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Notre Dame shuns Big Ten, fears losing ‘distinctiveness’

NCR Staff

Citing a “basic dissimilarity” between the University of Notre Dame and the 11 universities that make up the Big Ten athletic conference, Holy Cross Fr. Edward A. “Monk” Malloy said a Feb. 5 decision against joining the conference reaffirms the school’s distinctive mission as Catholic, private and independent.

Malloy, Notre Dame’s president, said the board of trustees’ decision was made in light of the school’s religious mission.

Similarly, the trustees’ Feb. 5 decision to exclude a gay-rights clause from the university’s nondiscrimination policy was rooted in concerns that protecting gays would give civil courts leeway to interpret Catholic teaching, according to a statement released by the board of trustees.

The statement expressed concern that declaring sexual orientation a “protected category” could inhibit the university in its ability to “make decisions which are necessary to support Catholic church teaching.”

Church statements in recent years have described homosexual behavior as sinful but have also strongly denounced violence or discrimination against homosexuals. School officials pointed out that courts, however, do not distinguish between sexual orientation and practice and could subject the school to legal action if it attempted to place limits on sexual behavior.

About 70 students had fasted for three days awaiting the board’s decision. The students favored including lesbians and gays in the antidiscrimination policy, which prohibits discrimination based on gender or race.

In announcing their decision, trustees reiterated support for a 1997 document titled “Spirit of Inclusion at Notre Dame.”

“We value gay and lesbian members of this community as we value all members,” the document says. “We condemn harassment of any kind.” Malloy said the university will respond to a “higher standard” than a legal nondiscrimination clause: “Christ’s call to inclusiveness, coupled with the gospel’s call to live chaste lives.”

As for the decision about whether to join the Big Ten, some had characterized it as the most important decision facing the university since 1971, when it decided to admit women into its undergraduate program.

Chuck Lennon, executive director of the alumni association, said most alumni had been strongly opposed to the conference link. “We just have a different mission,” he said, because of “the way Catholicity permeates the educational process.”

Holy Cross Fr. Bill Miscamble, associate professor of history, told NCR that the debate over the Big Ten went well beyond football. It had “touched a nerve” on campus and among alumni, he said, “about what kind of place Notre Dame wants to be. The sentiment that emerged was that folks affirmed they want to preserve and enhance this distinctive mission that we have.”

Malloy acknowledged that desire in a statement issued in London, where the board meeting was held. “The issue of religious identity is not, as might be thought, a question of our Catholic character somehow being diminished by an affiliation with secular institutions,” Malloy said. “We alone are responsible for the vitality of our Catholic character.” But the religious mission of Notre Dame creates a “basic dissimilarity between Notre Dame and the institutions with which we would be partnered.” The identity differences are “essential, not incidental,” Malloy said.

The Faculty Senate had voted 25-4 in support of joining the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, an academic consortium composed of the 11 Big Ten schools and the University of Chicago. In the view of the Faculty Senate, the affiliation with major research facilities would have enhanced academic status. Many faculty members, however, were concerned that affiliation with the Big Ten’s academic arm would undermine Notre Dame’s strong commitment to undergraduate education, Miscamble said.

Miscamble said many faculty members, along with students and alumni, felt that joining the Big Ten would have compromised the university’s identity and mission “over the long haul. If you move in similar circles, there’s a desire to take on a similar appearance,” he said. “Over time it could have cost us our distinctiveness,” he said.

Had Notre Dame joined the Big Ten, the school would have been one of only two private universities in the conference, the smallest of the schools by far, and the only school with a religious affiliation. The average enrollment of schools in the conference is more than 37,000 students, nearly four times Notre Dame’s 10,000.

The recent debate resurrected memories of a long and testy relationship in former decades between the Big Ten and Notre Dame. For example, in 1926, athletic director Knute Rockne expressed interest in conference membership but was rebuffed. Under Rockne, Notre Dame, a small school in rural Indiana filled with sons of Catholic immigrants, had established a national football program.

Six years ago, the Big Ten approached Notre Dame, but the university wasn’t interested.

Some pointed out that the university stood to lose athletic funds if it joined the Big Ten. Last year the conference’s 11 teams split $19 million evenly with the five bowl teams and divided another $6 million among themselves. Conference teams share gate receipts, revenue from a television contract with ABC and other earnings.

Notre Dame currently keeps its gate receipts and gets about $7 million a year from its television contract with NBC. Notre Dame’s high national visibility -- its games get high television ratings -- and its independence, allowing it to pick its competitors, serve as major attractions in recruiting players.

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999