Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN – In Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Archdeacon Claude Frollo, gesturing towards a “printed book” and then to “the immense church of Notre-Dame,” sighs “this will kill that.” Frollo’s perplexing epigram, Hugo explains, is lamenting that architecture, “the great book of humanity” from creation “down to the fifteenth century,” would no longer be mankind's primary method of communication.

Although these monumental structures share certain fundamental significations, each building communicates more through its own distinctions of space and shape, and through the history revealed by each building’s processes of decay and renewal. Let's take a careful look the cavernous additions to campus’s largest monumental structure, the football stadium, a project constituting “the largest building initiative in the history of Notre Dame.”

Announced in January 2014, the stadium renovation titled Campus Crossroads comprises, besides additions to the stadium proper, three buildings ringing the stadium hosting, among other things, the psychology and sacred music departments, student lounges, and exercise space. Troublingly, perhaps the most pivotal (for the administration) element of the project is the capacious luxury box expansion, enabling wealthy donors to even more conspicuously signal their superiority to the demos.

A community’s values, ideals, and priorities are communicated through the construction of its social space, via both the social conditions produced by the physical structures themselves and the symbolical implications of their aesthetics. Writing from the library’s upper floors, my aerial view of campus raises the question: what does our campus’s architecture communicate?

Notre Dame’s monumental structures - chief examples being the dome, basilica, and stadium - express the same basic messages such monumental architecture always has: their concrete testimony is, in one part, a declaration of identity for posterity’s sake (“look on my works, ye mighty, and despair”), and, in another, a boastful advertisement of the local leadership’s power and wealth, evidenced by its ability to marshal the vast amounts of resources and labor necessary to erect such imposing structures.

Our university is one of stark contrasts, a place where the bacchanalia of home game darties co-exists with the literal hundreds of masses held weekly on campus. My relationship with Notre Dame, as I’ve found that of many others to be, is one of alternating love and hatred, where the highs are stratospheric and the lows are chthonian.

Perhaps none of my quotidian experiences better demonstrate this dichotomy than my walks to the library, the most sublime place on Earth, when I am forced to (swiftly) tread past the eerily fascistic megalith that is Campus Crossroads, averting my eyes so that I can avoid the overpowering urge to begin retching up bile that inevitably arises when I look at the building too long. It’s usually around this point I begin castigating myself for not going to Vanderbilt, a feeling that doesn’t dissipate until I’ve spent hours in Touchdown Jesus’s comforting arms.

This sentiment is generated by the messages imparted by this structure, reminders of everything deeply wrong about this institution I love. Campus Crossroads communicates that on campus football is still prioritized above all else, that all the talk about truly becoming a top research institution is nothing but hot air, and that, for all the outrageous wealth hoarded by this university, the school continues to squander its treasure in bewildering ways.

There was once a time when Notre Dame football was the mightiest team in all the land, spreading the name and fame of Our Lady’s University far and wide. That time is gone. Most of Earth’s population had not yet been conceived when, in 1988, Notre Dame last captured a national championship,[1] and to the teenagers upon whose recruitment our football team depends, Notre Dame’s post-war glory days are about as relevant as our killer theology department. Over his eight year tenure, Brian Kelly - our most successful coach since Lou Holtz - has averaged 7.5 wins per season and has appeared in a meager two major bowls, getting blown out by an average of 22 points each time.[2]

The Notre Dame faithful, like the diehards of other fading programs like Nebraska and Pitt, need to give up the ghost. Quite simply, the football talent in this country is overwhelmingly southern, black, and protestant, a demographic for whom Notre Dame’s putatively magical cachet is likely to fall flat. This is eminently understandable; if I was a 17 year-old with a 4.4 40 from Birmingham I wouldn’t think twice about going to Notre Dame. Freeze my balls off, show my face in class, annually go 8-4? I think I’ll take the under-the-table cash, warm weather, championship contention, and attractive student body every other school is offering.

A major reason for the construction of Campus Crossroads was that, through the construction of a massive video board and luxury boxes, it would supposedly bolster our recruiting and fundraising in the wildly competitive world of top-flight college football. Sadly, this is little more than a classic case of the gambler’s fallacy, for so many domers’ good judgment is hindered by hazy nostalgia for the Fighting Irish that our sinking football program leads the university to endlessly throw good money after bad, chasing a national relevancy we will never regain.

It’s time to finally drop our pretensions to football supremacy and let our identity as a football school slowly fade away. It’s no longer a choice - we are so far from the Clemsons and Alabamas of this world we will never catch up - but rather a question of when we accept settled fact. This should be something exciting, allowing our school to shift and transform its identity as it moves into the future. Unfortunately, the idiotic construction that sought to make the stadium even larger and more pivotal to campus has shackled the university to an old policy and institutional self-understanding that no longer works.

Although the Campus Crossroads project contains academic portions, the new workspace for a handful of departments, added as gloss onto a project meant wholly to serve the football-industrial complex, is an insulting alternative to serious investment into new research and faculty. While the front page of the school’s website crows “Notre Dame is a leading American research university,” this is plainly false.

Certainly Notre Dame hosts interesting research and innovative professors, but the deflating truth is that, when it comes to research, we are wildly exceeded by the universities we consider our peers in the realm of undergraduate education. Outside of philosophy and theology (of course), we lack top-tier graduate programs, with a brief sampling of our departments’ national rankings finding physics at 54th, economics 47th, and history 27th nationwide.

Worse still, the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) puts us among the 201-300 top research universities in the world - dismal.There is no reason this can’t change, if only there were the institutional will. While our research procurements are pathetic, our endowment, approximately $9,000,000,000 collecting dust (or interest, I didn’t pay much attention in econ) in the University’s presumably Gringotts-esque vaults, is the 12th largest in America, well-ahead of many universities that far exceed our research activity, and is more than enough to hire the faculty and build the facilities to create a legitimately world-class research university.

Instead of this route, the university’s leadership preferred the one leading to Campus Crossroads, costing “an estimated $400 million,” in a choice of expenditure constituting a reminder that the first priorities at Notre Dame, which claims to be a world-class research institute without a single Nobel Laureate faculty member or even AAU (Association of American Universities) affiliation, remain football, the whims of high-flying donors, and the airy accoutrements of #campuslife.

The final signal sent by this abomination of concrete and steel is a simpler one: that this university is clueless, or worse, careless, when it comes to the use of its treasure horde and usurious tuition fees. Campus Crossroads is the exemplar, but it is one of a pattern. Should we renovate the library so it has a sleeker appearance on the first two floors and create chic #studyspaces, disrupting that building’s rightful tranquility, or expand the Hesburgh Library’s collection of regular volumes, only ranked 75th in the country[3]? You know the answer.

Should we build more and more increasingly ridiculously luxurious dorms as more students than ever flee off campus, or invest in literally anything else? Nah, let’s just ban kids from moving off campus. Should we build a massive new stadium complex on the false notion that the stadium is the “center” of campus, an action ignoring both campus’s true heart marked by the basilica and the existing quad system while also worsening campus sprawl, or spend more moderately on a new student center in a style and location more congruent with the current layout of campus? Screw it, let’s drop a half billion on stadium renovations for a mediocre football team - and make sure no one asks what will we do with this monstrosity in the center of campus when, in 25 years, we can no longer even pretend to compete for national championships.

Our campus has recently embarked on a mysterious construction spree, erecting a succession of cookie-cut brick buildings. Chief among them is the addition to the football stadium known as Campus Crossroads, an architectural mistake so startling in its grotesquerie I choke back vomit each time I pass its insipidly neat exterior. Why? Returning to Hugo, “not only the form of edifices, but the sites selected for them, revealed the thought which they represented.” What thoughts are revealed by the structure and location of Campus Crossroads? It reminds us that the highest god on this campus remains, undisputedly, football, it forces us to recognize that while we pretend to be a major research university, the massive, but possible, expenditures needed to actually make us one are instead spent on athletics and housing, and it indicates that the wealthy few and the football-industrial complex continue to hold unquestioned supremacy on campus, blocking the advancement of serious cost-effective academic and social investment.

I hope my invective doesn’t lead people to misunderstand me - I will Love Thee forever. It is that passion for the school that makes it so painful to watch it make embarrassing and long-lasting mistakes such as Campus Crossroads, a concrete abortion representative of everything wrong about this university and the way it’s run.


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