April 21, 2009

Notre Dame, Ind – The following article appeared in the April 21st edition of the South Bend Tribune and was written by Curt Rallo.

Shortly after Donald Pope-Davis, Ph.D., joined the faculty at Notre Dame, he went to use a recreation facility on campus.

After he showed his faculty ID, he was asked to show his driver’s license. The attendant didn’t believe that an African-American could hold such a lofty position as a tenured professor at Notre Dame.

Even today, African-American students on the Notre Dame campus are frequently asked what sport they are in, as if an African-American is only a student at Notre Dame if he or she plays a sport.

Creating a dialogue that will lead to actions in order to fight stereotypes and bring greater diversity to the campus was just one of the purposes of a town hall meeting Saturday morning at Notre Dame.

The event was part of the university’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of the black student-athlete. The meeting was moderated by Frances L. Shavers, chief of staff and special assistant to the president at Notre Dame.

Panelists included Dr. Pope-Davis, admissions counselor Christina Brooks, Notre Dame sophomore basketball player Tyrone Nash, assistant athletics director Charmelle Green, athletics director Jack Swarbrick, and assistant men’s basketball coach Anthony Solomon.

According to Brooks, who coordinates the recruitment of African-American students to Notre Dame, 3 percent of Notre Dame’s first-year students last year were African-American. That is down from the high of 5 percent in 2006. Hispanics comprise the largest minority at Notre Dame with 9 percent, and Asians are next at 7 percent. Whites made up 77 percent of Notre Dame’s first-year students.

There has, however, been a 24-percent increase in applications of African-American students this year. Applications of minority students dropped five percent in the past five years, one of the concerns the university intends to address.

Diversity of the student population, the faculty, the coaching staff and the administration were among the topics.

According to Dr. Pope-Davis, a noted researcher in the field of multiculturalism and diversity, understanding Notre Dame’s history will help the university come to grips with the challenges it faces, and allow it to move forward. Notre Dame has a proud history of supporting civil rights. But the town hall meeting was a positive step to recognizing that the effort must continue.

“There is a renewed commitment to diversity and engagement at this university,” Dr. Pope-Davis said.

“We are exceptionally proud of our athletic programs and we boast about it a lot,” said Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins. “We boast about the tremendous athletes, but what makes it special is that our athletes have earned degrees at a rate unexceeded at Division I athletics.”

Marvin Lett of the Notre Dame Monogram Club was one of the organizers of the event.

“The university needs to develop a more robust awareness of diversity, and the status of the black student-athlete,” Lett said. “The black student-athlete has different challenges. Student-athletes, in general, at Notre Dame have different challenges. The black student-athlete at Notre Dame has more unique challenges on top of those.

“I was encouraged by athletic director Swarbrick’s comments about diversity,” Lett said. “I am comforted that we have leadership that has an eye on the situation, and that we are headed in the right direction in terms of having more African-American coaches and more African-American faculty and recruiting African-American students.”

Former Notre Dame football star Tim Brown, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1987, said that the university needs to take advantage of its resources to attract more African-American students. Brown suggested that the university ‘infomercials’ on NBC during Irish football games should be tailored to recruiting minorities.

“When I was here, we had the ‘Wake up the Echoes,’ and all that,” Brown said. “I understand the tradition, and I’m not trying to change the tradition, that’s part of the reason why I’m here, that tradition. But let’s add some new stuff to it.

“I’m out 21 years now, and you see the same things being advertised week-in, and week-out, and it’s just missing a connection with the kids. I talk to a lot of high school athletes, and I’m constantly speaking at schools, and the athletes are always around me, and they just don’t see that connection with Notre Dame.”

Nash said that African-American student athletes feel comfortable at Notre Dame.

“In the high-profile sports, you usually see a lot of black student-athletes in the program,” Nash said. “In basketball, there is one black coach on the coaching staff out of five. I guess the university tries to make us feel comfortable by providing the basketball team with one black coach or two. The football team has a couple more black coaches.

“It’s a primarily white university,” Nash said. “All we can do is try to make it more diverse. People are definitely aware of the situation here and want to improve it.”

Dr. Pope-Davis said that South Bend, Mishawaka and surrounding communities need to be included in dialogues about diversity at Notre Dame. He said that the university needs to have the community as an equal partner in commitment and engagement of the issue.

“There is a tendency to think of (Notre Dame) as being separated from the rest of the community,” Dr. Pope-Davis said. “I think we’ve gone through great efforts to bring both communities together. I think we should continue. Upward Bound is a program that is one way we’re trying to do that. Talent Search is another way.

“The other thing that I think we ought to be more intentional about, is think about ways we can invite more high school students to come to Notre Dame. We recognize that there are disparities in our high schools in our communities, and there’s a certain standard that we are looking for, but having said that, we need to do this with a great effort, great intentionality, and say to a student in middle school, if you want to come to Notre Dame, this is what you need to do. It can’t be in one shot. We have to come back over and over.

“Due diligence is the term I use. I can’t just talk to you in eighth grade and say, I want you to come to Notre Dame, make sure you have good grades. And then the next time I see you is in high school and say, what happened? And there was no mentoring, no intervention, no pedagogy. That’s what I think we can bring to the table.”

Dr. Pope-Davis said that Notre Dame needs to rely on its great resources to reach candidates for admission.

“We can engage personalities, our stars, the Tim Browns and the Chris Zoriches, but that’s only good to a point,” Dr. Pope-Davis said. “It allows people to dream and say, I can be like that. But at the end of the day, what they don’t realize is, Tim Brown and Chris Zorich worked hard at this.

“People don’t see student-athletes getting up at 5 a.m. and putting in two hours before they go to class. You need to do the same thing with academics. You need to get up early and you need to work hard and you need to be intentional and very deliberate about it. We have people who can encourage young people to do that.”