The residential campus

Author: Cheever Griffin


It’s a rainy September evening on Navarre Street about a mile or so south of campus, and the living seems easy. Inside a two-story, rickety-looking house a couple of guys lie stretched on a pair of garage-sale couches watching Dazed and Confused, a decent slacker movie, for about the fifth time. Past them, in what is technically the dining room, a well-worn pool table stands next to a blue chest-high keg refrigerator, with not one but two taps. Deeper inside is a well-lit and spacious kitchen, where a mound of pots, pans, cups and plates rises from the sink. Upstairs, a thinly carpeted hallway separates a series of bedrooms, all of them crammed to the gills with queen-size beds, computer stations, dressers, desks and various knickknacks.

You know this house. You were at one just like it at least a dozen times back in college days. Maybe on Friday nights before a football game or on an occasional Saturday during the winter doldrums. You and your friends would hit a party at one of these places, where you’d stand around drinking keg beer, shouting to hear each other over the pounding music and marveling at how so many people could fit into such a confined space.

Then you’d head back to your dorm.

For more than half of the University’s graduates each year, off-campus life will have entailed little more than a handful of parties, a number of trips to the bars and maybe a mall or movie theater, and an occasional dinner somewhere. More than most schools, Notre Dame has been and remains a largely residential institution, where many of its undergrads not only spend all four years on campus, but in the same residence hall.

“My friends at other schools can’t believe that I still live on as a junior,” says Walsh Hall resident Brooke Norton.

That the school has such a strong residential character and perhaps a greater communal atmosphere than most other colleges is by no means an accident. University leaders view the school’s residential system — and the aspects of it that separate it from many other places — as the very essence of Notre Dame and an integral part of the school’s mission to foster the development of the most well-rounded students.

“It’s core to what we do here,” says Father Mark Poorman, CSC, vice president for student affairs, “We’re trying to educate the mind, body and spirit, and creating a community where students live together, learn together and pray together is essential to this broader educational aim.”

As a new century begins, University officials remain committed to maintaining this most important aspect of the school’s identity. What that means, administrators say, is continuing to promote what many feel are the residential system’s most vital components — the stay-hall and rector systems — as well as continuing to address a number of trends and attitudes, both old and new, that work against a strong residential character.

With 28 campus dormitories and more than 6,300 beds, Notre Dame has one of the largest residential hall systems in the country. (The average number of on-campus beds, says Scott Kachmarik, director of student residences, runs anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000.) Being able to house a large number of students on campus certainly is a key to creating a communal atmosphere. But it is not the only factor.

At Notre Dame, officials point to several other elements that give the school its unique sense of cohesion and family. One is the fact that most students live in the same hall from freshman year on — as opposed to moving to upper class housing, which is available at many other schools. Administrators and students alike say the stay-hall system creates strong feelings of loyalty and commitment to the dorm as well as to the campus at large.

“There’s a real sense of identity with and allegiance to a particular dorm,” says Sister Sue Bruno, OSF, rector of Pasquerilla West, whose residents proudly call themselves the “Purple Weasels.” Patrick Maloney, who lives in Knott Hall, echoes such sentiments. “There’s an incredible dorm loyalty at Notre Dame that I’m not sure exists anywhere else,” he says. “You become close to all the other students residing there. When someone’s loved one passes away, the entire dorm mourns. When a member wins an award, the entire dorm celebrates together.”

The other unique characteristic that drives the school’s strong residential character is the rector system. In nearly every hall, a priest or sister lives among the students and not only oversees day-to-day life in the dorm, but provides residents with spiritual and personal guidance.

“It’s a central part of our mission at Notre Dame,” says Father Richard Warner, CSC, counselor to the president and director of campus ministry. “From the very beginning, Holy Cross brothers and priests have lived with students and interacted with them in an effort to guide them on their passage to adulthood.”

That interaction is fairly intensive. Most rectors become a strong presence in students’ lives, from leading them in Mass each week to pulling them aside should their grades start to slip (rectors receive freshman grades and deficiency reports for upper class members) to simply being there to talk with them about their problems and concerns. Such attention, school officials say, is another reason many students see their hall as a home rather than simply a place to lay their head.

“The rector system really helps to create a community,” says William Kirk, assistant vice president for residence life. “Students get the sense that they’re in a place where they’re cared about.”

While University officials certainly tout the virtues of the rector and stay-hall systems, so too do administrators at other schools — who themselves are looking to create a more collegial atmosphere on campus and make dorm living more attractive. Father Joseph McShane, S.J., president of the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, says he views Notre Dame’s residential system as a prime example of the type of “learning community” that he is seeking to create, one in which students grow and develop both in and out of the classroom.

“It seems that there’s a real emphasis on personal care and educating the whole person,” McShane says about Notre Dame’s residential effort. “I think it helps students to become more engaged in their whole educational experience.”

If numbers are any indication, the students at Notre Dame by and large also favor the school’s brand of residence life. Each year, the University’s housing accommodations are at full capacity. That means the roughly 1,300 students who move off campus each year essentially have to leave in order to avoid a housing crunch.

The fact that the school does not have to turn on its “vacancy” sign, however, has not lulled anyone into complacency. Despite describing the current state of their residential system as “strong,” University officials continue to pay vigilant attention to residency issues. One reason is that the number of Notre Dame students who take up residence in South Bend each year — the vast majority of whom are seniors — has increased over the past decade. (The percentage of senior men living off campus has risen since the early 1990s from around 45 percent to about 50 percent, while the percentage of senior women moving off has risen from 25 to 50 percent during the same period.)

“It’s not a situation that we look at with any panic,” says William Kirk, adding that the number of off-campus residents has leveled off over the past few years. “It’s certainly on our radar screen as an issue, and one we want to address carefully, thoroughly and thoughtfully.”

Administrators point to several present-day social trends in explaining the possible reasons for the recent increase in off-campus residency. For one thing, they say, American families are smaller than they were a generation ago and slightly more affluent — at least the ones which show an interest in Notre Dame. As a result, their sons and daughters arrive on campus having grown accustomed to two things that are in short supply in the dorms: privacy and space.

“Students are coming from smaller families and aren’t used to living with someone or sharing a bedroom,” says Kachmarik. “They also come with a lot more stuff: stereos, disc players, computers, televisions. They’re bringing much more with them than just an alarm clock.”

To address this issue, officials have begun taking steps to alleviate some of the cramped conditions in the dorms. In Morrisey and Lyons halls, workers have taken out smaller and less desirable rooms and reconfigured floor layouts to create larger and more inviting community areas. The school’s residence staff is currently looking at ways to create more social space in other dorms as well.

While today’s students are used to more personal space, they’ve also grown accustomed to a number of modern amenities, many of which are not available on campus. One of the items that students can’t have — and can’t seem to live without — is cable television. “It’s a big issue,” Father Poorman says, adding that each year the call for cable access in the dorm rooms grows louder.

The administration provides cable access only in the community areas of a residence hall, arguing that providing it in each room might prompt students to retreat, as Poorman puts it, “into their own private TV world” and thus undermine the very communal atmosphere that the school is trying to maintain. In light of the student body’s persistence, however, Poorman says the University is “rethinking” its cable restrictions. In addition, officials have turned a blind eye, at least so far, as student get their fix of ESPN, MTV and The Sopranos by hooking up cable dishes outside their window.

While officials certainly are willing to tinker with things in an effort to make dorm life more appealing in these changing times, they say they have no intention of amending what are perhaps the school’s most notorious on-campus regulations: the alcohol and visitation policies. Three years ago, as part of their effort to stay on top of the issues and trends regarding off-campus residency, University leaders held a series of focus groups with off-campus students to discuss the reasons why they made the move. Aside from the desire for more privacy and space and more of the creature comforts that life has to offer, the reasons that most students offered for heading off were what Poorman called “benign” in nature. “A lot of students said that they were crazy about the dorms, but they just wanted to experience something different their senior year,” he says.

In other words, officials believe that despite a good amount of groaning about them, parietals and the alcohol policy do not play a significant role in students’ decision to leave the dorms. “There not as evil as their reputation,” says Jeff Shoup, director of residence life.

Shoup points out that the University’s alcohol policy – no kegs are allowed in the dorms and students may drink only in their rooms or, under certain circumstances, in community areas – is more liberal than that of other schools. While all students at Notre Dame are permitted to drink, so long as they abide by the regulations, a number of schools simply follow the letter of the law in their respective states – many of which prohibit alcohol consumption by anyone under age 21.

As for the visitation policy – which states that guests of the opposite sex may not stay in the dorms past midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends – Shoup says it has shed much of its stigma as an anti-sex measure. These days, he explains, students increasingly view parietals as a valuable means of enhancing safety and privacy in the dorms. Poorman agrees. “I detect a lot less hostility toward it than I used to.”

Of course, if one talks to off-campus residents for more than a few moments, many say how nice it is to no longer have to watch the clock while socializing. “Social gatherings on campus are so regulated, and I don’t have to worry about that now,” says Jay Smith, who lives in Castle Point apartments.

Perhaps more significant than grievances with any one rule or regulation, however, is the lack of enthusiasm, at least among some off-campus students, for what is in essence the heart and soul of the school’s residential system – namely, its hands-on and highly interactive approach. One student spending his senior year among the general population of South Bend says such a style eventually turned him off. “You’re too babied,” he lamented.

Poorman readily acknowledges that in a crowd as diverse and dynamic as a collegiate student body, not every person is going take to the University’s brand of residence life. He adds, though, that school officials have no plans to pull back from being a strong presence in the lives of on-campus residents. Such continuous interaction and mentoring among students and rectors, Poorman says, appeals to far more students than it drives away. “It’s been a very successful formula,” he says.

And so, as the University retools certain aspects of its residential system, it plans to keep the more prominent and traditional components very much intact. In the eyes of school leaders, engaging students in the dorms as well as is the classroom in the key to developing the whole person – mind, body, and spirit. Providing such care and attention, they add, is also the best way to keep more students on campus.

Patrick Maloney agrees. The Knott Hall senior says that one of the reasons he stayed put his final year was because he views his hall as not just a building, but a home. “Residence halls here are not simply places where students live, sleep, and study,” he says. “When you enter a dorm, you’re entering a family.”