A look at Notre Dame’s recent administrative decisions


At the end of the 2013-2014 academic year, the administration of the University of Notre Dame made a few decisions that spoke to the heart of its Catholic mission. In a letter to the Fellows of the university, Bill Dempsey, ‘52, chairman of the Sycamore Trust—a group of alumni that works to protect the Catholic identity of Notre Dame—outlined the responsibilities of the administration:

“Your obligation under the foundational statutes of the university, as you know better than I, is to maintain ‘at all times’ the ‘essential character of the university as a Catholic institution.’ The pertinent injunction of the bishops pursuant to Ex Corde Ecclesiae—which the university says it accepts—is that ‘each member of the board must be committed to the practical implications of the university’s Catholic character.’”

These “practical implications” have appeared to be two-fold in past months and will continue to be pressing questions that the university must answer, along with many others. In particular, the appointment of a 2010 alumna, Katie Washington, to the Board of Trustees and the denial of Students for Child-Oriented Policy (SCOP)’s request for club status stand out as questionable administrative decisions when viewed in the natural context of this Catholic university. In December 2013, the university re- filed its lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) over the controversial contraception mandate, which forces employers to cover contraception and abortifacients in their healthcare plans. This lawsuit was rejected, and while the case proceeds to higher levels, the university has decided to comply with the mandate by providing contraception through third-party providers.

The sincerity of Notre Dame’s beliefs on this matter, however, are deeply in question. The strength of the university’s beliefs and its commitment to Catholic teaching could be crucial in the final decision. It would be logical, therefore, for the university to take appropriate measures in affirming Church teaching on contraception.

“When Notre Dame brought suit against the contraception mandate, it enhanced its claim to Catholic identity. When the district court expressed doubt about the university’s sincerity, that claim was clouded. The appointment to the board of a person who has declared that the government ought to win cases like this greatly fortifies skepticism about the school’s claim of conscience,” Dempsey told the Rover.

Katie Washington, one of the newer members of the Board of Trustees, has publicly supported the HHS mandate and criticized the US bishop’s opposition to it. As a Sycamore Trust bulletin outlined, Washington is not Catholic and is entitled to her opinion concerning the mandate; however, the Fellows’ decision to appoint her is highly questionable. The Cardinal Newman Society reported that Washington and her fellow Johns Hopkins students, “strongly disagree with any employer—religious or otherwise—that would refuse to provide full insurance coverage, including contraception, for its employees.”

Notre Dame’s implied support for comments such as this seems to decry its commitment to the HHS mandate lawsuit and to the Catholic mission of this university. Many alumni have urged the Fellows to reconsider Washington’s appointment; a Sycamore Trust petition to reconsider her appointment obtained 1,892 signatures.

When asked about the importance of Washington’s views and if her appointment was being reconsidered, university spokesman Dennis Brown told the Rover, “Like other dedicated trustees, Ms. Washington is not Catholic and does not necessarily adhere to all Church teachings. She is an outstanding young woman, a devoted alumna, and an outstanding addition to the Board to the three-year term reserved for young alumni.” He made no mention of her appointment’s potential impact on the lawsuit.

In a second key decision, the university refused to recognize Students for Child- Oriented Policy as a student organization. Tiernan Kane, a graduate student and president of SCOP, described the group to the Rover as “a nonpartisan, nonsectarian organization of students who believe that, far too often, political issues are debated from the perspective of the independent adult with resources, without due consideration for the way these issues implicate the interests of children. SCOP hopes to bring this child- oriented perspective to bear on several issues intricately related to the health and flourishing of children, namely, drug policy, education, pornography, and marriage.” The club’s first and foremost interest is protecting the rights of children. The club decided initially to focus on this issue within the marriage debate in Indiana, as its first conference last spring, “For Richer, For Poorer, For Children,” made clear. As a first step, the club released a petition calling on the university administration “to make a clear stand in support of the true definition of marriage and to take serious and sustained action to improve the public understanding of this natural institution.” The petition had garnered 1,204 signatures as of September 8.

In response to SCOP’s mission and conference, a group of Notre Dame students launched a counter-petition, accumulating several hundred signatures and inspiring Viewpoints in the Observer. This petition called for the administration not to recognize SCOP as a club based on the claim that social science proves that outcomes of children in same-sex parent households are not significantly different from those in male-female households, and, therefore, same-sex marriage is not damaging to children. Claiming this statement as fact, the counter-petition read, “[C]learly, this group is not actually in the pursuit of knowledge and truth, nor do they want what is ‘best’ for children.”

At the end of April, the Club Coordination Council (CCC), a branch of the undergraduate student government, denied recognition of SCOP as a university student club. The letter, addressed to Kane, read, “The Club Coordination Council indicated that the mission of your club closely mirrored that of other undergraduate- student clubs on campus which served the intended interests of this club.”

“SCOP has subsequently argued against this decision and has sought to gain a clear understanding of the reasons for the denial through discussions with the president of the CCC and university administrators,” Kane explained. “We have argued that the CCC ought to reconsider its decision in this case on the basis that SCOP’s mission was misunderstood by many of the voting members of the CCC at the time of voting, and we hope that this reconsideration will be granted in the very near future.”

“The denial of recognition to SCOP … is naturally taken as a sign of the university’s implicit support of, or at least indifference to, gay marriage. In other words, a sign of its unwillingness to support the Church on this important issue. The remedy is simple: reconsideration and recognition of SCOP swiftly, that is, without the usual delay until spring,” Dempsey urges.

The future of the club as an officially recognized entity is still in question. In response to an inquiry expressing concern over the university’s commitment to Catholic teachings, Brown said, “The University has made it clear on many occasions that we are in full accord with all Church teaching.”

“The University’s choice of Katie Washington as a member of its governing board, despite her obvious lack of support for the University’s lawsuit against being made to facilitate abortions, is troubling enough. So, too, is the University’s decision to deny recognition of SCOP as a student club,” Professor of Law and SCOP faculty advisor Gerard Bradley told the Rover. “But what is even more troubling is the University’s utter lack of transparency and accountability about these decisions. Those who run Our Lady’s University frequently talk the talk of responsible, and responsive, leadership. It is time now for those in charge to walk the walk.”


John VanBerkum is a junior studying philosophy. He believes this should be everyone’s major. Email him at jvanberk@nd.edu.