Considering our next steps.

Nearly a year ago, Fr. John Jenkins reminded New York Times readers, and the Notre Dame community, that “[t]he pivotal question for us individually and as a society is not whether we should take risks, but what risks are acceptable and why.”  He insisted that “[f]or questions about moral value – how we ought to decide and act – science can inform our deliberations, but it cannot provide the answer.”

He was correct.  The University did the right things by inviting students back to campus, opening for in-person teaching and learning, and cheering the Fighting Irish during an excellent football season.  Many people – students, staff, faculty, and administrators – thought hard, worked tirelessly, and sacrificed generously to make these things possible and (sufficiently, even if not perfectly) safe.  Our decision, efforts, and leadership reflected appropriate appreciation for the facts that, this side of Heaven, trade-offs are inescapable, prudent cost-benefit analysis is necessary, and most rewards come with some risks.

It was both right and responsible for the University to reject nay-sayers’ catastrophizing and to stand firm in the face of uncharitable (and worse) attacks.  By opening deliberately and carefully, we provided formation and community to our students and critical work and economic support to our staff and local community.  Notre Dame has a distinctive character and mission, and the course we chose respected and advanced them.

Yes, there have been stumbles along the way, and all mourn with and for the millions who have lost lives, livelihoods, and loved ones to this past year’s pandemic.  Policymakers, administrators, and citizens alike have learned important lessons about our connectedness, dependence, vulnerabilities, and capacities.

There is room for reasonable disagreements about the effectiveness, efficiency, and wisdom of some of the measures and policies that governments, and the University, have adopted in response to the novel coronavirus.  (It is difficult, for example, to see a need to require solitary outdoor joggers to wear masks.)  In any event, the more we learn, the better we can, and should, assess, evaluate, and revise our practices.  Again, as Fr. Jenkins emphasized, it is not that “the science” dictates or determines what these should be.  Data are essential and sound policies will be evidence-based — while avoiding unreasonable risk aversion — but the questions, and our choices, are, inescapably, moral ones.

Policies adopted to deal with emergencies and shocks have a troubling tendency to remain in place, and even to expand, after the occasions for their adoption have passed.  The unsightly traffic barriers that, 25 years after the awful bombing of the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City, still block Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. and the degrading post-9/11 security theater in our airports are just two examples of this obstinacy.

This should not happen at Notre Dame.  The array of COVID-related adjustments and adaptations must not become our “new normal.”  It is essential, if we are to honor our aspiration to be a great Catholic research university – one that provides unmatched undergraduate education while serving, in Fr. Sorin’s words, as a “powerful force for good” in “a world deeply in need” – that we confront the fact that even the wise and warranted aspects of our coronavirus-response regime are damaging to our mental health, morale, and mission.  Our students – the heart of our community and the primary reason for our enterprise – have been asked to sacrifice the most.  They have lost and given up a great deal for others, and we owe it to them to reset as fully and as soon as we can.

There will always be dangers and risks on our campus.  Life and learning here will never be entirely “safe”, either from challenging and provocative ideas or from communicable and dangerous diseases.  There is no reason to think that students and staff will soon, or ever, stop testing positive for COVID-19, let alone the seasonal flu.  And yet, with vaccinations proceeding well and plans for the next academic year taking shape, the time is coming to put aside COVID dashboards, online daily health checks, lodges on the quads, and green-shirted monitors.  (We should, of course, keep washing our hands!)  Risks notwithstanding, it is essential that we resume — as soon as prudence permits — and then continue, regular campus life and learning, which includes lively dining halls, late-night residence-hall discussions, close-quarters seminars, song-filled dorm Masses, celebratory dances, and a packed stadium.  It also includes Bookstore Basketball, Bengal and Baraka Bouts, the Keenan Revue, Thanksgiving and Spring Breaks, the Holy Half, and a bursting Basilica during Triduum.  Without these and other features of “the before time,” the statements about Notre Dame’s values and commitments that accompanied and justified our considered decision to open will ring hollow.  

Reasonable minds can and will differ about the timing and pace of our return to Notre Dame normalcy, but this return should be non-negotiable and no “take off your shoes before passing through security” analogues should linger longer than necessary.  

Four aspects of this return should be emphasized.  First, meaningful in-person instruction requires more than the physical, distanced presence of students and faculty in University facilities.  Such instruction involves regular classrooms and face-to-face conversations, not DPAC auditoriums and masks.  It demands open libraries, all-night spaces for study and argument, comfortable public chairs, and plentiful coffee.  In addition, a commitment to such instruction, and to its place in education and formation, should rule out allowing “Zoom with the screen off” as a ready substitute for going to class.

Next, and relatedly, we need to rebuild a culture and practice of faculty presence on campus.  The internet can replace neither seminars nor office hours.  The comfort of home offices, the hassle of commuting, and the unpleasantness of January walks from distant parking lots (a debate for another day!) do not justify faculty staying home.  The problem was worrisome before the pandemic and it should be addressed by deans, chairs, and academic leaders in a determined way.  It should be both incentivized and expected that faculty are available to students, not only in class and at a few pre-set times, but also for drop-in conversations, casual lunches, and after-work appropriate beverages with Murf – for mentoring and role-modeling as well as performances on the podium.

Third, we need to confront, candidly and critically, the unwelcome emergence, in a variety of settings, of a culture of surveillance, reporting, and peremptory processes.  This culture does not have to reach the levels of “The Lives of Others” or Cultural Revolution-era China to be unhealthy.  Whether set up for alleging violations of COVID-related rules or denouncing amorphous incidents of “bias”, anonymous-reporting regimes are inherently prone to abuse and are, except in rare cases, unworthy of an intellectual community.  Due process is not less important than facilitating whistleblowing.

Finally, it is urgent that we get back to shared, and full, liturgical celebrations – in the Basilica, in academic buildings’ chapels, and especially in the residence halls.  These halls’ animating spirit has always been closely connected with Mass, shared prayer and song, exuberant Signs of Peace, and meaningful spiritual care and accompaniment from rectors, assistant rectors, RAs, and priests-in-residence.  If this spirit is lost, there is no guarantee – as too many other Catholic institutions’ experiences show – it will come back.  As diocesan rules and applicable laws permit, we must focus on the work of returning Notre Dame’s halls to places of communal spiritual growth and flourishing, not discipline and closed doors.

We were right to open, and some inconvenient and sometimes frustrating changes were needed to make our opening possible.  These changes, however, should be temporary, and undone as soon as possible.  The distinctive mission of Notre Dame demands timely, regular, and careful recalibration of risks and rewards.  It was good to be “Here,” but it is also important that we leave.

Richard W. Garnett is the Paul J. Schierl / Fort Howard Corporation Professor of Law and concurrent professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. He is also the director of he Program on Church, State, & Society. He is a member of the Rover‘s faculty advisory board.