In Scathing Letter, Newly Graduated MBAs Criticize Notre Dame’s ‘Systemic LGBTQ Discrimination’

Dean Martijn Cremers, Mendoza College of Business. Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame

Home under the Dome? Not really for LGBTQ+ MBA candidates at the University of Notre Dame 

Dear LGBTQ+ prospective MBA Students,

Graduation is a natural time to reflect on personal growth, experiences, and goals for the future. After reflecting on our two years as MBA candidates at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, we have concluded we have a responsibility to ourselves and to prospective LGBTQ+ MBA candidates to share some of our experiences. We want to ensure prospective LGBTQ+ students are able to make a fully informed decision about enrollment at Mendoza. Based on our experiences, we must advise LGBTQ+ prospective students to choose an alternate business school as it is our opinion the University of Notre Dame and the Mendoza College of Business are not safe places for LGBTQ+ students.

The university’s “Spirit of Inclusion” states, “We prize the uniqueness of all persons as God’s creatures. We welcome all people, regardless of color, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social or economic class, and nationality […] We value gay and lesbian members of this community as we value all members of this community.” In practice, however, this is not the case. The University’s Notice of Non-Discrimination fails to include specific protection based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

In a student survey conducted by ND in early 2020, responding to the statement “I feel a sense of belonging at Notre Dame” only 34% of LGBQ1 male and 22% of LGBQ female students strongly agreed compared to 59% and 51% of their heterosexual classmates, respectively. 285 students (about 45% of total LGBQ respondents) reported having personally experienced adverse treatment because of their sexual orientation. Of these 285 students, 93% did not report the incident to the University. Over half of these students said they “did not think the University would have taken action.”

Of the 5,295 survey respondents, about 55% reported having heard disparaging remarks based on a person’s sexual orientation.

Anecdotally, a few undergraduate business students have shared with us their choice to not come out while at Notre Dame for fear of the ostracization they may face. Instead, they have chosen to remain in the closet and actively avoid LGBTQ+ clubs and people on campus. It is clear there is a problematic environment for LGBTQ+ students on campus.

As the leaders of the Mendoza LGBTQ and Allies Club, we experienced discrimination based on sexual orientation from the highest levels of the University. In the Spring/Summer of 2020, when we took over leadership of the club, two of our primary initiatives were to change the club name and establish a ROMBA Fellowship in the MBA program. Based on research of other LGBTQ+ clubs in top 30 MBA programs, club members voted to change the club’s name to “PRIDE@Mendoza.” The name was summarily dismissed by the Student Activities Office (“SAO”). The reasons given included the name being “too political,” risk of the University losing its 501c3 status, and the name being in conflict with Catholic Social Teachings. SAO did not cite any specific teaching.

We attempted to argue the IRS policy and university policy cited were not legitimate reasons for the name to not be used. Other private schools with 501c3 status use the word “Pride” and maintain their non-profit status. More importantly, other Catholic schools use the word “Pride” in student activities and other campus initiatives. Therefore, the decision to not allow “Pride” is particular to Notre Dame.

We pointed out that other ND student clubs with actual political agendas (College Republicans, College Democrats, College Libertarians, Right to Life Club) were allowed to exist. SAO representatives explained these groups had a very specific approval process which included not only SAO, but also the University’s legal council and the University’s Tax Office. We requested to be approved through this pre-established process, but the request was immediately denied.

The university concluded, “too many stakeholders view the word “Pride” in this context as including an [sic] political advocacy component, which is not allowed.” To be clear, we see this thinly veiled reason as not about political advocacy in and of itself (as evidenced by the existence of clubs like the Right to Life Club,) but rather the administrators’ perception that the name “Pride” would be an endorsement of civil rights for LGBTQ+ people.

The most egregious discrimination came in the form of revoking the University’s partnership with Reaching Out MBA and the denial of the ROMBA fellowship. In the Summer of 2020, we approached the admission department of Mendoza, which, as we understood, handles scholarships and fellowships for the program. There are many fellowships available to MBA students, two of which are based on identity. The Forte Fellowship has been created for female MBA students. As women are a grossly underrepresented population in MBA programs, the Forte Fellowship encourages female admissions. Notre Dame’s MBA classes are generally dominated by white men, with only about 30% of the class identifying as female. For the MBA class of 2022, the Mendoza website boasted that all female MBA candidates received a Forte Fellowship.

The university also participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program which provides additional grad school funding to Veterans of the armed forces. The Notre Dame MBA program has a large population of Vets who are a tremendous addition to the diversity and fabric of the class. Like other traditionally marginalized groups, the women and vets bring unique perspectives and experiences to the classroom and make the program stronger. These fellowships are key to attracting diverse populations to the program.

Similarly, Reaching Out MBA, a non-profit organization focused on developing the next generation of LGBTQ+ business leaders, partners with business schools to offer ROMBA fellowships to LGBTQ+ MBA candidates or active allies. When we pointed out that Notre Dame and one other school are the only two MBA programs in the Top 30 MBA programs in the U.S. without ROMBA Fellowships, the admissions team immediately recognized the opportunity to increase diversity and attract LGBTQ+ students.

According to a January 2021 email from the Dean of the business school, Martijn Cremers, “a key priority for us is to advance diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels of the Mendoza.” The Mendoza admissions team was able to quickly establish a partnership in time for the 2020 ROMBA Conference. It was with great pride that we saw our school’s logo in the conference book along with other top MBA programs.

The ROMBA fellowship, however, was flagged at the university level. Notre Dame terminated the partnership with ROMBA and a ROMBA Fellowship was never offered to a student. According to an email we received from the Associate Dean of the MBA program, the university concluded: “As a Catholic university, our business school aspires to be both distinctively and authentically Catholic in our mission, while also working hard to foster inclusive excellence throughout our community. Given our Catholic mission, we are unable to provide fellowships that specifically provide privileged access to our MBA program to LGBTQ candidates.”

To say this decision was a punch in the gut is an understatement. This decision laid bare the disparity between LGBTQ+ students and all other students. We are not valued as other members of the community as the spirit of inclusion states.

Officials at the highest levels of the University participated in making this decision including the Dean of Mendoza College of Business and the Vice President for Mission Engagement and Church Affairs, Fr. Gerard Olinger, as the decision is based heavily on Catholic Social Teaching. The reasoning seems to revolve around the determination that as LGBTQ+ people, we are “living outside of Catholic Social Teaching” (a phrase used in one of our meetings with Student Services at Mendoza.)
It is important to point out this interpretation is unique to Notre Dame as other Catholic MBA programs have successfully partnered with ROMBA to offer the ROMBA Fellowship including Boston College and Georgetown University.

The University does not use any other population’s sexual practices or “sinfulness” in determining which fellowships to offer. At no time does the University ask or assume if a woman is on birth control or whether a vet is living and/or having sex with their opposite sex partner. Sin is not part of any rubric other than for an LGBTQ+ specific fellowship. This inequity illuminates an underlying homophobia within the University administration. Furthermore, the University uses their religious practice to support their bias.

We’ve spoken with several admitted students weighing their options and trying to decide where to attend business school. We have shared these experiences with them. Many have said they are eager to have difficult conversations with their classmates and help advance LGBTQ+ students at Mendoza and Notre Dame. Unfortunately, those conversations are not happening. In fact, students actively avoid having these conversations. Some faculty and staff, while supportive, feel their hands are tied by the University’s position on LGBTQ+ students. When the conversations do happen, it is difficult to make positive progress when someone feels their religion gives them license to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. An attitude seemingly supported by the actions of the University.

In closing, we must recognize the allies and advocates who have supported and encouraged us throughout these difficult and disheartening two years. October 11 is National Coming Out Day. In order to celebrate, we held a program for straight students to “come out” as Allies and Advocates by signing a poster. It was an incredibly powerful experience to watch students, faculty, and staff sign their names. Without a doubt, there are individuals who love, cherish, and value LGBTQ+ individuals at Mendoza and at Notre Dame. Sadly, with discrimination baked into Notre Dame at the most senior levels and in the most profound ways, the ability to create any meaningful change in the culture and institution is practically non existent. While there are glimmers of hope and change within the Catholic Church, we expect Notre Dame to be slow to make these changes.

When choosing a business school, potential students look at a variety of factors. For LGBTQ+ students, we know acceptance and belonging are critically important factors. Based on our painful experiences at the University of Notre Dame, we must advise you to look elsewhere for your MBA. We hope you find a school which not only protects and values you, but also embraces your differences and allows you to thrive without fear of discrimination, inequity, or reprisal.

In solidarity,
Teja Nelluri and Eric Sweeney

In response to ‘Home under the Dome? Not really for LGBTQ+ MBA candidates at the University of Notre Dame’

I first want to recognize the extensive and careful research conducted by MBA graduates Eric Sweeney and Teja Nelluri that resulted in their letter, ‘Home under the Dome? Not really for LGBTQ+ MBA candidates at the University of Notre Dame.’ During their time in the program, Eric and Teja were engaged students with a genuine interest in improving our culture in regard to the LBGTQ+ community at Notre Dame and to raising awareness of issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion in general.

I also certainly understand their frustration over the inability to enact some of the proposed changes specified in the letter during their time here as students. As a Catholic institution, we embrace the teachings of the Catholic Church as part of any policy or academic decision, including those that affect the needs of our students. The University is committed to creating and sustaining a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students within its “Spirit of Inclusion” statement, and has made significant steps forward in supporting our LGBTQ+ students in recent years, including the creation of PrismND, an official student organization dedicated to serving the LGBTQ+ and ally community on campus.

That said, we have more work to do. In regard to the Notre Dame MBA program specifically, we will reflect carefully on the concerns raised by Eric and Teja, and work to take additional steps to create an environment where every LGBTQ+ student feels welcome and valued. We do not discriminate against any applicant on any basis — including sexual orientation — when making admissions and fellowship decisions. We do financially support our MBA students in attending the Reaching Out MBA (ROMBA) conference, provide administrative support to our LGBTQ+ student club, and vigorously work to root out discrimination in our classrooms and community. Nonetheless, we need to be vigilant in reinforcing our commitment until every student feels that they can thrive here.

More generally, we have organized several College and program DE&I task forces that are actively working to create a more inclusive culture for all students, faculty and staff. We have appointed senior college leaders to serve as diversity catalysts to spur these internal efforts. In the MBA program, we have also made changes in admissions to prioritize recruiting diverse cohorts, are nearing completion of an updated statement of values with our students, and are making progress toward our first MBA DE&I transparency report. (More information about Mendoza’s DE&I efforts can be found on the Growth and Diversity webpage.)

As Mendoza Dean Martijn Cremers has emphasized on multiple occasions, diversity, equity and inclusion are foundational to our imperative to Grow the Good in Business: to educate business leaders who focus on contributing to everyone in society, to cooperating in solidarity and to creating a culture where we succeed and grow together. Our community believes deeply in the dignity of every person and strives every day to make such dignity come to life through our work.

Although cultural change is complex and can take longer than any of us would like, the inclusion of diverse voices and perspectives is an integral part of the process. I greatly appreciate the honesty of Teja and Eric in voicing their experiences and concerns in this vital matter and hope that LBGTQ+ students will contribute their insights in a like manner to the Notre Dame MBA program in the future.

Mike Mannor

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