Letter from Campus: A tough, tough year

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

My admiration for Notre Dame goes back half a century, though the time span gives me pause. My parents, devout in their faith, saw Notre Dame as the shining Catholic city on the hill. Neither had gone to college, and giving their son a Notre Dame education was a pledge they made and began sacrificing for the day I was born.

I’m certain they believed, although they would not have articulated it this way, that the University was — in Father Hesburgh’s terminology — a beacon, a crossroads and a bridge. It stood for something good, and it provided rich soil for truth-seeking and the kind of honest, open and intelligent conversations that would establish common ground among diverse people in order to improve humanity’s lot around the globe.

When she learned I was soon to visit Notre Dame, my sixth-grade teacher, Sister Eugenia, told me it was as close as I would come to heaven on earth. And the place felt like home the moment I set foot on campus.

My four years here as an undergrad provided some of the best experiences of my life, but it became clear immediately that Notre Dame wasn’t perfect. Experiences during my 30 years as a University employee have given me a much fuller sense of the realities of the place. It is a human institution.

I have sometimes thought — and I do suspect there’s some truth to it, though it sounds arrogant to bring forward — that there are more good people here than any other one place. There’s a lot of goodness here, and a lot of well-intentioned people wanting to make the whole world better.

Of course, the place has let me down. But even when I’ve been disappointed or maddened, I have consoled myself with the belief that decisions were made not for profit, power or self-gain but because someone thought it was the right thing to do. People here want to do what they think is best for the place and the people who live, work and study here.

We don’t always agree — all of us members of the Notre Dame family — on what that right thing is. But I am always grateful for my spot in the family tree, to be doing what I do, and relieved not to have to make those imponderably tough decisions.

I was a brand-new writer here, hired to produce promotional material for a fundraising campaign, when the person I was interviewing (the director of an important department with offices in the Main Building) said, “The problem with Notre Dame these days is that it’s beginning to believe its own PR.” It’s a statement I’ve held onto during my three decades writing, editing and shepherding publications aimed to serve the Notre Dame family and advance the University’s aspirations, whether as beacon, crossroads or bridge.

Throughout these years I have acted like most any family member. And I have been proud and loyal, irked and peeved. I have wanted it to be better, to rise to the occasion, and have been amazed by its successes and the achievements of its faculty, students and alumni. I have felt good to be associated with such a place, and I have personally hurt when the institution has been hurt.

As is true of any family, it feels a lot better — even healthy and therapeutic — for relatives to voice their complaints and concerns (how else do things improve?) than for outsiders to criticize, to supply their own judgments or grievances. It doesn’t help that Notre Dame — whatever it has done for decades to earn its reputation as a luminous example of doing right and being good — also has assumed the posture of a place of moral superiority.

It’s been a tough year for Notre Dame, a year of serial troubles. The police raids on off-campus parties back at the beginning of the school year — causing rifts among police and students, Notre Dame and South Bend — seem almost inconsequential now. So do lost football games and payouts to former coaches.

Assertions of campus sexual assaults and their investigations — one involving a football player and a Saint Mary’s College freshman who committed suicide nine days after reporting the alleged assault — have drawn national scrutiny. So did the DUI arrest of an All-American football player.

Much less visible but profoundly shocking was the apparent suicide (from a self-inflicted gunshot) of a Notre Dame sophomore whose body was found by the campus lakes one night in March.

The University also continued to weather harsh reprisals from advocates for the “Notre Dame 88,” the pro-life protesters arrested during the 2009 Obama furor, when many wanted Notre Dame to be more their personal beacon than crossroads or bridge. This past spring’s announcement that charges were being dropped was quickly followed by a protester filing a lawsuit against the University (even though she was arrested by county police on private property off campus).

The University even drew fire from those who complained that changing the arrangements for serving food at football games was another example of Notre Dame greed. University officials, however, indicate the change will result in better food and possibly increased revenues for local groups staffing the concessions.

Notre Dame also was publicly criticized by the mother of one of the swimmers killed in the January 1992 bus accident when the University announced it would allow the filming on campus of a movie celebrating the heroic comeback of Haley Scott DeMaria ’95, who was severely injured in the crash that killed two.

These and other incidents, both public and those sequestered, did not carry the pain felt so deeply and so widely as the tragic fall of Declan Sullivan, the student whose scissor lift was toppled by winds in October. It will long stand as one of the darkest days in the history of Notre Dame, and its shadow still drapes campus. Reports on the procedures, policies and causes of the tragedy kept reopening the wounds months after Sullivan’s death.

Whatever collective ache the University has suffered, however, is minimal when placed against the unfathomable grief and devastation that must come from losing a child, a family member or close friend and classmate. And much of the institutional pain surely comes from knowing how badly the families must hurt.

All the above incidents, of course, presented University leaders with a minefield of troublesome challenges. Many were legal, and responses obviously legalistic. Many dealt with personal privacy. Some dealt with confidential matters being played widely in the public eye, sometimes by media with inadequate knowledge, if not their own agenda. Some inquiries, too, identified areas where the institution was indeed vulnerable.

Institutionally, part of the year’s distress was protecting Notre Dame’s image, fending off assertions of cover-ups, of the University not being as forthright or as compassionate as it should be. And there were times when it was hard — but necessary — for Notre Dame to refrain from saying more when its integrity was being questioned. One can only have faith and confidence that the University keeps finding its way to do the right thing.

It was a tough year for Notre Dame, especially those responsible for the people and departments entangled in pain and controversy as well as those charged with maintaining the University’s character and its reputation. But it was difficult for anyone associated with the place, those who want it always to represent their best hopes. And it isn’t over. Some of the storylines were still unfolding as the academic year came to an end and this issue went to print.

So it’s easy to predict that more trials and adversity lay ahead. It’s what you’d expect from a place striving to be known internationally as a beacon, a crossroads and a bridge — and a place, ultimately, that’s as human as the people who make it what it is.

Kerry Temple is editor of this Notre Dame Magazine.