The February snow swirled as I pulled into the driveway of Notre Dame’s Warren Golf Course clubhouse, trying to find a spot amid haphazardly parked cars. It was early evening. I had composition papers to grade and a class lesson to prepare. Only something special would have convinced me to come out with my schedule as full as it was. But this was something special. The African-American community had been invited to welcome new head football coach Tyrone Willingham and his staff.
As intrigued as I was to meet Willingham—the first African-American head coach in Notre Dame history—once inside I realized something else new was taking shape at the University. Around me were dozens of African-American administrators, faculty and staff. As we introduced ourselves, it dawned on me that almost no one in the room had been working here when Notre Dame first hired me as an admissions counselor in 1990. Willingham was not the change; he was part of a sea change.
Since 1982 I have experienced Notre Dame from the vantage points of undergraduate and graduate student, alumnus, administrator and faculty member. My experiences are similar but not identical to the experiences of other African Americans. From my perspective, things have come a long, long way.
As their bus wound its way through the Notre Dame campus on a muggy August afternoon, JoAnne Green and Mel Tardy may have compared the beautiful setting to their own attractive but more modest campus of Xavier University in New Orleans, the nation’s only historically black, Catholic university. They may have even wished that relatives from their impoverished Algiers and Ninth Ward homes in New Orleans could share the trip.
This was 1958, four years after Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which found that separate educational facilities for blacks and whites are inherently unequal, and 11 years after Notre Dame had conferred a degree on its first African-American graduate, Frazier Thompson. They, of course, knew nothing of Thompson or the handful of blacks then attending Notre Dame. For JoAnne and Mel, both first-generation college students, this was their first trip out of the South. They were with the Xavier University Concert Choir, which had accepted an invitation from Notre Dame to perform for its Catholic Students Mission Crusade.
In 1958 Martin Luther King was a relative unknown, the country still segregated, the Civil Rights Movement merely pubescent. The choir members assumed that ND—like most universities and colleges back then—did not accept blacks. They also worried about Klan activity yet felt some security knowing that Catholics, also targets of the KKK, didn’t like having Klan around either. As they walked around South Bend in their choir uniforms, they were impressed with the friendliness of the Midwestern folks.
The choir stayed overnight in Keenan Hall. To their delight, the concert was well-received. In the afternoon, JoAnne and Mel decided to relax by one of the campus lakes. They took pictures, they smiled, they laughed . . . and they held hands. They even dared to dream of what it would be like if they could attend a prestigious place like Notre Dame. In August 1958, two former strangers found a unique peace by a lake at Notre Dame. A thousand miles from home, they fell in love.
As their bus began the long journey home, and the Golden Dome grew smaller and smaller in their vision, they never would have dreamed that 24 years later, in 1982, they would return to the University of Notre Dame—this time, as husband and wife and proud parents of a 17-year-old freshman. Me.
Twenty-five percent of Notre Dame students are "legacies"— descendants of a parent, usually white, who graduated from Notre Dame. Many others have a grandfather, uncle or friend of the family who attended. Most African Americans, however, come in knowing little about Notre Dame culture, prestige or tradition other than football.
Prior to affirmative action, financial aid and the initiation of Notre Dame recruitment programs in the early 1970s, few African Americans even seriously considered schools like Notre Dame. Even in recent years, they’ve often arrived as first-generation college students. The “legacy” of the African-American Domer has been the role of pioneer, academically, socially and culturally, with few guides to help them survive, let alone thrive and succeed.
Sophomore Demetrius Hall, a first-generation college student, came to Notre Dame from a predominantly black, all-girls Catholic high school in Los Angeles. Although her parents always supported her college plans, she says, “They never said ‘This is what you’re going to come up against; this is how it’s going to be.’ They didn’t know how!”
As a high school senior, in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, a predominantly white suburb of Milwaukee, I knew nothing about Notre Dame except for football. I didn’t play football; I played the trumpet. My parents encouraged me to apply anyway.
My cousin, Jim Stone ‘81, had done well playing football at Notre Dame, and my mom was excited that Father Hesburgh, CSC, had served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission with Martin Luther King Jr. In my mind, however, “great football” couldn’t possibly go hand in hand with “strong academics.” I told my parents I wanted to go to a “good” school, not Notre Dame.
Then God intervened. Notre Dame invited me to visit, all expenses paid. It was late February. What an ugly, old campus, I thought. Too much ivy—maybe, I thought, that makes this Ivy League— and cracked sidewalks. God, however, gave me a roomful of Notre Dame hosts from Saint Augustine, an all-boys black Catholic high school in New Orleans. The familiarity of New Orleans, where my family had lived until we moved to Wisconsin when I started high school, and the warm welcome of intelligent black folks was uplifting, despite their comments that when they graduated they would “never come back.” This was recruitment? At least they told me Notre Dame was a great opportunity and to make my own decision.
I had stumbled across a peculiar dimension of the “old” Notre Dame: Many black alumni considered it a great place to be from but not at. Nevertheless, I wrote off their comments as I soon learned that the University was highly ranked in just about everything. I also was swayed by the camaraderie I had found during my visit, the sizable financial-aid package and what I came to think of as the ND “echo.” Whenever I included Notre Dame among my college options, my listeners’ eyes would bug out and they’d repeat it back like I’d made a mistake—_"Notre Dame?"_ I rather enjoyed my game of “waking up the echoes” and began to play it often. In the end, my mother asked me to try Notre Dame for a year, and if I didn’t like it I could transfer. How could I say no to my mother?
In 1982 I matriculated at Notre Dame along with 72 other African-American students, then the largest class of African Americans in Notre Dame history. Two of us shared a suite in Grace Hall.
On the day we met, John could barely contain his excitement when he spied me walking through the door of the adjoining quad. “What?! Man, I can’t believe they put a bro-tha in the room with me! Whassup!” he exclaimed, hustling over and extending his hand, slightly cocked for a soul shake. His excitement melted to incredulity when I reluctantly extended my own hand in the fashion of a white person and politely responded, “Hi. My name is Melvin.”
I had hoped I wouldn’t get a black roommate—and I didn’t want anything to do with sitting at the “black tables” in the dining hall. In Brown Deer I’d attended a predominantly white public school. Our southern black Catholic culture was clearly different from that of my northern black and non-Catholic acquaintances, who also seemed to have a better handle on what it meant to be black—and had no problem telling me: “How come you don’t sit with us? What, you ain’t black or something?” In my mind I was sitting with friends from band, honors class or my neighborhood. Consequently I learned to shun many of the bused-in, so-called “inner-city” blacks. Yet, in my soul, I yearned for them.
John had attended a Catholic, predominately black, all-boys high school on the South Side of Chicago. We arrived at Notre Dame from two different worlds. He was streetwise and great at basketball; I was suburbanized and played in the band. In Rocky III he cheered for Clubber Lang (Mr. T.); I cheered for Rocky Balboa. I regularly attended dorm Masses—a curiosity he indulged only once. A Baptist, he occasionally went off campus for Bible study. We were the classic odd couple; a black Felix and Oscar.
Over time, however, we found things in common. I sometimes overheard folks in my section saying racist things about him. It bothered me that they didn’t mind saying such things in front of me. Such experiences always brought us closer. Socially, like most blacks we preferred the hip music and dancing at liquor-less black parties to standing around drinking at white parties. Our typical weekend involved playing ball at the Rock until closing time, arriving late to a dance, then heading back to the room to deal with our usually drunk section mates. From John, I learned his South Side version of blackness: doo rags, basketball (I was terrible), chasing women (all talk, no action) and Chicago’s black radio stations (South Bend had none). To him, I was someone familiar to hang out with, a good sounding board—plus no one could mimic Eddie Murphy’s comedy routines as well as I. Sure, John razzed my “clean and edited” versions, but we laughed for hours. We even stayed at each other’s homes during one of the breaks.
As I got to know folks, my perception of a black table in the dining hall slowly evaporated. Oh, it was still there, I just stopped perceiving it as black. It was more like sitting with family. There was a certain kinship, a sense of security, that resonated with me. We laughed, talked about girls, who could cut hair and other everyday things. This wasn’t the time for anything serious like racism, politics or academics. We joked, we unwound. The same thing all the other students were doing, really, at the “white tables.” Strange, isn’t it: At those tables, they didn’t see their color-coding either.
John and I both had white friends, too, and there were always a few whites at the “black table”—usually people we knew. I was probably more receptive to it, given that I had a lot of prior experience living around whites. In fact, I made friends from many different races and ethnicities, friends to this day. For those who weren’t used to it, it was a lot harder. But how could I blame them? Even with my background, there were times around whites when I felt awkward or unwanted. On a warm, sunny day, for instance, we might all decide to go outside and throw a frisbee. Next thing I knew, the white students were tanning in the grass on North Quad, and I’m standing there holding the Frisbee, feeling dumb for actually trying to coax any one of them into getting up. In many ways, I often felt like I was living in two worlds at once. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t fit in, I couldn’t escape them, and I couldn’t bring them both together.
Now that I know a lot more about identity formation and African-American culture, I can turn to W.E.B. Dubois’s 1903 classic The Souls of Black Folk to help explain my feelings. Dubois speaks of the “double-consciousness” of the so-called American Negro; that odd feeling we get from living in two worlds at once, even as we constantly view and define our existence through the eyes of the contemptuous majority. It’s an inherent tension of “warring souls” within us as we try to sift and merge our “American” and “Negro” selves into one peaceful whole. The Notre Dame experience for some of African descent, then, consists of an attempt to maintain or expand our black or African-American heritages even as we strive to fit in as typical "Domers"—when the only Domer mold before us, at least until recently, was Irish or white.
Academically, many of us had unique challenges at Notre Dame. For first-generation college blacks or for those whose parents didn’t attend highly competitive, historically white institutions like Notre Dame, sometimes knowing where to find help and feeling comfortable doing it are difficult. I resented that Freshman Year of Studies and engineering faculty questioned my ability for engineering seemingly before I even started. In retrospect, I had the ability but no one to teach me study strategies, time-management skills or even what engineers did for a living.
Early on I dropped out of the study groups that were formed by whites in my dorm because of the constant barrage of questions about my Scholastic Aptitude Test scores. The questioning of my intellect so tainted my first-year experience that I didn’t join another study group until MBA school. On the other hand, I don’t recall blacks forming study groups. Maybe some did, but we had a tendency to try and do it all on our own, to not admit any problem. The focus in our black community was primarily social support. We rarely studied together, nor did we publicly mention our academic accomplishments. It was often just about “gettin’ that paper,” more about “enduring” than succeeding.
Some of us endured better than others. For two years John and I brought out the best and the worst in each other. Unfortunately, he left Notre Dame after sophomore year. Perhaps it was just too different a world for him.
On a rainy day in June 1986, after four years of “enduring,” after a day spent in detached envy watching the ecstasy of my fellow graduates, after the cap and gown had been returned and significant goodbyes exchanged . . . a part of me didn’t care if I ever again set foot on campus. I was not happy. I was not sad. I was just distant. This was not the dream of my parents at the lake but the prophesy of the party that welcomed me when I visited—those who said they would “never come back.” But why?
I begged one last walk, alone, around campus, perhaps searching for answers. I wound up standing in the courtyard behind the Huddle, next to the trickling fountain. Ironically, four years earlier in that courtyard a security guard had approached me and asked for my student I.D. Something about me looking “suspicious.” As I stood watching the water flow, I thought about wasted time; poor decisions; the fluctuating grades; the loneliness and depression; the sense of disconnect with Notre Dame; the lack of post-graduation plans. Then, amid the rainy mist, seething over having had my pride kicked in over and over, I made a solemn vow. I would one day return to Notre Dame. I would get whatever it was about the Notre Dame experience that all those other students had received. I would show that I also had within me what it took to succeed here.
With that, I rejoined my family. We piled into the car and began the long journey back to Wisconsin. Little did I know, but the seeds of change had already been sown, and one day I would help tend the soil in which they would grow.
A sea change takes place not at once, but in waves. As an African American, I relish the changes we now witness, but I trace their origin to an action taken by then-president Hesburgh in 1985, when he and others realized two areas of concern. First, Notre Dame had a serious problem with the retention of African-American students. Second, although administrators believed Notre Dame’s black alumni would be in the best position to help the students improve, few were remaining involved with the University.
It is a distant memory from 1985, but I vaguely recall a reception during my junior year, perhaps in LaFortune, with a group of black alumni who were trying to meet black students. At the time I was just trying to survive. It never occurred to me I had already met my destiny. Father Ted and Chuck Lennon ‘61, ’62M.A., head of the alumni association, had invited 25 black alumni back to campus to discuss the two concerns about black student and alumni retention. An emotional dialogue took place that weekend; the pain of years of frustration unleashed upon the unsuspecting hosts. That sparked the genesis of what in 1989 would become the Black Alumni of Notre Dame, an official advisory committee of the Alumni Association and the first installment of today’s Minority Alumni Network.
For a year or so after graduation, I taught math in Milwaukee to primarily African-American students who were seeking General Equivalency Diplomas. I decided a degree in business would put me in a better position to help empower them. Only Notre Dame had the things that appealed to me most: spirituality, prestige, a community small enough that I wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle and a sense of ethics. Unlike other campuses, a warm ND reception and a scholarship gave me a feeling that they really wanted me here.
So in 1988 I returned for MBA school to a very different campus. Father Malloy, then the new president, had announced a year-long Celebration of Cultural Diversity. There was new pride in the black community because Tony Rice, a black quarterback—a novelty back then—had led Notre Dame to its first national championship in 10 years. Meanwhile, Admissions was successfully recruiting nearly 100 African-American students to campus. This new critical mass brought new cultural and social opportunities—including a rejuvenated Voices of Faith gospel choir and a talent show called Black Images.
That summer came the first Black Alumni of Notre Dame all-classes reunion. If ever there was a bittersweet moment, it was that reunion. The return of nearly 100 black alumni—many of whom, upon graduation, had vowed never to return—provided an opportunity to vent years of bottled up pain. On the other hand, friends who had gone through the fire together were reunited for the first time since their respective graduations. It was a virtual lovefest. Finally, there was this new feeling: pride. When the alumni looked around the room, they realized that being from Notre Dame had paid off big. There were doctors, lawyers, judges, entrepreneurs, engineers, architects, professional athletes, priests and preachers. To a man and a woman they had become very successful.
As I, the graduate student, stood soaking it all in, how foolish the “pioneer” label felt on me. These folks had all done it before me. If they had succeeded, maybe I could. Still, I wondered: Where have they BEEN all of these years? How different my experience would have been with their insights. Obviously, they came to the same conclusion, for they voted to make BA of ND a permanent thing.
In later years the BA of ND provided the language I needed to begin defining and understanding my own experiences. Alumni like Ben Finley ’60 and Richard Ryans ’79 often used the analogy of a love/hate relationship to describe the experiences of many blacks at the University—we loved the opportunities and the friends we made but hated all the extra crap we had to take along the way in order to get the same degree. This was the bittersweet of the reunion, the double-consciousness of which DuBois spoke. The alumni had finally had their say, but the students, too, were suffering. This love/hate tension would soon take on a life of its own. A storm was brewing.
Despite the appearance of growing diversity, many problems were no different from those in my undergraduate days. Students were upset about financial aid; the feelings that they were being unfairly targeted by security, rectors and R.A.s; racism on campus; and the lack of black administrators and faculty.
When one of those few administrators—Derek Gandy ’86, my buddy and former classmate who was working in Admissions—decided to move on, I applied for the admissions counselor position. Although I had received my MBA and planned to return to Milwaukee, I believed it was important to keep the strong recruitment effort going and to offer another African American to whom students could go with their concerns.
Then, during my first year as African-American recruitment coordinator, the tension I had sensed exploded. A group called Students United for Respect (SUFR) was staging a sit-in at the Registrar’s Office the day before my most important recruitment event of the year, Minority Visitation Weekend (now called Spring Visitation Weekend).
While I recognized the importance of recruitment, I also knew SUFR had a message to communicate and no one to communicate it for them. I didn’t see hate in their actions. Maybe it was more like love/hate. In fact, some former SUFR members have become involved as alumni in the University, out of love and a sense of duty to those who came in after them.
SUFR served as a wake-up call to Notre Dame. It was no longer, “This is a great place to be from”; students were flat-out telling folks not to come here. How does one recruit under such circumstances? Three things kept me going: First, I still believed that recruitment was vital if Notre Dame was going to improve for African Americans. Second, I had the support and encouragement of the black alumni. I could see their efforts to improve the situation. Also, to them, Notre Dame was worth attending because it was still a great place to be from. Third, God’s work. I could justify recruitment only if I personally worked toward making Notre Dame a better place for students of African descent.
This forced those of us in admissions to think about our recruitment process. I felt the need to be honest to students about the difficulties they might find here but also to let them know the opportunities I saw. Those included the burgeoning student groups; the many Afrocentric speakers coming to campus; activities specifically geared toward African-American culture throughout the year; and most importantly, all of the promise I saw developing with the black alumni in terms of mentoring programs, professional development seminars and growing involvement in the leadership of at Notre Dame. Yet the students rarely utilized these resources. They didn’t have ownership of the University.
Part of the reason SUFR arose is because some at the University were still viewing things through blue-and-gold-tinted glasses. From their perspective, Notre Dame itself was fine; we just needed to recruit more blacks and everybody would be happy. According to Iris Outlaw ‘90M.S.A., who became director of what was then called the Office of Minority Student Affairs in 1991, many students felt the environment was downright hostile. "We were opening our arms, but there really wasn’t a welcoming environment to nurture those who came in the door. There wasn’t the support system for students, faculty or administrators."
Recruitment matters little if students do not feel they have a place here when they arrive. Retention, academic success, cultural affirmation and a sense of ownership of the University are also important.
That’s echoed by those who were students at that time. Chandra Johnson ‘96, assistant to Father Malloy and assistant director of Campus Ministry, says that when she arrived as a student in 1992, other black students were frustrated. "I don’t see why anybody would have wanted to graduate from here. I mean, why? All the anger!"
I witnessed a lot of this myself. Amid some positive developments, there was still tension. Racial tension tarnished traditions like Bookstore Basketball games through the late 1990s, as crowds in later rounds tended to cheer—and boo—based on the racial composition of teams. Students were harassed by security in the bookstore and in the dorms. I recall one black student whose friend jokingly told the black student’s white roommate that this student, like all students from “the hood,” carried a gun. Imagine studying for midterms then returning to your room to find it being searched by Student Affairs and yourself being interrogated, based on a friend’s joke. In addition, financial aid difficulties were causing students to take on burdensome jobs or drop out.
It was difficult to convince students to take ownership of an institution at which they felt unwelcome. Fortunately, alumni would pave the way of welcoming.
The advent of Black Alumni of ND had opened the door for black alumni to return, with reunions, directories, newsletters, mentoring programs and local activities. Leadership roles were changing. At age 27, Rod West ’90, an attorney and member of the 1988 National Championship football team, became president of the Alumni Association in 1997. He was the first black and youngest person ever to hold the position. Under his leadership, diversity became a greater part of the language and agenda of the Alumni Clubs. This opened doors not only for African Americans but young alumni, other ethnic groups and women. Black alumni were becoming involved in the leadership structure of alumni clubs around the country. Those who swore they would never come back were coming back.
Through BA of ND, the University began to find the lost voices of its black alumni for advisory councils, awards of recognition and campus employment. As I witnessed and helped bring about some of these things, I hoped they were signs that Notre Dame was becoming a better place for black students. Every year, however, some new incident would spark more tension on campus.
One of the biggest changes in recent years is the growth of a support system for African Americans. Now there are employees who have experienced the system, who can offer support and words of wisdom. I see similarities between what brought me and other black alumni back.
“Do I think this place is the best it can be?” asks Christy Fleming ‘96, an academic advisor in First Year of Studies. "No. . . . [But] I felt a responsibility to our students. As someone who’s been through the place, I feel like I can be a resource and say: ‘Look, I’ve been here. And I came back to be there for you, and these [other] administrators are there because we understand what it means to be a black student here.’"
African-American alumnus D’Juan Francisco ‘89, ’99M.S.A., director of alumni clubs, expresses similar sentiments. "Students ask, ’Why did you come back, why are you here?’" he says. “‘Well, if I wasn’t here, who would you be talking to about your issues?’ We know the lay of the land, and we can have an influence, an impact, on other students, whether it’s educating the majority students, faculty and staff, and/or helping the African-American students embrace, I use the expression ‘take ownership,’ of the University.”
Indeed, several programs now offer first-year African-American students an opportunity to take ownership of the University. Today, for example, I am one of three African-American alumni serving as advisers in the First Year of Studies. While we can individually advise and mentor black students, FYS also has a retention program called the Balfour Hesburgh Scholars program. The summer prior to enrollment, students can interact with ND faculty and receive training in study skills, time management, goal-setting and decision-making.
In addition, Chandra Johnson has implemented The Plunge, a retreat during the first weekend at Notre Dame designed to orient and embrace African-American students before they can fall through the cracks. Throughout the year students can receive more training through Building Bridges, a support program run through Outlaw’s office. The College of Engineering also offers support through its Minority Engineering Program.
Many such programs exist beyond the first year. Johnson has established the Sankofa Scholars program, designed to honor the academic excellence of black students. According to Johnson, the year that she started Sankofa, “the GPAs shot up almost 10 percent because students appreciated the fact that, once a semester, they were recognized” at the Sankofa honors assembly.
Perhaps because of such support, some black students are having a vastly different experience than I had. Sophomore Demetrius Hall says, “I’m very comfortable on this campus; I think of it as my home now. . . . I’m very comfortable with expressing myself, with putting my opinions in, with gaining knowledge, with giving knowledge, with just the whole academic atmosphere, now that I realize the type of place this University is and the type of people that it’s trying to produce.”
Beyond our support role for students, however, we offer an important dimension to the University. Says Johnson, “Members of [the University’s] officers’ group always had a desire of wanting to know how to enhance the experience of people of color, particularly African Americans, but, to be quite honest, they never knew how. One of the values of me being in the group is because I am black, I know what I need.”
Johnson identifies one particular need, based on her own experience. Coming to Notre Dame from south-central Los Angeles “was a shock to my psychological sensibilities, because all of a sudden I couldn’t go home to be with people who looked like me,” she says. “It’s a known, basic psychological need for people to gravitate and veer toward others who represent who they are. Sameness gives one a sense of security. That’s why mainstream environments work so well [for those in the mainstream].”
Not all blacks have the same needs, of course. As with my roommate and me, we come from different worlds. Some blacks have a greater need for the kinship than others. As Johnson says, “Black folk who are used to being around black folk need to be around black folk.” They search for ways to " be around people who are going to affirm your existence, not that their mainstream peers don’t, but their mainstream peers for the most part don’t know how because they haven’t been taught."
Outlaw, director of what is now the Office of Multicultural Student Programs and Services, handles this problem with a twofold approach—providing support for African-American students while also working at educating majority students that some changes are needed. In other words, while black students may face some problems, often we ourselves are not the problem.
A program initiated by David Moss, an African American and assistant vice president of Student Affairs, takes aim at teaching mainstream peers how to embrace racial, ethnic and cultural differences. Each fall, the Diversity Practicum trains student facilitators from a cross-section of backgrounds to conduct diversity sensitivity classes for all first-year students. In this way, mainstream students are beginning to understand the need for dialogue and appreciation for difference.
Outlaw says it’s important to educate mainstream students about the changing world. With the changing demographics in the population, she notes, graduates may find themselves reporting to a boss “who may not look like them.” She believes students benefit tremendously by learning about cultural differences now, rather than later.
Perhaps those demographics are the reason that this year several white students have told me how disappointed they are with the lack of diversity at Notre Dame. They wonder when they will ever get exposure to a diversity of people and ideas. Students’ mind-sets are changing along with their environment.
My MBA courses taught me that the only way to change the culture of an organization is with support from the top down. Some take heart by the degree to which diversity is being promoted in the upper-levels of the administration. For years, D’Juan Francisco has encouraged clubs to utilize the resources of the Minority Alumni Network to implement more inclusive, diverse programming. “We’re starting to hear [it] from Father Malloy, so it’s the University talking about diversity.”
Chandra Johnson points to demographic trends which show that, during the 21st century the majority population (whites) will become less than half the U.S. population. For America to continue to compete globally, it must utilize education to develop a workforce from nontraditional demographic sources. Father Malloy, she says, understands that the University needs to change with the changing landscape. “[Embracing diversity] was one of the first things that Monk told the faculty in his annual address.”
In that address, Malloy asked deans and department heads to support a Provost Office strategic plan to increase the number of African-American faculty. Outlaw, who sits on the University Committee for Cultural Diversity, says such a plan may help eliminate institutional racism in the classroom by “diversifying how [faculty] teach, their perception of students and their various learning styles.”
Another sign of progress, Johnson says, is the number of African-Americans being appointed to prominent positions on campus. Don Pope-Davis has been named assistant vice president and associate dean in the Graduate School. Hugh Page Jr. was recently appointed associate dean and director of undergraduate studies. And Leo McWilliams ‘81, ’82, ’83M.S., ’93Ph.D., became course coordinator for the First Year Engineering program. As a Notre Dame product, he also stands as a living testimony to every African-American engineering student that they, too, can thrive, not just survive, in one of Notre Dame’s toughest programs.
Other major appointments include Joy Vann-Hamilton ’98MBA, as assistant provost, and Rhonda Brown, director of the new Office of Institutional Equity, whose focus is to further diversity initiatives at Notre Dame, particularly with regard to faculty hiring, and handling discrimination and gender equity matters.
From what I’ve observed, the African Americans here do not, and should not, aim to create a separate place at Notre Dame. That is antithetical to the vision of community that attracted many of us here. Nor should we meekly assimilate into the sea of whiteness here, for that is cultural suicide, an assault on the gifts of our ancestors. I do have hopes that, in time, more of my people will find at Notre Dame a comfortable peace in a place that would embrace us for what we are, rather than reject us for what we cannot ever be—a place where we might yearn to be, rather than merely be from.
Every day we take another step toward that vision. The reception for Ty Willingham gave me an opportunity to reflect on just how many steps we’ve taken. That the hiring of a football coach who happens to be African American should warrant such excitement reminds us of how far we have to go, not just at Notre Dame, but in this country. Nevertheless, the reception clearly showed the many hands that have tended the rich soil before us. Now that soil has been prepared for a new wave of students. The time is right to sow the seeds for a new generation.
With Willingham’s entry here, a magnifying glass has come upon diversity within the Notre Dame family. Is Notre Dame ready for the change? I don’t know. I do know that with Willingham, change has arrived. And guess what? We Are (Still) ND.
During football weekends, especially after a game, little white kids catch me in the corner of their eye and become temporarily mesmerized. They think I might be a football player. Until they’re satisfied that I’m not, they stare and stare.
Even as a student I was only 5-8 and barely 130 pounds. People still would ask for my autograph. “I don’t play football,” was my response. “So, do you play basketball or run track?” “Neither,” I’d say. Completely perplexed, they’d ask “Well, what do you play?” “I play the trumpet! Still want the autograph?”
Things are changing for the better, though. Just last spring, I was in the Morris Inn, finishing up a lunch meeting regarding the Frazier Thompson Scholarship Fund. As I prepared to leave the dining area, an elderly, nicely dressed white woman stopped me in my tracks from where she sat with some friends. With the proudest of smiles, she looked me deep in the eyes and exclaimed: “Welcome! Welcome, Coach Willingham!”
Ahhh, progress. At least she said welcome.
Mel Tardy is an assistant professional specialist in the First Year of Studies office and a concurrent instructor in the University Writing Program.