Anniversary of Notre Dame’s decision to reopen

Three years ago today, Fr. John Jenkins, the President of the University of Notre Dame, published an opinion piece in The New York Times called “We’re Reopening Notre Dame. It’s Worth the Risk.” He noted, among other things, that “[f]or questions about moral value – how we ought to decide and act – science can inform our deliberations, but it cannot provide an answer.”  He acknowledged competing values and risks, while insisting that “[n]o science, simply as science,” can determine the correct resolution or balance.  “It is,” he wrote, “a moral question in which principles to which we are committed are in tension.”

Fr. Jenkins was right about this, and the University was right to reopen. It was, to be sure, a complicated and expensive process. In hindsight, some of the restrictions imposed and procedures adopted turned out to be unwarranted. It never made any sense, for example, to require young adults to wear masks outdoors, and it seems clear that the outdoor basketball hoops could have safely stayed up. In any event, his reminder that “the education of young people – the future leaders of our society – is worth risking a good deal” was both welcome and needed.

Notre Dame’s decision – no surprise – came under scrutiny and criticism. Much of this criticism was overheated and uncharitable. The levels of affective polarization and ideological polarization were, and continue to be, such that many people interpreted and evaluated institutions’ and actors’ COVID-related decisions through partisan lenses. Even on Notre Dame’s campus, calling for lockdowns and Zoom-school became a way to perform one’s politics and loyalties; purported dedication to “following the science” often functioned more as a way to signal one’s “resistance” to this or that. An innocuous outdoor photo with students triggered baseless calls for Fr. Jenkins’s condemnation, even resignation; one commentator’s charge that Notre Dame was in the grips of a “Marian death cult” suggested that it wasn’t clear-eyed evaluation of costs and benefits that was driving the hostility.

All this seems now like a very long time ago. The first-year students who moved into, and were often limited to, their residence halls are now rising seniors. Thanks to, among other things, a strikingly successful and speedy vaccine campaign and the apparent development of herd immunity, life on campus seems generally, if not entirely, “normal.” One hopes that, as a university and as a nation, we have learned, or been reminded, of the necessity for prudence, of the importance of transparency in policy making, and that experts in emergencies must remain accountable.      

In March of 2021, in the pages of The Irish Rover, I wrote that “[r]isks 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.” Certainly, and again, we have made a great deal of progress, and largely moved on from “Here.”

That said, I believe that some of the pandemic-days departures from Notre Dame’s traditions and mission linger, and could be taking hold in unfortunate ways. One example: The isolation and desocialization that was previously required or imposed is now embraced and facilitated by the Wall-e-esque Grub-Hub robots that creep across our quads. It is a mistake – and it was a decision that was not made in meaningful consultation with students and faculty – to make it easier to avoid the dining halls’ crowds and conversations.

Many rectors and hall staff have noticed reduced participation in community-building and -sustaining activities, especially dorm Masses. Notre Dame has always stood out among America’s Catholic universities for its strong commitment to students’ spiritual formation in the halls and to the maintenance and deepening of a distinctively and meaningfully Catholic environment on campus. That formation, and that environment, though, cannot be taken for granted. If, as is widely reported, Mass attendance and other forms of participation in communal faith practices are down, then university leaders should do all they can to learn why they are down and to enable and inspire a return.

Finally, Notre Dame’s longstanding and crucially important tradition of faculty presence on campus has been eroding. As I wrote in my earlier piece, “[t]he comfort of home offices, the hassles of commuting, and the unpleasantness of January walks from distant parking lots (a debate for another day!) do not justify faculty staying home.” It has become too easy to replace open-door policies with limited Zoom office hours (or to live in Chicago). The appreciation that Fr. Jenkins appropriately expressed, three years ago, for fully in-person learning requires fully in-person teachers, mentors, and advisors.

We should all be grateful, to the University and to Fr. Jenkins, for the leadership shown in May of 2020 and in the months that followed. Our current students and recent graduates are better off, and better educated, because of it. And, this Fall, let’s be sure the student section in the Stadium is packed and loud.

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 the Program on Church, State, & Society. He is a member of the Rover‘s faculty advisory board.