Notre Dame moves forward with change to physical education


In April 2014, the University of Notre Dame announced that it would replace its physical education requirement with a mandatory, year-long wellness course.  At the start of the 2014-2015 school year, the student senate held a session to investigate the change to the traditional freshman year program.

On September 3, Hugh Page, Dean of the First Year of Studies and vice president and associate provost for undergraduate affairs, spoke to Notre Dame’s student senate about the decision to overhaul the physical education program.  His appearance at the meeting was the result of a broader senate inquiry about the reasons for the change and the way in which the change will be implemented.

Page explained the process by which the change was made, citing the formal reports of two separate committees.  The first of these committees began considering the structure of the physical education department during the 2011-2012 school year.  Using a survey system similar to Course Instructor Feedback (CIF) forms, the committee incorporated some student feedback, but Page said its overall findings were generally unresolved.  The committee “resolved that a change to the existing requirement was needed, but it wasn’t sure in what shape the change should be,” Page told the senate.

During the 2013-2014 school year, the university called a second committee to be chaired by Page.  This Academic Council decided to replace the physical education department with the First Year Experience course for freshmen.  The final vote on the change was 17-13 in favor of the change, with 13 voting members absent.

According to Page, the second committee determined that the PE requirement needed a “change in essential focus to be more of an overall wellness and first year experience kind of class, which would be graded and delivered in two distinct components.”  This First Year Experience will focus on seven main themes: orientation, health and wholeness, community standards and cultural competence, success in the classroom, discernment, spiritual life, and mind/body awareness.

Despite the university’s assurance that this change will be executed in the fall of 2015, Page did not offer concrete information to the student senate about the curriculum or structure of the new program.  Other than the seven focus areas, he said that the program’s curriculum and implementation are still on the table and likely will not be finalized until the middle of the spring semester.  Much of the decision making will be done by Maureen Dawson, Notre Dame’s Assistant Dean for Cultural Competency.

Many questions during the student senate meeting stemmed from concerns that the university will not provide adequate replacements for the physical component of the existing program.  When asked about possible options for athletic activity and training, Page was noncommittal.  “The division of student affairs is in the process of exploring during the current academic year what some of those possibilities might be,” he told the senate.  “I’m not in a position to be able to promise how those options will look.”

Several senators also asked about student representation during the decision-making process.  In response, Page noted both the survey feedback given to the first committee and the presence of one student senate member on the Academic Council.  He said that the administration is still open to student feedback: “We don’t want to silence your voices, we want to include them.”

Erin Hoffman Harding, Notre Dame’s Vice President of Student Affairs, was involved in the review that took place during the 2013-2014 academic year and told the Rover that student input was solicited at several stages of the process.

“Students … serve on the Undergraduate Studies Committee of the Academic Council and the Academic Council itself, which ultimately voted to approve the Ad Hoc Committee’s proposal,” she noted.

Hoffman Harding also referenced the Course Instructor Feedback information that sought student feedback for analysis from 2009 to 2012.

“Special questions were included in spring 2012 CIFs to augment student perceptions,” she told the Rover.  “The report of this Review Committee was released to the University committee in spring 2013, at which time additional open comment was sought.”

Sophomore Jake Wittenberg, Senator from St. Edward’s Hall, was not as confident about student involvement in the process. “I’m alarmed by the lack of participation students and their elected representatives had in the decision to make this policy change,” he said in an interview with the Rover.

“While it would be wrong to say that students were not represented in the decision to make changes to the Physical Education program, few steps were taken to ensure that students were heard at crucial junctures in the decision making process,” Wittenberg continued.

Following the university’s initial announcement about the requirement change, Notre Dame sophomore Aaron DeGagne began a petition to preserve the traditional physical education program.  As of September 2014, the petition has garnered just over 1,000 signatures from students, alumni, and other concerned individuals.

“I authored this petition because I believe students deserve the best first year activity program in the country,” DeGagne told the Rover.  “[Students] do not need a higher workload based on ambiguous topics that will add to student stress and lecture time.”

Stephanie Gaal, an instructor in the physical education department, said she believes the existing physical education requirement is vital to the well-being of the student body.

“[Students] are invited and challenged to discuss issues they may feel uncomfortable with, but that are vital to life like what a healthy relationship might look like, or how to be safe in a college environment where you find drugs and alcohol.  We … cover a variety of topics that they could be missing out on with this new program,” Gaal said in an interview with the Rover.

Page told the student senate that the administration is still unsure about who would instruct students in the new First Year Experience.

“That’s in process.  We need people who have an interest in this and have demonstrated a capacity to do this well,” he said.  “I can’t say any more.”

Gaal believes that the current physical education instructors are invaluable to the well-being of Notre Dame’s student body: “Our personalities and our ability to relate to the students will be absent with this new program. Students trust us. They open up to us.”

She emphasized how the existing program has given teachers in the department various opportunities to help students with emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety.  Gaal pointed out that such individual assistance will be made more difficult by a program predominantly administered in lectures with 250 students.

“We have not been told that any of the current PE instructors are deemed well-qualified and will have jobs,” Gaal continued.  “…we all clearly have proper qualifications.  Not only that, but we have passion.”

DeGagne remains unsatisfied with student involvement in the process of making this change.  “While admittedly students were consulted [in Course Instructor Feedback forms], the result of this survey was mixed, justifying further investigation,” he told the Rover.  “[T]his survey was used for the initial committee’s findings, which seemed to have absolutely no bearing on the second ad hoc committee recommendation.”

Dean Page concluded his remarks at the student senate meeting by encouraging students to voice their opinions.  Notre Dame’s administration is determined to implement this change in the fall of 2015, but the nature of the new program is not yet final and leaves room for cooperation with the student body.


Alexandra DeSanctis is a junior studying political science and constitutional studies, and has seen every episode of The Office at least five times.  Contact her at