Notre Dame’s Mission for a More Inclusive Campus
Before the start of this academic year, undergraduates received an email from the Division of Student Affairs titled, “Building an Inclusive Campus.” Featured in the email was a video of students, who summarized focus-group discussions about last year’s Inclusive Campus Student Survey.
Notre Dame commits significant time, money, and effort to making sure its students feel included in the community, but the video suggests the University should be doing more. Some suggestions were very good, such as increasing accessibility around campus and in classes for students with disabilities.
Regarding those who are not Catholic, or come to Notre Dame without much formation in their faith, as I did, a student in the video says: “They want things explained to someone who didn’t grow up Catholic, like prayers before class and the Catholic Mass.” This desire has arisen because, per feedback, “Events seem to be created for students already comfortable in their faith, and less inviting to students who are looking to develop their faith.” If that is the case, the university should prioritize finding ways to remedy it. One of the community’s primary goals must be the formation of students––meeting students where they are, teaching them about the Catholic faith, and helping them to receive God’s grace.
But we should keep in mind that while diversity and inclusion have their place and certainly can be good, they have limits. For example, you don’t have durable friendships with just anyone. You have durable friendships with those who see at least some of the same things as important. As C.S. Lewis observes, “Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” This exclusivity can be good––or it can be bad. It’s similar to inclusivity in that way.
With this example in mind, consider some of the more concerning elements of the Student Affairs email. In response to a few specific questions regarding the video’s content, Vice President for Student Affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding offered comment to the Rover about the video:
University students have wide discretion to express views, and the video was intended to share what students heard in peer led focus groups. We hope that faculty, staff, and students will reflect on these experiences and respond as appropriate within their areas of influence. Initial steps that the administration is taking can be found at diversity.nd.edu/inclusion.
On the Diversity and Inclusion website’s “Next Steps” section, the plan to re-vamp marketing of SpeakUp.nd.edu—a platform for students to “report all incidents of bias, discrimination, and harassment”—stands out for its connection to the video.
What kinds of bias and discrimination are students facing? The video suggests that some who are concerned about these issues are operating from a mistaken understanding of what constitutes discrimination, and consequently, of what the school can do to fix the problem and who it should punish for discrimination.
For example, a male student in the video reports that “women experience discrimination in colleges and majors with fewer females.” It is not clear that this is necessarily the case. One is led to believe from the video that the mere fact of an unequal number is itself a form of discrimination.
Why should that be the case? Women can be wrongfully discriminated against in a university regardless of their representation. Perhaps a female and a male student both wrote B+ papers, but the professor gives the woman a B and the man an A. That is wrongful discrimination; she was treated unjustly on the basis of an immutable characteristic––biological sex––that had no relevance to the paper. This is a more appropriate standard for discrimination.
Another student’s comments provide even less clarity. He states that Welcome Weekend activities ought to be “less heternormative” and that the school needs to “support transgender peers.” Given the moral complexity and controversial nature of these questions, how does the administration plan to address these requests? This is important because some possible responses could be destructive to the integrity, on campus, of the Catholic faith and its teachings.
What might it mean for activities to be “less heternormative?” “Heteronormative” generally refers to a norm or preference for heterosexuality. How should the school prefer it less? However this might work out, Notre Dame, as a Catholic university, should affirm and maintain Church teaching on marriage as the sacramental union of one man and one woman.
What might it mean to better “support transgender peers?” We are called to love all people because we are all made in His image, and the most loving, compassionate approach to those struggling with gender dysphoria is not as settled a question as some activists would like it to be. Even bracketing that discussion, there are some more immediate issues for this community.
If a student wants to socially transition, and so has not yet surgically altered his biological sex characteristics, should the university permit him in the dorm of his choosing? On the sports team of his choosing? If he does want to undergo permanent “sex reassignment” surgery, is the University’s insurance obliged to cover that procedure? These questions remain unanswered.
A campus is inclusive when it is able to welcome students into its mission and its particular commitments. For Notre Dame, this means pursuing and sharing the truth for its own sake, and accordingly, maintaining a commitment to the Catholic faith and its teachings. Amidst the turmoil in higher education, our school is doing pretty well. With its new initiative, it might be prudent to pursue “inclusion” as a good, but that effort must include an understanding of limits as well as possibilities.
Nick Marr is a senior from San Diego, CA studying political theory. As a 10 year old, he argued with a Supreme Court justice about who was a bigger Notre Dame fan. It was neither his first nor his last argument. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.