Notre Dame at a Crossroads: Misplaced Priorities and a Flawed Vision
The recent announcement of the Campus Crossroads Project has been met mainly with a certain air of resignation as to the inevitability of the Project, despite a good deal of private criticism over aspects of the proposed building scheme. Such acquiescence is unfortunate. This Project must be opposed forcefully. Not only is it poorly conceived and designed, but it damages the true mission of the university. It is a grossly wasteful expenditure of money that reveals in telling fashion the misplaced priorities of the Jenkins administration. Furthermore, the building mania it manifests gives the illusion of movement and progress at the university while distracting from Notre Dame’s essential mission.
In attempting to explain and justify the Crossroads Project, Notre Dame’s Director of Athletics, Jack Swarbrick, has argued that the three enormous buildings bolted on to the football stadium offer evidence of the “integration of athletics into the academic mission of the university.” This is Orwellian doublespeak. What the Project instead reveals is the subjection of the academic mission of the university to the needs of the all-powerful axis of athletics and development. It represents a definite retreat from the Hesburgh vision of keeping our fabled football program in an important but supportive role at the university. It clearly demonstrates that the tail of the athletics juggernaut wags the supine dog of the academic enterprise of the university. The academic administrators who signed off on this proposal typically highlight the “goodies” in it that come to their ‘divisions’ in an effort to placate and pacify, but they are unconvincing.
Let us be clear on the ultimate purpose of this massive construction proposal. It is to gain 4,000 luxury or premium seats in the stadium. These seats are already being crassly marketed to potential donors, as in: “We need to talk about getting you access to the new luxury seats.” Of course, such seats are especially attractive to the new “corporate friends” Notre Dame is working so hard to make—those who will use the seats to ‘entertain’ clients while incidentally taking in a Notre Dame football game, and so forth. Eliminate the luxury seating, and there is no way that Notre Dame would pursue such an ill-considered scheme. It is easy to appreciate the reasons why, as the present plans are damaging to the beauty and ethos of the campus and an enormous misuse of money.
The proposed three buildings appear to have been influenced in their design by the Fascist architectural style. They look like something Albert Speer might have worked on in his early period. I suppose such buildings are erected as statements of wealth and power and are meant to overwhelm. However, they serve mainly as a demonstration of institutional self-aggrandizement that carries an unmistakable message of nouveau riche excess. It is a bad message for Notre Dame to convey to its students. And, the suggestion that the stadium will be the center and crossroads of campus is similarly ill-chosen. The Basilica and Our Lady atop the Dome must always remain at the heart of Notre Dame, and the campus must radiate out from them. There is already a crossroad in the present design of Notre Dame’s campus but it would appear that our administrators have forgotten about it.
The wastefulness of the proposed scheme is easily appreciated when alternative proposals to it are considered. A beautiful academic building in a less disruptive setting and which would accommodate anthropology, psychology, music and sacred music, could be constructed for $40-50 million. A wonderful and more expansive student center with Rec Sports facilities and space for career services could be constructed for $70-80 million—and this assumes that the present Rolfs Center really is needed as a practice facility for the basketball programs, which is a matter that surely deserves further investigation. (Do 30 varsity athletes really need the whole building 24/7? One of those teams performs splendidly under the existing arrangements. Besides, what actually goes on in Purcell Pavilion all day, anyway?) Such buildings could be built in a more measured way and in a manner that interfered less with the educational endeavor on campus than the present disastrous construction plans. Furthermore, the renovated Haggar and Crowley Halls and space vacated by the exit of social science departments from Flanner Hall provide significant additional space for various uses going forward.
Perhaps some scaled-back variation of the proposed East building might also be constructed to match the present press box accommodations. This would allow space for the digital media center (which assuredly is mainly to serve athletics), some entertainment/hospitality space and some premium seating. Surely $60-70 million could finance such a building which would blend well into the present stadium and leave the area around it less congested on game days. Admittedly, there would not be as many luxury seats, but some additional entertaining of our corporate friends could be done in Club Naimoli in the Purcell Pavilion and in O’Brien’s of the Compton Center, which are within easy distance of the stadium. Those who wished could wander over to the present ‘fields of marigold’ seats to take in as much of the game as they liked. (I gather these seats are being reclaimed at present from long-time season ticket-holders to facilitate just this.)
Before the university sets off down the path of spending $400 million (and with the inevitable cost of over-runs, probably $450 million) on this poorly planned Crossroads effort, serious consideration should be given to a more modest proposal that costs half as much and brings a better and more attractive result. Does Notre Dame really need this enormous, wasteful expenditure to provide luxury seating for its corporate friends? Does it need its campus dominated by three ugly behemoths?
Reconsideration assuredly will not come easily to the Notre Dame administration that regrettably has adopted some of the worst features of contemporary corporate style in its crass commercialization of the university. The talk now is of branding and marketing and education is increasingly thought of as a product. Nonetheless, serious faculty along with dedicated students who truly love the best of Notre Dame, and our wonderful committed alumni, should raise their voices in opposition. Independent members of the Notre Dame Board of Trustees should raise some serious questions of this proposal. Might even some of the generous donors who are undoubtedly already lined up to put their names on these ugly structures demand something better?
Much more is at stake here than a debate over buildings. This is about what kind of university Notre Dame will be. The building mania at Notre Dame is meant to show a university on the move and to reveal a “boldness of vision,” to quote Father Jenkins. This is but more of the public relations doublespeak that regularly emanates from the Notre Dame administration. It is essentially empty.
In the end a bold vision for Notre Dame will be forged more by what goes on within its buildings than by the buildings themselves. A bold vision for Notre Dame would be shaping our students to be true missionary disciples who understand well what truly matters in life and who can keep the pursuit of wealth and corporate power in proper perspective. Yet, buildings still matter. They tell us much about the kind of institution we are and might become. The Campus Crossroads Project is the wrong path for Notre Dame.
Fr. Bill Miscamble is a Holy Cross priest and professor of history at Notre Dame and a member of the Rover’s board of faculty advisors. He serves as the Paluch Professor of Theology at Mundelein Seminary during this academic year, after which he will return to his teaching at Notre Dame.