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The Villagers’ Dilemma



University Village residents discuss administration decision to close their home

The University’s recently publicized decision to shut down University Village in June 2018 with no plan of replacement has provoked, in the weeks since the revelation, a substantial reaction in the Notre Dame community and beyond. Several pieces have been published in The Observer concerning the issue. An online petition in favor of providing on-campus family housing, addressed to Father John Jenkins CSC, John Affleck-Graves, and Erin Hoffman-Harding, has reached 3,000 signatures. Some of the residents of the Village even set up a concession stand in order to spread awareness to game day crowds on campus.

It was with all this in mind that the Rover traveled to the Village itself to sit down with a family currently living there.

Graduate student Robert Burton, his wife Naomi, and their four children live in a small, two-bedroom apartment in one of the six main residential buildings of University Village. Yet despite the limited space, they have managed to make it into an abundantly welcoming home for their family. Bookshelves are piled high with readings in a wide variety of subjects (most especially political science—Robert’s own field). The kids play with Legos on the floor. It is in the midst of this that the Burtons shared their concerns with me about being forced, along with 88 other families, to leave this home.

“We just see…some of our family members, our community members from the developing world” who are “some of the most vulnerable populations on campus,” Robert said, noting that many will “have to send [their] family back to Afghanistan, or Morocco, or wherever [they’re] from because they can’t afford to live here,” citing the impossibility of off-campus housing for those who cannot get mortgages, or do not have credit scores.

He adds to this a second element: “the things that matter are community and cost.” The Burtons, a Canadian family, noted that it will be possible for them to find another residence. But it is the community aspect that keeps them at the Village. “We have friends who have told us, look, I wouldn’t have been able to finish my PhD and still have a family had it not been for all the intangible value of this community.” The examples they gave were countless: the emotional support in stressful times, the ability to watch over someone’s children in the midst of academic frenzy. “People show up from parts of Europe or Southeast Asia…and they don’t know where to buy groceries, they don’t know how to get around, they don’t know any of that!” The community steps up to thus volunteer to help each other in learning and living. (Author’s Note:  I myself attended Easter brunch at the Village last year, and witnessed this in action—trilingual children and their families playing with and aiding each other.)

The community even provides a sense of security: “Here we feel so safe. You know everyone here,” Naomi notes. “Our kids go play for hours at a time in the backyard, that’s all fenced in. Everyone’s neighbors look out for each other’s children.” And given the current state of things, many of the residents at the Village will lose this: “[some] are going to have to go to, honestly the less secure areas of South Bend…to be able to find [reasonable pricing.]”

In a phrase: “things are going to be lost.”

One might assume, however, that these are all things taken into account by the University in making their decision. A letter to the editor was published in the Observer about two weeks ago from John Affleck-Graves giving a seemingly point-by-point description of reasons for why the University did what it did.

The Burtons and the rest of the community, however, are not convinced. A meeting was held, shortly before I myself met with the Burtons, for all the Villagers (as they call themselves) to hear directly from the University. And the Burtons report that the general consensus among the community was one of disappointment: the perception was, as Naomi noted, one of the University stating “you don’t know what you need.”  

The University, is, as most readers who follow the issue are probably aware, adamant about certain things: that the current University Village complex is outdated, and that people would be happier off-campus. That they are working on ways to help graduate students and their families. That the forthcoming development in the spot where the Village is now was not the reason for deciding to destroy the Village.

However, the Burtons note, there are reasons to at least question all of these. The demand from the University to get rid of something out-of-date is a dubious one, and one that is not coming from the residents of the Village itself: “We’re not even telling you to renovate it; you’re saying you have to renovate it.” The survey regarding on-campus and off-campus housing was not a comprehensive one, and as Robert noted, it is evident that those with enough money to live off-campus will, of course, prefer to live off-campus!

The defense that the University is working to alleviate graduate student issues? The Burtons, and other members of the community at least have not seen the work done in this area at this point: “you’re eliminating six staff members…and giving us one,” Naomi noted. The sort of help the University is giving—referrals to apartments in the area, future nebulous plans yet to be developed, and so on, is, as perceived by the community, not enough. And while it is true that this change has been a long time coming, Naomi further pointed out, “[while] we knew this was closing four years ago … we trusted Notre Dame” to provide some kind of equitable solution. But the University instead, the Burtons state, did not even seek a benefactor for building a replacement for the Village. And the families of the Village are, at least in their eyes, being left behind.

As for the defense of the University against questions of enterprise, Robert acknowledges that “even if that particular commercial development wasn’t exactly planned here, the long term vision of University is this type of model—that we surround the University with these kind of gentrified neighborhoods.” The Burtons noted the recent renovation of Douglas Road (itself a cause of concern for the Villagers) as a predecessor to the current situation—and an omen for things to come. Robert was careful to note that the future 50 and 100 year plans for the University reflect the same sort of vision: “In that plan, there are certain long-term decisions like:  our model for graduate housing is outsourced and at commercial rates.”

For the Burtons, and families like them, any 100-year plan with no vision to make the Notre Dame campus one that supports families, rather than decentralizing the University and focusing on profit, is one that is missing a large opportunity—in particular after a long legacy of the University supporting such families in the past, after Father Hesburgh’s close involvement with the on-campus Vetville project, and so on. “As part of a holistic pro-life stance, the University…is living up to their Catholic values [in resisting the HHS Mandate]. But at the same time, as part of a culture of life, you would want to find other ways to be the best place to raise a family and get an education at the same time.”

James Rahner is a junior philosophy major living in Duncan Hall. He wants to create a compendium of little known spots and secrets around campus. To help him with this, you can email him at jrahner@nd.edu.

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