Unfriendly Fire

Bill KirkBill Kirk (’84, Law ’88)

SOUTH BEND, IN – Notre Dame’s abrupt dismissal of a high-ranking, outspoken advocate for life dismays many as a sign of times to come.

In a stunning development with ominous implications, the University has dismissed a long-time top officer, Bill Kirk, who was the only member of the Administration to stand with students, faculty members, and Bishop D’Arcy at the Rally in opposition to the honoring of President Obama. Mr. Kirk has also been the target of Charlie Weis and others who want a “boys will be boys” approach to discipline for athletes; and the University is attempting to suppress Kirk’s pre-trial testimony in the “ND88” criminal prosecutions.

The Kirk episode is described in a recent issue of The Irish Rover and in a tsunami of Internet reports and blogs. The Rover article was accompanied by a searing indictment of the University’s action by Dr. David Solomon, Director of Notre Dame’s  Center for Ethics & Culture.

We urge you to read Dr. Solomon’s courageous and compelling commentary (“Goodbye, Captain Kirk”) and the Rover article. We cannot do justice here to those accounts.  But here is a brief summary:

Bill Kirk, a graduate of both the University and the Law School, served Notre Dame for 21 years as Assistant, and then Associate, Vice President of Student Affairs. He was dismissed on June 14th without notice by the new Vice President of Student Affairs, Fr. Thomas Doyle, C.S.C., who had been in office for a mere four days.

Fr. Doyle assigned an undescribed “restructuring” as his reason. He took pains in a letter to university colleagues to squelch any suggestion of dissatisfaction with Mr. Kirk’s performance, praising him for his “deep dedication” and his “consistency, good judgment, compassion, and much more.” And in an interview, Father Doyle declared that Mr. Kirk had “served the University extremely well for the past two decades” as “a loyal, a thoughtful, and a caring administrator.”

This startling action, so flimsily explained, came against a background that strongly suggested the Administration simply wanted to get rid of Mr. Kirk.

In the forefront of likely reasons stand his and his wife’s pro-life activities, especially in connection with the honoring of President Obama.

The Rover reported that Elizabeth Kirk, the Associate Director of The Center for Ethics & Culture and faculty advisor for the student Right to Life club, had “helped students to organize NDResponse, the coalition that protested the invitation to President Obama” and that Bill Kirk had approved the requests of NDResponse for permission for its demonstrations.

But much more.  The Rover continued:

Kirk was known within the administration to be sympathetic to the students’ pro-life efforts….[He] attended the Palm Sunday rally…and he joined faculty and NDResponse students in praying the Rosary in the grotto the night before Commencement. On Commencement Day, when NDResponse hosted a rally on South Quad, philosophy professor David Solomon asked the university faculty, staff and administrators present to approach the podium in support of the students. Kirk was the only senior administrator to do so (emphasis supplied).

As Professor Solomon notes with sadness, “With the firing of Bill Kirk, Notre Dame will almost certainly also be deprived of Elizabeth’s talents” — a consequence the Administration could confidently predict.

Next, there is strong suspicion that the drive for a winning football team played a role. As The Rover reported, “Kirk was known for his impartiality in matters of discipline”; and both the Rover and Dr. Solomon discuss Charlie Weis’s “much publicized ire” about how Bill Kirk’s office wouldn’t let “boys be boys.”  Kirk’s office, Weis declared, was “the biggest problem on campus.”

“Events later in the summer,” Dr. Solomon observed, “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 the 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.

Shortly thereafter more than two dozen athletes, including eight football players, were among 44 students arrested at an alcohol-laced off-campus party. (There has been a startling recent increase in alcohol-related student arrests — 144 since July, almost 60 since school opened — in highly disturbing incidents.) Observing that the coaches “ promptly announced that discipline would be handled ‘internally,’” Dr. Solomon wondered whether this was “another sign that in the post-Kirk era, student discipline at Notre Dame would be handed out in a less even-handed way.”

Finally, as The Rover noted, there is reason to think that Bill Kirk’s dismissal may have had something to do with the prosecution of the “ND88” — the pro-life demonstrators arrested for trespass during the Commencement honoring President Obama.

Defense counsel have served notice to examine Mr. Kirk before the trial. They want to explore his dismissal and “whether pro-gay rights and anti-military protesters were treated more leniently than the ND 88” (a subject on which we have reported previously).

Notre Dame, however, as The Rover reported, has requested the court to bar defense counsel from examining Mr. Kirk.

Reasonable suspicions abound.

The Administration was, of course, sure to come up eventually with some sort of “restructuring,” and so it was unsurprising to learn on September 10th that a relatively minor function of Kirk’s office, the Notre Dame Police Department, is to be handled by a new “Office of Campus Safety.” Perhaps sensing the weightlessness of this move as a purported basis for Kirk’s dismissal, Father Doyle insists that he has yet in mind some undefined “overall restructuring.”

Professor Solomon movingly described the “callousness and brutal insensitivity with which Bill and Elizabeth Kirk were effectively severed from the Notre Dame community” and how this administration’s action contrasts with “actions of an earlier day and by administrators of a different stripe.” “Another dent,” Professor Solomon declared, has been put in “Notre Dame’s reputation as a family-friendly and compassionate employer.”

And another dent also in what remains of Notre Dame’s pro-life reputation. Condemnation by pro-life publications and blogs has been uniform and harsh. (E.g., a “firing of revenge”; “  “principle over politics does not survive”; “fires administrator who protested honor for Obama”; “fires staffer for attending pro-life rally”; “fires pro-life staffer for joining Obama-abortion protest“; Notre Dame “At It Again”; “Ignominy at Notre Dame.”)

Relations with one of the most prominent pro-life Internet publications, LifeSiteNews, have deteriorated to the point that the University’s principal spokesman simply refused to speak to its representative

The most pernicious impact on the University, however, will be the “chilling effect” of the University’s action described by Professor Solomon. “A number of other administrators,” he reported, “have told me that…they will in the future keep their heads down rather than dissent from the policies of the central administration.” And this will be true, of course, of all faculty members without tenure. The pressure on them to refrain from criticism, which was documented in a recent issue of The Rover that we will discuss in a subsequent bulletin, has been markedly increased.

We close with this lament and tribute from a senior, Mary Forr, who came to know the Kirks through NDResponse and Right to Life:

Mr. and Mrs. Kirk are people I came to Notre Dame to learn to be like. The courage they displayed in standing up for what was right, no matter the consequences, is something I aspire to have….I can’t help but think it was Mr. Kirk’s courage that caused his firing. Thomas More was once in a similar position….Mr. Kirk, I can’t help but think you are in good company, and the students of Notre Dame whose lives you have changed through your example will miss you.

So, too, will we all.

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