester,” Donahue said. “It doesn’t mean that it’s not important — if anything it’s almost most important, that’s why it’s put at the place where we believe it can be the most successful. But we can’t wait that long to address this topic either.”
Administrators must take an approach where they equip students with the tools necessary to have such conversations before engaging in them. Donahue described this as a pedagogy of dosing: students are introduced to the topics of diversity and building an inclusive community in the Building Community the Notre Dame Way prematriculation modules and are encouraged to weave these themes into the discussions they have each week in the Moreau course.
Ultimately, Whittington said that they were “focused on creating a student-centric, inclusive learning community.” Part of this process included turning to students from groups such as Wabruda, Shades of Ebony, the Black Student Association and Student Government for feedback and suggestions.
The student representatives “shared their individual stories of what went well or what didn’t go well” and were invited to the fall instructor training session to give some recommendations, he said.
Whittington said students frequently commented on the importance of having an instructor who is capable of guiding difficult conversations.
“Our instructors are not expected to be content experts on these materials. They’re there to serve as a facilitator,” he said. “But we know that students have been harmed in the classroom because of something that somebody else says and how the instructor handles it, or doesn’t handle it.”
Some students, such as Duncan Donahue, a junior who helped organize the Student Strike for Black Lives, expressed concern about whether Moreau could serve as an adequate forum for critical discussions.
“I think Moreau is a tricky place for that sort of campus culture building to be centered because nobody takes it overly seriously,” he said.
Administrators, however, see it as a valuable starting point for students.
“No one walks out of the Moreau First Year Experience course fully knowledgeable on all the resources on campus and has fully experienced all these communities and all these different ways of growth,” Whittington said. It’s a “time to ask questions and to begin to answer questions and to identify ways in which you want to continue to ask those questions.”
He did concede that they had room to grow in terms of directing students to continue engaging with these questions after the course ends.
“We need to do a better job of enabling students to know the next steps,” he said. He hopes to encourage students to ask themselves: “How can I continue to have this conversation and where are spaces on campus where I can continue to do that?”
One such space might be a new university diversity center. Although the center was mentioned recently in Jenkins’s email, a plan has been in the works since the university began making arrangements for the Duncan Student Center around 2013, according to Erin Hoffmann Harding, vice president for student affairs.
“The vision is really reimagining the second floor of LaFortune in a variety of ways,” she said.
Hoffmann Harding described reconfiguring the second floor to bring together the offices of the Gender Relations Center, Multicultural Student Programs and Services and Office of Student Enrichment around a student lounge space that would be advertised and apparent on the first floor to catch the attention of students who don’t normally go to the second floor.
“The main fundraising priority has been to create this space for the students, because what we’ve observed and heard from students is that students are already operating in a really intersectional way in integrating among these various aspects of their identities, but what’s missing is a place for that collaboration to occur,” Hoffmann Harding said.
According to Hoffmann Harding, the university is still searching for benefactors to fund the renovation required to build the center, but “if and when we are able to find a donor who’s able to commit to us, the next step would be to reinforce and reconfirm that the plans that we’re intending resonate with students.”
Ultimately, Hoffmann Harding is passionate about the center and the other steps the university is taking to enhance diversity and inclusion efforts on campus.
“I want all of our students to flourish at Notre Dame and I deeply believe that we all benefit and have a better educational experience by having those from differing identities, backgrounds and perspectives.”