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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

‘There is much work to be done’: Trustee task force report examines diversity, equity and inclusion at Notre Dame

This January, during Notre Dame’s “Walk the Walk Week,” commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day and building inclusion on campus, University President Fr. John Jenkins sent a campus wide email regarding progress on campus regarding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. 

“The University’s efforts regarding diversity and inclusion continue, guided by the strategic priorities articulated in the recent University Trustee Task Force Report on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” Fr. Jenkins wrote in the email.

He announced that following the task force’s recommendation, the University’s Office of Strategic Planning and Institutional Research (OSPIR) is conducting an inventory of DEI initiatives across the University.

In August 2020, amid the nation’s so-called “racial reckoning,” the University announced a task force aimed at advancing diversity, equity and inclusion at Notre Dame. 

The task force published a report in June 2021 that includes more than 54 pages chronicling context of the University’s current standing with issues of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. It also offers new observations made by the task force and a strategic framework for “substantive and long-term process.”

In his announcement of the trustee task force, Fr. John Jenkins said that there is “much to be done.” Jenkins called for “[improving] the experience of our students from underrepresented groups, [enhancing] the diversity of our faculty and staff and [deepening] conversations and understanding about race and justice.”

Appointed members of the board of trustees reflected corporate executives, former government officials and administrators. Byron O. Spruell, the president of league operations for the National Basketball Association (NBA), chaired the task force.

Rev. Robert A. Dowd, who serves as the religious superior for the Holy Cross Community, was also among those appointed. Fr. Dowd, the assistant provost for internationalization and an associate professor of political science, said some might be too quick to dismiss the trustee effort.

“Some people might look at something like this and brush it off it as a passing fad and argue that there are task forces created all the time and ask ultimately what what do we have to show for them, but I think this effort is different,” Fr. Dowd said.

He said the task force’s efforts align with the University’s Catholic mission.

“[We] wanted to get a sense of where Notre Dame is at and how we could do better, and how we should be focusing our efforts. In order to be a place where everyone feels at home, a place where everyone feels a sense of belonging. Basically, we were taking stock of where we are as a Catholic university and how we can really more fully live up to our ideals,” Fr. Dowd said.

‘Too many people feel like they don’t belong’: The University’s history as context

The task force’s report recounts the history of the indigenous Pokagon Potawatomi people, and how “early European missionaries joined [them] to defend their human rights and dignity” against their expulsion during the Trail of Tears. Rev. Benjamin Petit, one of those missionaries, is buried in the Log Chapel on campus.

The report says that Notre Dame has always “had as its purpose to serve groups who were marginalized,” recalling the education of “sons of Catholic European immigrants, often excluded from other educational institutions.” 

They also cite Rev. Theodore Hesburgh and his advocacy for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission from 1957 to 1972, as well as his decision to admit women to the University, and reform the leadership structure of the Board.

In the foreword to the book “Black Domers,” which sought to capture the experiences of Black students at Notre Dame, Fr. Hesburgh wrote that “besides the addition of women, the most dramatic change in the character of Notre Dame’s student body in my lifetime has been the growing racial and ethnic diversity. This change, achieved through great and deliberate efforts, has benefitted not just black students but all of our students … All of these efforts … have been undertaken for the sake of justice.”

The task force report also says that the persistence of “race-based and socioeconomic disparities … some because of unjust stereotypes, insensitivity, or ignorance, others because of past policies, practices, and decision-making” are also parts of the context, as are disparities present in American society, which “place undue burdens on many Notre Dame students, faculty, and staff of color.”

‘We did a lot of listening’: The task force’s process

The task force met more than 25 times and held listening and outreach sessions with faculty, students, staff, rectors, administrators and alumni, as well as conversations with University leadership including Fr. Jenkins, recently retired provost Marie Lynn Miranda and trustee board chair Jack Brennan. 

Fr. Dowd recalls the extensive listening sessions and meetings, held primarily over Zoom in the midst of the pandemic.

“We listened to various constituencies: students, staff and alumni of historically underrepresented groups, and it became clear that we just have a lot more work to do that,” Fr. Dowd said. “Too many people feel like they don’t belong. Too many people feel like they are on the margins.”

They also undertook an “extensive process of data collection and analysis,” working with OSPIR.

‘We all want Notre Dame to play a more effective role’: Task force report lays out observations

The task force report shares data taken from Notre Dame, as well as the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

Together, the data summaries find that the University has maintained a trend of increased ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. This past year, Notre Dame welcomed its most diverse first-year class to date, a trend expected to continue.

This increased diversity is particularly strong among Latino and Hispanic students, who have gone from 5% of the student body in 1990 to 11.5% today.

The report notes that Latino and Hispanic management and staff also have increased as a percentage of the total, as well as tenured and tenure-track faculty. In 1990, 4% of the faculty was Latino/Hispanic, while they make up 5.7% today.

Further, the percentage of international students have almost tripled over the past 30 years from 2.1% in 1990 to 5.7% in 2020. 

The report also notes increased diversity among graduate students. In the 2010–2011 academic year, 6% of the doctorates awarded by Notre Dame were earned by U.S. underrepresented minorities. Nine years later, that number rose to 7.5%. U.S. minority students earning law degrees grew from 21% to 27% over that same time period. For all business master’s degrees there was a smaller shift from 12.3% to 13.5%.

The task force does not herald all data as progress, however, and the report says that “significant improvement is essential.”

Black student recruitment is one area of improvement emphasized in the report.

In 2020, 6.6% of Notre Dame’s undergraduate student body was Black or African American, including all those identifying with two or more races, one of those races being Black. However, only 3.4% of undergraduate students identified solely as Black or African American, placing Notre Dame in the bottom quartile of the Association of American University (AAU) private institutions.

In addition, 2.4% of Notre Dame’s faculty identified solely as Black or African American, up slightly from 1% in 1990. This also places the University in the bottom quartile of the AAU private institutions.

Further, Asian American undergrads have declined as a percentage of the undergraduate student body from 7.3% in 2009 to 5% in 2020, reflecting a trend identified in other elite institutions.

In 1990, 6.2% of Notre Dame’s faculty identified as Asian American, and in 2020, 11.9% of faculty identified as Asian American.The University is also below the median of AAU private institutions with regards to the percentage of Asian American faculty. 

Fr. Dowd discounted notions that race should not be a primary concern when evaluating students.

“Especially for those of us here in the United States, the sin of racism has been something that we continue to struggle with,” he said. “Notre Dame must play an important role in overcoming those inequities. I just think that race is an extremely important issue in this country, and we all just want Notre Dame to play a more effective role in addressing the problem of racism.”

The report also includes some statistics on low socioeconomic students (LSES) and overlays that data with stats on race. 

In 2020, 52.5% of all Black students, 31.2% of Hispanic/Latino students 17.1% of Asian American students are LSES, compared with only 5% of white students. The task force report argues that this “often [makes] it even more difficult for these students to feel at home at Notre Dame.”

In terms of socioeconomic diversity, the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants attending Notre Dame is lower than at peer institutions, placing the University once more in the bottom quartile of the AAU private institutions.

There is also a disparity between LSES and non-LSES in terms of completing a degree on time with 85% of students who were both Pell and first-generation graduating on time, compared to 94% of students who were neither.

“We want to do better at serving students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds,” Fr. Dowd said.

Fr. Dowd also pointed out that socioeconomic diversity is not the same as racial diversity.

“It’s important to distinguish between the two,” he said. “Even though there may be some overlap when it comes to promoting racial diversity and socioeconomic diversity, they are distinctive, and I think it’s important to recognize that.”

Finally, the task force utilized survey data from the national Undergraduate Senior Survey, pulling results from Notre Dame students and contrasting them with national averages.

Compared to peers at other institutions, racial and ethnic minority students at Notre Dame were far more likely to be satisfied with the sense of community on campus in every year of the survey.

However, when asked about their satisfaction with the climate for ethnic and racial minority students at Notre Dame, those same students answered consistently lower than students at other institutions. That percentage has trended downward since 2010, hitting 53% in the 2020 survey.

Among graduate and professional student responding to the statement, “I feel a sense of belonging at Notre Dame,” 78% of white students responded favorably, as compared to 62% of Black or African American students, 67% of Hispanic/Latino students and 75% of Asian American students.

The task force report summarizes the qualitative and quantitative observations as a list, elaborating on each bullet point with thoughts.

The report says that “inclusive culture matters,” that Notre Dame minority students “feel uninvited” and that the University’s allocation of funds has led to “uneven resources.” It argues that Notre Dame must “close the gap between aspirations and reality,” that there is “momentum and hope” and that “it’s everyone’s responsibility.”

Task force offers strategic framework

The task force ultimately lays out a “strategic framework” with five points that they elaborate on in more specific terms, but they do not make specific policy recommendations.

The elements of that framework are to increase representation, strengthen a culture of inclusion and belonging, hold ourselves accountable, be a force for good in the world and commit adequate resources.

“We wanted to make sure that we weren’t just reacting and taking a band-aid approach to Notre Dame’s challenges, but that we were pointing in a direction that would lead to long-term sustainable change,” Fr. Dowd says. 

Fr. Dowd says that by allowing executive leadership to develop specific policies in order to meet this framework, policies will be more targeted and coordinated.

“We provided information to the University so that the administration would be able to develop solutions that in the long run, make a difference in the life of the University and student body. And the Board of Trustees then will do its best to assess the progress that the University makes in this regard,” Dowd said.

Fr. Dowd believes that this effort will have long lasting implications. “The trustees really care about this issue,” he said. “They really care about making Notre Dame a place of inclusion and a place that is appropriately diverse. I think Fr. [Jenkins] cares about this deeply, as well as the other executive leaders of the University. And I think that there’s a real commitment to being transparent about the goals, and about our progress towards those goals moving forward.”