The decision by Father Tom Doyle, Notre Dame’s new Vice-President for Student Affairs to fire Bill Kirk from his position as Associate Vice-President for Residence Life has left many of us with an empty feeling. It has also put another dent in Notre Dame’s reputation as a family-friendly and compassionate employer. The decision was both unfair and imprudent. It was unfair, because, as a loyal employee of Notre Dame for almost 22 years—and one who had been placed repeatedly in positions where he took the brunt of public criticism for enforcing policies adopted by his superiors—he deserved better from those superiors than to be removed from office with no notice and with no public explanation for his removal. It was imprudent, because administrators of Bill Kirk’s talent, compassion and principled commitment to the good are rare. He loved Notre Dame and he loved and respected the students whose welfare he vigorously pursued.
In addition, his removal from office took place against the background of other events at Notre Dame that inevitably raised questions about its real motivation. Bill Kirk’s office had been the target of the much publicized ire of a grumpy Charlie Weis who, on his way out of town, told the South Bend Tribune that the Office of Residence Life was “the biggest problem on the campus” (SBT, 12-5-09). Perhaps, it seemed to some, Coach Weis, unable to take a scalp from USC, took pleasure in participating in taking one from the less well-armed Bill Kirk.
Bill Kirk, of course, has long been one of the favorite targets of the denizens of ND-Nation and other red-meat web sites where rabid Notre Dame fans gather to cyber-vent. They frequently charge that Bill Kirk’s enforcement of Notre Dame’s disciplinary code was too harsh and that his insistence that Notre Dame athletes be subject to the same rules as other Notre Dame students was responsible for our repeated failures on the athletic fields. If Kirk would just let “boys be boys”, we could overcome even Charlie Weis’s massive incompetence and return to glory. One wag on the internet predictably responded to Kirk’s firing with the witless, “Ding-dong the wicked witch is dead.”
Events later in the summer seemed to confirm that the firing of Bill Kirk would make life easier for Notre Dame athletes in disciplinary trouble. The same week he was fired, it was announced that a celebrated football player charged with serious misconduct would return to his team as usual. It was also widely noticed that a student charged with a similar offense some years before had been treated much more harshly. This announcement prompted another internet wit to offer a definition of a “Notre Dame trade”—you trade an associate vice-president for a tight end.
Later in the summer, when a number of prominent under-age Notre Dame athletes and other students had a hostile encounter with the local police at an off-campus party, it was promptly announced both by our football coach and our basketball coach that discipline for these matters would be handled “internally” in the athletic department. In a summer in which all Domers were celebrating the distance between our oversight of athletics from the disorderly mess at USC, this incident raised questions about just how different we really are. Was this another sign that in the post-Kirk era, student discipline at Notre Dame would be handed out in a less even-handed way? While everyone is equal, some are a little more equal than others—or so it appeared to many.
Of course, it may simply be a coincidence that these events followed so closely on the firing of Bill Kirk—and the “restructuring” Father Doyle gave as his brief explanation for it. Notre Dame’s refusal to give any explanation for Kirk’s firing, however, gives credence to rumors of changed attitudes toward student discipline—especially as it relates to the athletic department. One can understand the general wisdom of Notre Dame’s oft-repeated policy commitment—“we will not comment on personnel matters”—but such silence has a price when actions are as ambiguous in their intent as the firing of Bill Kirk. And the price seems far too high when the issues at stake are of such importance—they concern, for example, as this action did, the essential fairness of procedures for student discipline and the integrity of the athletic program on which so much of Notre Dame’s corporate endeavors seem to be recently focused. At a university that now casually refers to the “business of college football” and the “Notre Dame brand”, special vigilance is needed to protect basic fairness from the intrusion of corporate interests.
The larger role played by Bill Kirk and his family at Notre Dame and in the local community also raises questions about the wisdom—indeed, the fairness—of severing him from this community. Bill’s wife, Elizabeth, has played a very visible role on campus in recent years as the Associate Director of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. She has also figured prominently in campus affairs as the faculty advisor for the Right to Life Club and the Identity Project. She has been one of a very few articulate and confident pro-life women on campus prepared to mentor young women seeking to take on the tricky balancing act of wife, mother and professional. She has increasingly played a role nationally and internationally as a leading pro-life spokesperson and, together with her husband, has forged important links between Notre Dame and other organizations in the community. As official faculty advisor to the Right to Life Club, Elizabeth served as primary advisor to the student coalition formed in the spring of 2009 as “NDResponse” and served as a conduit for many, including junior, untenured faculty members, who were unwilling to get involved directly for fear of reprisal. Without compromising his administrative duties, Bill stood with the students of NDResponse at their rally on the South Quad on Commencement day. He was the only senior administrator at Notre Dame willing to do so. With the firing of Bill Kirk, Notre Dame will almost certainly also be deprived of Elizabeth’s talents.
At the time Bill took part in the NDResponse rally, many people commented on the courage it took for him to stand with his wife and other witnesses to this protest of Notre Dame’s decision to award President Obama an honorary degree. I personally discounted these worries, believing that the Notre Dame administration would admire him for his principled stand on a matter so close to the Catholic heart of Notre Dame, even if they disagreed with his particular action. The administration welcomed President Obama’s sharp dissent from and attack on central Catholic teaching on life. It seemed only reasonable that they would equally welcome dissent from university policy by such a loyal Catholic and member of the Notre Dame family as Bill Kirk—especially when his dissent was made in the name of the Catholic principles at Notre Dame’s heart and in the company of his bishop.
Perhaps, alas, there was reason for Bill Kirk to be worried about his participation in NDResponse after all. There is no doubt that the treatment of Bill Kirk this summer will have a chilling effect on the participation of other administrators, unprotected by the safety net of tenure, in the great debates about public policy and moral principle into which Notre Dame will be inevitably drawn. A number of other administrators have told me that in light of Bill Kirk’s treatment, they will in the future keep their heads down rather than dissent from the policies of the central administration. It will be tragic if these pressures toward uniformity become a permanent feature of Notre Dame life. Universities are no place for yes-men.
It is, however, the callousness and the brutal insensitivity with which Bill and Elizabeth Kirk were effectively severed from the Notre Dame community that has had the greatest impact on those of us who regard them as personal friends. And here I must speak very personally. The Kirks’ house has been an oasis of hospitality for faculty, students and administrators at Notre Dame, as well as for their countless friends and acquaintances in the larger South Bend community and from around the world. It is perhaps their own penchant for hospitality and welcome that makes their treatment by Notre Dame seem so appalling.
The parents of two young adopted children, Bill and Elizabeth Kirk were in the process, as Bill Kirk’s bosses well knew, of adopting a third child at the time he was fired. Can one imagine Father Doyle firing an at-will employee of Notre Dame with 22 years of service, two toddlers at home and a wife in the early stages of labor with a third child? As adoptive parents, this was the Kirks’ situation. The disruption in their life, and the life of their young family, suddenly and with no prior notice, has been wrenching for them as well as for their many friends. The excuse given for Bill Kirk’s firing, “restructuring”, seems strange indeed. It is impossible to believe, for example, that the firing was part of a larger organizational shift in the Office of Residence Life, since Bill Kirk seems to be the only person in the office whose job was eliminated.
Those of us who have been at Notre Dame for some time (in my case, 42 years) cannot help but contrast the treatment of the Kirk family with actions of an earlier day and by administrators of a different stripe. Ralph McInerny, who had taught at Notre Dame almost sixty years before his death this past winter, always felt a special loyalty to this University and especially to Father Hesburgh (with whom he disagreed on many fundamental matters) largely because of the special treatment he received when he and his wife Connie and their children encountered a personal tragedy early in their time at Notre Dame. Their first child, Michael, died tragically of a brain tumor while not yet 4. With two other children and a third on the way, financially exhausted and living in a tiny Quonset hut in Notre Dame’s vetville, they were struggling simply to keep going. Ralph loved to tell the story of how Father Hesburgh came to their rescue in these difficult times. After the funeral for Michael in the Basillica, he took Ralph aside and told him that Notre Dame would give him sufficient money to buy his first house and achieve the kind of financial status he needed to care for his family. At that time Ralph had not yet written a single one of the 130 books he would go on to write. He was just another struggling assistant professor in philosophy. Ralph McInerny never forgot this action of Father Hesburgh’s, however, and repaid the Notre Dame community many times over with loyal and steadfast service to his students and colleagues here for over half a century.
It may be that in an era when Notre Dame has become more of a brand and less of a community, such actions are no longer possible, and those of us who long for them are simply being naive. If so, it is surely a great loss. The Kirks will survive their brutal treatment by Our Lady’s University. They are people of enormous energy and talent—and goodness. They will make new friends and contribute to other communities elsewhere. It is those of us left behind who are the real losers, and those responsible for the firing of Bill Kirk may suffer the biggest losses of all.