Students respond with frustration and empathy following the university president’s positive COVID test

Paul J. Browne, vice president for public affairs and communication at the University of Notre Dame, announced via email on Friday, October 2 that University President Father John Jenkins had tested positive for COVID-19. Jenkins had self-isolated before the test, and his quarantine has since ended, however, this news came just days after Jenkins drew criticism for his choice to attend the Rose Garden ceremony for Notre Dame law professor Judge Amy Coney Barrett without a mask.  

Even before the positive test result, the student response was strong and immediate. Videos and images of Jenkins maskless at the event made rounds on social media and students began to report the university president using Notre Dame’s COVID-related incident report. Three students went as far as to create a petition calling for his resignation, and though it secured the signatures necessary to move it to the Student Senate floor, the resolution ultimately failed to pass. A deeply critical viewpoint piece from The Observer Editorial Board condemned Jenkins’ actions as “nothing less than hypocritical” and “an embarrassment” to the Notre Dame community before he had tested positive. The test result only furthered this point.

The reaction of the student body as a whole appears less vindictive than the Instagram comment section would suggest. Students who faced disciplinary action for lesser violations of Notre Dame social distancing guidelines expressed their frustration, but were not without sympathy for Jenkins, who apologized for his “error in judgement” in an email to the Notre Dame community on Monday, September 28.

When asked about the issue, first-year student Emma Sedlack told the Rover that, “From a student’s perspective, it was frustrating to see Jenkins on national television not following the protocols that he requires students to follow every day.” She went on to say that she believes “students had a right to be upset by the actions of Father Jenkins,” but does “not think that that the response needed to go as far as to call for his resignation.” Rather, Sedlack said, “As long as there was a reflection of what he could have done differently, I believe the students should be in a position to accept his apology.”

Similarly, the irony of Jenkins’ actions was not lost on junior Lauren Rymsza, who told the Rover that “it is precisely the contradiction between his actions and the policies enforced on campus that sends a message of irresponsibility and invalidation towards all of the work students have put forth.” 

Despite her disapproval of Jenkins’ conduct, Rymsza called the petition calling for his resignation “absolutely ludicrous and unjustified,” acknowledging that, given the negative rapid test results that each Rose Garden attendee reportedly received before the ceremony, she understands how adhering to social distancing protocols might have seemed unnecessary. In the end, she says that “hindsight is 20/20, and unless all people are in the same household in a controlled environment, it’s looking like we should always be wearing masks until this is absolutely under control.” Going forward, she says that “we need to encourage others to partake in a community that promotes the health and safety of others while correcting faults with charity.”

While there is significant frustration among students regarding the circumstances surrounding Father Jenkins’ contraction of COVID-19, this frustration is accompanied by concern for his health, acknowledgment of his mistakes, and added sincerity in our efforts to act in a way that protects the Notre Dame community at large.

Bridget Stockrahm is a freshman from South Bend, Indiana. She can be found playing euchre, wasting flex points on green tea lattes, and biking around campus, though not currently, because she forgot where she locked her bike. If you notice an abandoned bicycle near Debartolo Hall, you may reach her at