College of Arts and Letters’ sole initiative sponsors controversial programming

The College of Arts and Letters, with support from the Office of the Provost, launched the Initiative on Race and Resilience (IRR) in January of 2021. The initiative is an “interdisciplinary program focused on the redress of systemic racism and the support of communities of color both within and beyond the Notre Dame campus” according to the College of Arts and Letters official website.

Mark Sanders, Director of the Initiative on Race and Resilience and Professor of English and Africana Studies, described the initiative as a “a think tank on race—an intellectual and physical space at Notre Dame where people will come together to address issues of race and racism, both systemic and interpersonal.” 

Sarah Mustillo, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, affirmed the initiative’s strategic importance both for the College of Arts and Letters and the university as a whole in the 2021 launch of the initiative. She stated, “This is an opportunity for Notre Dame to be a significant voice in the challenging, ongoing conversation about racism and the role it currently plays and has historically played in our society.”

In addition to focusing on race-centered research, the initiative was also founded to “emphasize interdisciplinary and comparative study of race and ethnicity” and to “empower African American communities and other communities of color through engagement opportunities, especially through the arts.”

Despite the emphasis on race-related research and programming, the Initiative on Race and Resilience has co-sponsored several events with a tenuous relation to race and ethnicity. 

In 2022, the initiative co-sponsored an event titled, “Post-Roe America: Making Intersectional Feminist Sense of Abortion Bans.” In 2023, the initiative co-sponsored a controversial event titled “Trans Care + Abortion Care: Intersections and Questions” that featured a “Black trans abortion doula, public intellectual, and abolitionist community organizer,” as reported on by the Rover.

More recently, the Rover reported the Initiative on Race and Resilience is a co-sponsor for a November symposium on the history of drag that will include a live drag performance for Notre Dame students, although the initiative did not respond to request for confirmation.

Additionally, the initiative pledged its support for an upcoming panel on “Criminalizing Reproduction” that will focus on “the new threats ahead now that abortion access has been banned in several states” regarding “reproductive punishment.”

Director Mark Sanders in his 2021 “Letter from the Director” explained the unique position of the Initiative on Race and Resilience. He writes, “You may ask why an initiative instead of a center and an institute? The initiative on race functions as a center or institute in terms of space, programming, and funding, but is designated an ‘initiative’ to signal that it is one of [former] Provost Marie Lynn Miranda’s highest priorities.”

According to the organizational chart from the College of Arts and Letters, the Initiative on Race and Resilience is the only program under the title “initiative.” Unlike centers, institutes, and programs, the Initiative on Race and Resilience reports directly to the Dean’s Office. Others, such as the Rooney Center for American Democracy, for example, report to the Associate Dean of Social Sciences.

With such a unique position within the university, it is unclear where the initiative receives its funding. However, in his 2022 “Letter from the Director,” Sanders wrote that he would like “to thank Marie Lynn Miranda for her moral and financial support of IRR.” 

Provost Miranda stepped down from her position in December of 2021 and was replaced by Professor John McGreevy. The Initiative on Race and Resilience has maintained its status as an “initiative” and has continued its programming.

The letter also thanked the College of Arts and Letters, specifically noting that the initiative “deeply appreciate[s] the vision and steadfast support of Dean Sarah A. Mustillo, I. A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters.”

The initiative’s “About” page affirms Sander’s appreciation, describing that the program is “led by Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters with additional support from the Office of the Provost.” 

Sanders described his emphases of the initiative for the upcoming years in his 2022 letter, specifically citing his concerns that “the big lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen continues to metastasize in the form of state laws aimed at suppressing and/or nullifying the votes of people of color.”

He explained his concerns in more detail, stating, “Birtherism, voter suppression, the prospect of voter nullification, the panic over Critical Race Theory, and the attack on the Capitol Building all serve as efforts to reject multiracial democracy and thus to return this country to its past as a herrenvolk democracy in which only one ethnic group exercises democratic freedoms.” 

Sanders’ 2021 announcement letter shared a similar focus on President Donald Trump and the 2020 election as a motivating factor of the creation of the Initiative on Race and Resilience. Sanders wrote that the “the circumstances under which Notre Dame is creating this initiative are pressing and dire”: one of which is that the “45th President of the United States actively pursued the nullification of votes by millions of Blacks across Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to overturn an election that he clearly lost.” Sanders then continued, explaining that  “[Trump] incited a white nationalist mob to attack the Capital Building to prevent the ratification of the Electoral College vote.” 

Sanders did not explain or provide evidence for these claims in his letter. Sanders also did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Rover.

Nico Schmitz is a senior from Los Angeles, California in the Program of Liberal Studies. You can contact him at

Photo Credit: The Irish Rover

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