Tuesday, August 31, 2010

David Solomon weighs in on the dismissal of Bill Kirk, former Associate Vice President for Residence Life

In today's edition of the Irish Rover, Center Director David Solomon offers a perspective on the dismissal this summer of Bill Kirk, Associate Vice President for Residence Life at Notre Dame:

So Long, Captain Kirk:  A Personal Reflection

    The decision by Father Tom Doyle, Notre Dame’s new Vice-President for Student Affairs to fire Bill Kirk from his position as Associate Vice-President for Residence Life has left many of us with an empty feeling.  It has also put another dent in Notre Dame’s reputation as a family-friendly and compassionate employer.   The decision was both unfair and imprudent.  It was unfair, because, as a loyal employee of Notre Dame for almost 22 years—and one who had been placed repeatedly in positions where he took the brunt of public criticism for enforcing policies adopted by his superiors—he deserved better from those superiors than to be removed from office with no notice and with no public explanation for his removal.   It was imprudent, because administrators of Bill Kirk’s talent, compassion and principled commitment to the good are rare.  He loved Notre Dame and he loved and respected the students whose welfare he vigorously pursued. 

    In addition, his removal from office took place against the background of other events at Notre Dame that inevitably raised questions about its real motivation.  Bill Kirk’s office had been the target of the much publicized ire of a grumpy Charlie Weis who,  on his way out of town, told the South Bend Tribune that the Office of Residence Life was “the biggest problem on the campus” (SBT, 12-5-09). Perhaps, it seemed to some, Coach Weis, unable to take a scalp from USC, took pleasure in participating in taking one from the less well-armed Bill Kirk.

    Bill Kirk, of course, has long been one of the favorite targets of the denizens of ND-Nation and other red-meat web sites where rabid Notre Dame fans gather to cyber-vent.  They frequently charge  that Bill Kirk’s enforcement of Notre Dame’s disciplinary code was too harsh and that his insistence that Notre Dame athletes be subject to the same rules as other Notre Dame students was responsible for our repeated failures on the athletic fields.  If Kirk would just let “boys be boys”, we could overcome even Charlie Weis’s massive incompetence and return to glory.  One wag on the internet predictably responded to Kirk’s firing with the witless, “Ding-dong the wicked witch is dead.”

    Events later in the summer seemed to confirm that the firing of Bill Kirk would make life easier for Notre Dame athletes in disciplinary trouble.  The same week he was fired, it was announced that a celebrated football player charged with  serious misconduct would return to his team as usual.  It was also widely noticed that a student charged with a similar offense some years before had been treated much more harshly.  This announcement prompted another internet wit to offer a definition of a “Notre Dame trade”—you trade an associate vice-president for a tight end.

    Later in the summer, when a number of prominent under-age Notre Dame athletes and other students had a hostile encounter with the local police at an off-campus party, it was promptly announced both by our football coach and our basketball coach that discipline for these matters would be handled “internally” in the athletic department.  In a summer in which all Domers were celebrating the distance between our oversight of athletics from the disorderly mess at USC, this incident raised questions about just how different we really are.  Was this another sign that in the post-Kirk era, student discipline at Notre Dame would be handed out in a less even-handed way?  While everyone is equal, some are a little more equal than others—or so it appeared to many.

    Of course, it may simply be a coincidence that these events followed so closely on the firing of Bill Kirk—and the “restructuring” Father Doyle gave as his brief explanation for it.   Notre Dame’s refusal to give any explanation for Kirk’s firing, however, gives credence to rumors of changed attitudes toward student discipline—especially as it relates to the athletic department.  One can understand the general wisdom of Notre Dame’s oft-repeated policy commitment—“we will not comment on personnel matters”—but such silence has a price when actions are as ambiguous in their intent as the firing of Bill Kirk.  And the price seems far too high when the issues at stake are of such importance—they concern, for example, as this action did, the essential fairness of procedures for student discipline and the integrity of the athletic program on which so much of Notre Dame’s corporate endeavors seem to be recently focused.  At a university that now casually refers to the “business of college football” and the “Notre Dame brand”, special vigilance is needed to protect basic fairness from the intrusion of corporate interests.

     The larger role played by Bill Kirk and his family at Notre Dame and in the local community also raises questions about the wisdom—indeed, the fairness—of severing him from this community.  Bill’s wife, Elizabeth, has played a very visible role on campus in recent years as the Associate Director of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.  She has also figured prominently in campus affairs as the faculty advisor for the Right to Life Club and the Identity Project.  She has been one of a very few articulate and confident pro-life women on campus prepared to mentor young women seeking to take on the tricky balancing act of wife, mother and career.  She has increasingly played a role nationally and internationally as a leading pro-life spokesperson and, together with her husband, has forged important links between Notre Dame and other organizations in the community.  As official faculty advisor to the Right to Life Club, Elizabeth served as primary advisor to the student coalition formed in the spring of 2009 as “NDResponse” and served as a conduit for many, including junior, untenured faculty members, who were unwilling to get involved directly for fear of reprisal.  Without compromising his administrative duties, Bill stood with the students of NDResponse at their rally on the South Quad on Commencement day.  He  was the only senior administrator at Notre Dame willing to do so.  With the firing of Bill Kirk, Notre Dame will almost certainly also be deprived of Elizabeth’s talents.

    At the time Bill took part in the NDResponse rally, many people commented on the courage it took for him to stand with his wife and other witnesses to  this protest of Notre Dame’s decision to award President Obama an honorary degree.  I personally discounted these worries, believing that the Notre Dame administration would admire him for his principled stand on a matter so close to the Catholic heart of Notre Dame, even if they disagreed with his particular action.  The administration welcomed President Obama’s sharp dissent from and attack on central Catholic teaching on life.  It seemed only reasonable that they would equally welcome dissent from university policy by such a loyal  Catholic and member of the Notre Dame family as Bill Kirk—especially when his dissent was made in the name of the Catholic principles at Notre Dame’s heart  and in the company of his bishop.

     Perhaps, alas, there was reason for Bill Kirk to be worried about his participation in NDResponse after all.  There is no doubt that the treatment of Bill Kirk this summer will have a chilling effect on the participation of other administrators, unprotected by the safety net of tenure,  in the great debates about public policy and moral principle into which Notre Dame will be inevitably drawn.   A number of other administrators have told me that in light of Bill Kirk’s treatment, they will in the future keep their heads down rather than dissent from the policies of the central administration.   It will be tragic if these pressures toward uniformity become a permanent feature of Notre Dame life.  Universities are no place for yes-men.

    It is, however, the callousness and the brutal insensitivity with which Bill and Elizabeth Kirk were effectively severed from the Notre Dame community that has had the greatest impact on those of us who regard them as personal friends.  And here I must speak very personally.  The Kirks’ house has been an oasis of hospitality for faculty, students and administrators at Notre Dame, as well as for their countless friends and acquaintances in the larger South Bend community and from around the world.  It is perhaps their own penchant for hospitality and welcome that makes their treatment by Notre Dame seem so appalling.  

    The parents of two young adopted children, Bill and Elizabeth Kirk were in the process, as Bill Kirk’s bosses well knew, of adopting a third child at the time he was fired.  Can one imagine Father Doyle firing an at-will employee of Notre Dame with 22 years of service, two toddlers at home and a wife in the early stages of labor with a third child?  As adoptive parents, this was the Kirk’s situation.  The disruption in their life, and the life of their young family, suddenly and with no prior notice, has been wrenching for them as well as for their many friends.  The excuse given for Bill Kirk’s firing, “restructuring”, seems strange indeed.  It is impossible to believe, for example, that the firing was part of a larger organizational shift in the Office of Residence Life, since Bill Kirk seems to be the only person in the office whose job was eliminated. 

    Those of us who have been at Notre Dame for some time (in my case, 42 years) cannot help but contrast the treatment of the Kirk family with actions of an earlier day and by administrators of a different stripe.  Ralph McInerny, who had taught at Notre Dame almost sixty years before his death this past winter, always felt a special loyalty to this University and especially to Father Hesburgh (with whom he disagreed on many fundamental matters) largely because of the special treatment he received when he and his wife Connie and their children encountered a personal tragedy early in their time at Notre Dame.  Their first child, Michael, died tragically of a brain tumor while not yet 4.  With two other children and a third on the way, financially exhausted and living in a tiny Quonset hut in Notre Dame’s vetville, they were struggling simply to keep going.  Ralph loved to tell the story of how Father Hesburgh came to their rescue in these difficult times.   After the funeral for Michael in the Basillica, he took Ralph aside and told him that Notre Dame would give him sufficient money to buy his first house and achieve the kind of financial status he needed to care for his family.  At that time Ralph had not yet written a single one of the 130 books he would go on to write.  He was just another struggling assistant professor in philosophy.  Ralph McInerny never forgot this action of Father Hesburgh’s, however,   and repaid the Notre Dame community many times over with loyal and steadfast service to his students and colleagues here for over half a century.

    It may be that in an era when Notre Dame has become more of a brand and less of a community, such actions are no longer possible and that those of us who long for them are simply being naive.   If so, it is surely a great loss.  The Kirks will survive their brutal treatment by Our Lady’s University.  They are people of enormous energy and talent—and goodness.  They will make new friends and contribute to other communities elsewhere.  It is those of us left behind who are the real losers,  and those responsible for the firing of Bill Kirk may suffer the biggest losses of all.

David Solomon


  1. God will guide and protect them. Notre Dame is in darkness. There will be good from this but time will be one of perseverance. Pray for the virtue on behalf of the Kirks.

  2. Shameful. Notre Dame fires a man who stands for the University's values and who keeps students safe? I'm happy to no longer be on the payroll. I was honored to serve under Bill Kirk as an Assistant Rector for family housing for 3 years and found him to be an honorable and fair-handed man who did what was best for the University community.

  3. Thanks for informing us of this. I had no idea about this situation. We will continue giving to the Center for Ethics and Culture but not to Notre Dame carte blanche.

  4. I struggled with my son's desire to attend Notre Dame, and ultimately was happy with his decision to attend another school. I told him that if part of his attraction was its Catholic identity, then he would be sorely disappointed. Sadly, this story affirms that belief.

  5. As a ND graduate, I'm embarrassed to tell people I went to the University.

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  7. That's what happens when you don't support the emperor, clothes or "invisible" clothes.

    Be that a lesson.

  8. Sorry. Notre Dame is no longer Our Lady's university. It lost that distinction when it attacked defenders of life while lauding an architect of death. A univerity that was truly Catholic would not do that. It's time for ND to change it's name to something else, perhaps Apostate University.

  9. Is it any surprise that two of the largest off-campus "busts" by South Bend authorities have taken place in the short time since Mr. Kirk's firing? Is it just that the increasingly nerdy ND student body (whose average SAT score is almost double that of students from the University's "glory days") knows how to party harder than its less academically-oriented predecessors? Or is something else going on?

    As a man of incredible integrity and values, Bill Kirk earned and retained the trust of enforcement authorities in the South Bend community. These officials knew him and trusted that students who got out of hand while boozing off-campus would be held accountable for their actions. Now that he's no longer around, are these authorities cracking down because they think ND (without Bill Kirk) won't? It's fairly obvious that South Bend is trying to send the University and its students a message. That message is one that alumni and certain members of the ND community like Bill Kirk have been trying to send for a while, namely, that the University needs to take a stronger stand for the values it professes to hold. Although taking such a stand may not score ND "prestige points," it would be invaluable to the process of both shaping students' character and putting the "fight" back in "Fightin' Irish." Unfortunately, as the firing of Mr. Kirk demonstrates, ND would rather silence and eliminate its critics than take constructive steps to restore its tradition of glory. Sadly, as headlines detailing recent arrests and citations show, the University's "going soft" hurts not only "Brand ND" but more importantly the students it proposes to shape in exemplary citizens.

  10. Bill Kirk's firing is part of the ongoing tragedy that is Notre Dame's turning away from many of its original virtues.

  11. "Wow. Another nail in ND’s coffin. The ND admin just continues to sink deeper and deeper into its own morass of unprincipled decisions." - Fellow Domer

  12. This is what has become of the good ole' USA

    28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. Roman 1:28-32

  13. Oh, poor Bill Kirk. The ethical man who got a Notre Dame Security Police badge a decade or so ago and went around hassling students by pretending to be an undercover NDSP officer. As far as I know, it's illegal in the state of Indiana to impersonate a police office. The same man who sat in the pressbox at football games with binoculars trained on the student section looking for any transgression. The same man whose signature appears on no trespass notices given out to alums who happen to trip over a curb in a crowd.

    He was fired for abuse of power when enough people finally let the powers know about the repeated abuses taking place, ad he was given the same unceremonious exit he gave som many others.

  14. You staff members would do well to remember that these students are every bit as much a part of the Notre Dame Family as you are. Over a period of many years, Res Life at Notre Dame had become a punitive and bureaucratic agency. That is not good at allfor the long term health of the ND "Family".

    Ask any former student if they trusted Res Life to act with the wisdom of a caring parent. The answer is a resounding "No". As a parent, I have no faith in Res Life to treat my child with the care and wisdom of a parent.

    "En Loco Parentis" used to mean something. The heavy handed piety of today's Res Life belies something closer to an attitude of "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out."

    You staff members need to realize there are very real fissures in the Notre Dame "Family". Perhaps it was not Kirk's personal beliefs about the protecting unborn children, but his very real record of punishing young adults with a little too much zeal not enough wisdom.

  15. To fellow Notre Dame Alumni and those interested in restoring The University of Our Lady:

    Please support these groups - http://www.FreeTheND88.org and http://www.ProjectSycamore.com

  16. Thank you for this article. It needed to be said--unfortunately, there are too many of us here who would dare not say something like this aloud, and that, it seems, is the real shame.

  17. I wonder why, with so many other professors supporting NDResponse, he was the only one canned. Perhaps there's more to the story? There always is...

  18. What? So why was he the only faculty member fired for his participation in NDResponse? Perhaps there are other reasons for his firing? Perhaps his paternalistic style in dealing with students or his non-pastoral manner of dealing with students? Notre Dame's Catholicism is alive and well. Check out the amount of student's volunteering with such post-graduate service organizations such as the Alliance for Catholic Education, the Holy Cross Associates, Teach for America etc. I think we're doing pretty darn well!