Campus Life

James L. Shilts, C.S.C.

James L. Shilts, C.S.C.

Campus Life this month features an account by a CSC priest on the tumultuous and trying times on campus in the late sixties. It's from the book Reflections In The Dome edited by James S. O'Rourke.

A Time for Change
by James L. Shilts, CSC


James L. Shilts, C.S.C., was born in South Bend, Indiana, in October 1925. The son of Walter L. Shilts, a Professor of Civil Engineering at Notre Dame, Jim lived in South Bend and was educated at Central Catholic High School there. He enrolled at Notre Dame in 1943 and was graduated with the class of 1949, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics. He attended Holy Cross College in Washington, D.C., for four years and returned to Notre Dame in 1953, where he was ordained a priest. He continued his graduate work at Notre Dame and received a Ph.D. in Physics in 1961. He served more than 20 years thereafter as an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy. Father Shilts served as Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs from 1970 to 1972 and as Assistant Superior of Moreau Seminary from 1974 to 1979. He was a Visiting Instructor at Kenyatta University College in Nairobi, Kenya, from 1979 to 1980. He also served as Rector of Zahm and, later, Farley residence halls. This essay was written shortly before his untimely death in 1982.

One of those brochures sent to new students claims that education at Notre Dame goes on in the residence halls as well as the classrooms. After years of living in halls with the students and teaching them in classrooms, I still cannot be certain about which is more effective. But there is no doubt that the residence hall is a place where a student learns much about himself and his abilities to relate to others. Hall experiences help him set patterns for his personal life. Of all the experiences that confirm for me the importance of residence hall life in what Notre Dame might give a young man, I would say the week of May 4, 1970, was the most memorable.

Life at Notre Dame changes from year to year, but never so radically as the changes that came in the sixties. For the first half of that decade, I filled my first assignment as a rector in Zahm Hall. Zahm was a residence then for sophomores, as was St. Ed's next door. The other neighboring halls, Cavanaugh, Farley, Breen-Phillips and Keenan were freshman halls, while the upperclassmen were assigned to halls on the south quadrangle. The dorms were for men only and female visitors to campus from St. Mary's or South Bend were infrequent and suspect. We checked students into their rooms before ten each night, saw that studying was finished and lights were out by 11. Mounting student pressure during those years led to a gradual relaxation of this system of discipline. By 1970 the students were no longer checked in at night. Women could visit in the dorms during approved hours. Each hall housed a representative proportion of each academic class .

For those of us who have held roles of authority or responsibility, change comes only with pain. For instance, the growth experienced recently within the Catholic Church has been especially painful for Bishops and pastors. The developments at Notre Dame were also difficult for those of us priests who had felt comfortable managing the old system. The University rules had just undergone most of these changes when I was reassigned in 1967 to be Rector of Farley Hall. The students did not yet know the limits of their freedom. The Rectors hesitated to trust them with it. Farley Hall presented its own peculiar challenge. Of all the halls, it had been chosen a year earlier to be an experimental "stay" hall. A student ordinarily resides in a stay hall for all four of his college years rather than moving each year with his class from a freshman hall to a sophomore hall and so on. This novel experiment of mixing all four classes for the first time in one hall was begun only with the most committed students available. Farley Hall had thus been peopled with perhaps the greatest collection of involved and active students this campus has ever put under one roof. It was an exciting and terrifying group to live with. To be their Rector meant to live in trust and admiration for all their talent and energy.

There was Richard Rossie, the fabled Student Body President, and his roommate and Vice President, Chuck Nau. There were seniors who held the leading positions in student publications, government and sports. There were sophomores and juniors working their way up, some of whom were the core of the new Charismatic movement. There was Mike McCauley who was a sophomore when the experiment began. He grew quickly into hall leadership and developed a vision of Notre Dame in which each hall would become a Christian community of scholarship and mutual concern. When he was elected Hall President in his senior year, he went to work to achieve that in Farley. He set goals high and convinced students that they were possible. He formed a team to organize lectures and discussions, prepare religious celebrations and dinners.

His best and lasting contribution was the appointment of Hall Fellows. These were faculty members who, with their wives, were welcomed to social and liturgical events and invited to visit and share their lives with the students. They gave witness to their faith in praying with us and led exciting discussions on the topics which interested them. Farley men were invited to their homes where food and ideas were joyfully shared. Among the Farley Hall Fellows I remember were John Houck, Emil Hofman and Ed Goerner. And Joe Evans who remained a Fellow of Farley Hall to the end of his life. The discussions often turned to national issues. Opposition to the American involvement in Vietnam, equal rights for Blacks and support of non-violence came up frequently.

The average Notre Dame student is conventional in his politics, more interested in sports, grades and his personal social life than in larger social issues. But there were always the few who had much to say -or write in the Scholastic or Observer - about what they expected the world to be. While many at Notre Dame were content to enjoy the freedoms which had been won, the active students were pressing for the University to be more responsive to their needs as they perceived them. Students around the country were restless, vocal and sometimes destructive. Although apathy remained the rule at Notre Dame, the ranks of activists were growing. Radical speakers visited campus. Activities unusual for Notre Dame occurred. A Conference on Pornography early in 1969 turned out to be an unpleasant surprise. In October, 1969, draft cards were burnt at a Mass on the Library Mall. Fr. Burrell, speaking at the Mass, called it a time to reflect, a time to decide. Such a public protest at Notre Dame against the Vietnam war was recognized as significant.

The Observer and the Student Life Council played crucial roles during the spring of 1970. The Observer, a survivor in 1966 after several unsuccessful underground publications, was a newspaper published entirely by students. More immediate and independent than the Scholastic, it has become indispensable to the University community. The Student Life Council was formed in 1968 from faculty, administrators and students like Rossie, Nau and McCauley. It considered issues of campus discipline and student rights and, it seems, handled them evenly. Administration and students -as I recall -depended on it as a fair and effective forum.

On the last day of April, 1970, President Nixon announced his decision to send military equipment to the government of Cambodia as an escalation of the Vietnam effort. "Peaceniks" and "effete intellectual snobs," as Vice President Agnew named them; reacted on campuses around the country. On Monday, May 4, a demonstration at Kent State University was fired upon by the Ohio National Guard and four students were killed. Suddenly, the activists were not alone at Notre Dame. Kent State and Vietnam served to bring the campus to life. In a rally that afternoon, student leaders urged a boycott of classes to express opposition to the war. Father Hesburgh read a statement he had prepared to send to President Nixon, condemning the Vietnam war and all associated violence. This statement was later endorsed by the Student Life Council and the Faculty Senate, more than 10,000 signatures were added when students circulated it through South Bend. The Student Life Council met that night and resolved that classes should be suspended on May 6 and 7 to permit discussions of the issues affecting Notre Dame and the country. The Vice President for Academic Affairs, Father Walsh, approved the two-day suspension the next day.

Dialogue was, by then, a way of life in the place we called Farley College. Mike McCauley's hopes had become self-imposed expectations about our life together. Assembled for a Sunday Mass or in section meetings, the students listened to my suggestions and offered their own. Presence of the Hall Fellows guaranteed gentility and wisdom. When classes came to a halt, the Fellows all but moved into the building. Discussions were held in the chapel, parlor and student rooms every evening that week. One night Professor Williams, a leader of the radicals, joined John Houck in leading a conversation that lasted all night. We argued for positions we had not previously questioned and for values we had always taken for granted. The issues of war and peace, justice and hatred, a government insensitive to the deaths of students were issues about which we could not remain neutral. It was a tough and moving night. Idealistic and moralistic students were aroused, shocked into involvement. They went into South Bend, each canvassing for signatures to the Hesburgh statement. Some were overcome with an urgency to carry the message of peace to their families and home communities at such a critical moment.

I have never experienced another time or place of such intense personal reflection and commitment. It was education at its best. But we could not keep up the pace. After a week of disrupted schedule, the Academic Council announced that classes would resume. There was an option for students who felt committed to joining peace efforts elsewhere. With their instructors' approval, they could leave school immediately and receive a suitable grade for the semester. About a fifth of the students in my classes asked for the option. I permitted them to go on the condition that they present a term paper stating their convictions and how they planned to become involved. The expressions of commitment I received are among my treasures.

I cannot say that the week of the class boycott made a deep and lasting change in the lives of all the students. Many were sincere, but not all. Those who stayed to finish the semester enjoyed the normal pleasures of students, the Blue-Gold game ending spring football practice, sunning on the lawns or swimming in Lake Michigan. I only know for sure that we had listened and talked and prayed together in Farley Hall as never before. We had lived as Mike McCauley had dreamed, Christians and scholars in search of truth.


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