Notre Dame Trustees At A Crossroads: An Appeal
The regular members of the Notre Dame Board of Trustees face an important challenge at their upcoming meeting in October. This meeting will provide the opportunity for those among the trustees who take seriously their responsibility to shape Notre Dame as a Catholic university to raise questions about the ill- conceived and poorly-designed Campus Crossroads project. Such action will not be an easy undertaking given the uncritical deference generally accorded the board’s chair, Richard Notebaert, his close allies, and the administration. Yet, it should be pursued.
The trustees’ initial consideration of the Crossroads project and their formal approval of it was a typical rubber-stamping operation. It occurred during the January meeting of the board in rome. In the midst of visits to the Forum, the Colosseum, the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Library, the opening of the new Notre Dame Rome Center, and, of course, the audience with Pope Francis, the trustees held a brief meeting one afternoon. Various reports were delivered in the normal way including a report on proposed new buildings, among them the Crossroads scheme. The basic details of the project were outlined for the trustees, but no serious consideration of the proposal took place at all. The only real issue given any attention was the need to raise money to fund the project.
No sagacious trustee stepped forward to ask probing questions about the scheme to bolt three enormous buildings onto the current football stadium and to thereby make it the “crossroads” of the campus. Undoubtedly some had reservations and even sharp questions to pose, but they stayed silent. experience has taught most trustees that the likely result of questioning or challenge is the loss of a favored committee assignment along with assured ostracism to the outer social fringes. So there is a strong disincentive to speaking up.
Thus this massive and costly scheme was approved (if that be the term) without either serious discussion of whether the space was needed at this time or consideration as to what would happen to the sizable amount of space vacated as a result of it. no one had the temerity (or should we say the good sense) to ask if other alternatives had been considered that might bring a similar result in additional academic and social space at considerably less cost. Despite the fact that the trustees were wandering around Roman art collections and architectural sites, no one bothered to ask if the behemoth buildings had to be so ugly and whether their massive size would change the character of our beautiful campus. No one among the trustees even asked whether installing luxury boxes so high above the stadium was the best approach for ‘premium’ game-day viewing even though it is presumably substantial donors like themselves who will occupy the highly elevated space. (Presumably the occupants can view on their TV screens what they can’t make out on the field.)
To have raised such questions would have undoubtedly provoked the ire of Notebaert and perhaps even delayed the trustees’ departure for a reception at the home of the US ambassador to the Vatican. but at the upcoming board meeting before the Stanford game there should be no such distractions or excuses. Those trustees who take their responsibilities seriously and want to foster Notre Dame’s identity as a Catholic university must speak up. The time for being a passive bystander on the board must end.
At the meeting on October 3, the discussion should go deeper than just the thoroughly inappropriate design of the three huge buildings and their consequent corruption of the basic campus plan that presently radiates out from the heart of the Basilica and the Lady atop the Dome. Trustees should ask about the powerful forces that have pushed this ill-considered scheme and also examine the damage they do to the Catholic mission of the university.
Many of the trustees are businessmen and women selected for their “giving potential,” as it is delicately put, and they are not deeply familiar with Catholic higher education. Yet a number of them are deeply convicted Catholics, and personally quite devout. We must hope and pray that there remain enough of them guided by a true Catholic sensibility who want to prevent the ongoing transformation of the university from a distinctive community of Catholic learning into a virtual corporation promoting materialist values and utilitarian education. The Campus Crossroads project certainly reflects the latter approach, and it is deeply harmful to Notre Dame’s true mission.
Thoughtful trustees should ask further questions about the Crossroads undertaking. Certainly they should ask whether maintaining all the unnecessary “bells and whistles” of the project is worth the substantial likely increase in the operating budget at a time when even families of considerable means are being hit so hard with the escalating costs of college education. They might also inquire as to why the project has elicited such limited enthusiasm from most parts of the Notre Dame family, including football fans. Those who attended the marvelous game on Saturday evening know that the atmosphere of the traditional ‘bowl’ of the stadium will be much changed by having the great hulking backdrops looming far above it on three sides.
In the end Notre Dame trustees must ask if constructing these huge buildings around the football stadium is how they believe that the Notre Dame vision “will come to life,” as the administration’s sad public relations slogan suggests. Is this project really the way to fulfill a vision for a great Catholic university or is it rather an expensive subterfuge for lack of a vision? What does this project convey to students at Notre Dame about what is really important? Does it in any way help train a new generation of Catholic leaders to engage the world? Of what values does it really speak? What might Pope Francis say of the waste and excess involved in this project?
Notre Dame trustees are in a sense at a true crossroads themselves. If they are unable or unwilling to force genuine and immediate re-consideration of this deeply flawed proposal then they should accept the reality that they are part of a charade which brings them together three times a year merely to rubber stamp decisions made elsewhere. They cannot pretend to be living up to their responsibilities to give thoughtful guidance and direction to Notre Dame to live out its mission as a Catholic university. The serious Catholics on the board who stay silent on this matter will be like those politicians and others who practice their religion in private, but neglect to let it influence their actions in more public spheres.
Sadly this applies to those members of my own religious order who sit on the Board of Trustees. The Congregation of Holy Cross still bears considerable responsibility for this university, which is its most important apostolate, through the shared governance arrangements that exist. Yet too often the decent Holy Cross priests on the board continue a tradition of deferring to the current administration whatever may be their own personal reservations. To continue this tepid course on the Crossroads matter is bad for Notre Dame and ultimately will lead to a further marginalization of the order. It must change—and quickly—if the damaging corporate transformation of Notre Dame is to be arrested.
I know from various contacts that some trustees and trustees emeriti are deeply worried about the direction of the board and the university under the Notebaert regime. The time has come for them to voice their concerns and I appeal to them to do so. There are personal risks involved in so doing to be sure, but the personal price that they might pay is greatly outweighed by what is a stake for the direction and nature of Notre Dame going forward. We shall soon see how much they truly love and care for Notre Dame and whether they support its distinct mission as a Catholic university. May our Lady, Notre Dame, guide them.
Fr. Bill Miscamble is a Holy Cross priest, professor in the history department, and advisor to the Rover. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.