“If a man neglects education, he walks lame to the end of his life.” –Plato

The retirement of Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C. as President of the University of Notre Dame invites one to consider the successes and failures of his tenure. At the outset of Fr. Jenkins’ presidency in 2005, many feared that Notre Dame, in its attempt to join the ranks of America’s elite institutions, would lose both the Catholicity and vigor of its educational philosophy, a fear articulated in Fr. Jenkins’ own inaugural address.

Despite this initial articulation, Fr. Jenkins’ presidency is nonetheless marked, for many, by his capitulation to modern pressures and trends. Yet, toward the end of his presidency, Fr. Jenkins also showed courage in resisting modern orthodoxies, leaving the university in a hopeful position for the future.

Notre Dame’s public failures under Fr. Jenkins’ leadership include the extension of university healthcare to spouses of homosexual students and employees in 2014 (prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges), his invitation of President Barack Obama to speak at commencement in 2009, and two confusing about-faces: allowing the performance of the Vagina Monologues on campus in 2006 in the name of “free speech” and adding contraceptives to employee health insurance shortly after winning a lawsuit against the federal government exempting the university from doing so.

Although it is true that these failings must be considered in any evaluation of the success of Fr. Jenkins’ presidency, I would argue we must look to the more recent past to discover his most important decision: to hold in-person classes during the 2020–2021 academic year.

In March of 2020, Fr. Jenkins and university administrators decided to suspend academic instruction. Though students continued to attend lectures and complete coursework online after being exiled from their dormitories, the university’s “remote learning” efforts failed miserably. The university quickly announced a “Pass/No-Credit” option for students. After viewing final course grades, undergraduates were given the option to change their A–F letter grades to “Pass” or, in the case of a failing grade, to drop the already-completed course from their transcript altogether.

Such a radical change in academic expectations could only have been implemented as a result of a drastic drop in performance by students. The failure of online education is not a ‘Notre Dame problem,’ however. It was in 2020, and remains still, a universal one.

Disregarding the pitfalls of full-price online education and their duties to educate young people at the highest level, such institutions as Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, MIT, and Yale (US News & World Report’s top five universities in 2020) offered courses almost exclusively online in the fall semester of 2020 and beyond. Many of these institutions remained online after having to implement “pass/fail” policies similar to Notre Dame’s in the spring of 2020.

In this instance, Fr. John Jenkins neglected to follow the example of the “aspirational peer institutions” about which Notre Dame students, faculty, and alumni are sorely tired of hearing. In a May 26, 2020 op-ed in the New York Times titled “We’re Reopening Notre Dame. It’s Worth the Risk,” Fr. Jenkins announced and defended his decision to welcome the entire student body back to campus in the fall of 2020 for a semester of predominantly in-person instruction.

Though the article, tellingly addressed to Dr. Anthony Fauci, is replete with the now-passé jargon of 2020—the hopes for a miracle vaccine, reference to the “new normal,” and a naïve earnestness not likely to return to popular discourse for generations—it nevertheless preaches truth to a society cowering in the face of death’s inescapability: Risk, like death, is inevitable; some risks must be taken. 

Fr. Jenkins writes, “the mark of a healthy society is its willingness to bear burdens and take risks for the education and well-being of its young.” In a culture that sees its young as onerously burdensome or even disposable, it is no wonder that their wellbeing was needlessly stunted as their elders were forced finally to confront the fact of their mortality.

Recognizing that rigorous education and formation of the young is the sine qua non for any rightly ordered society and, by extension, for the university, Fr. Jenkins called for genuine prudence and courage: “Perhaps what we most need now, alongside science, is that kind of courage and the practical wisdom it requires. Notre Dame’s recent announcement about reopening is the attempt to find the courageous mean as we face the threat of the virus and seek to continue our mission of education and inquiry.”

Without a doubt, the university’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic seems largely foolish in retrospect. “North Lodge,” the hundreds-feet-long enclosed tent on North Quad in spring of 2021 might as well be the nonsensical figment of some fever dream. Mask police, quarantine, and vaccine mandates are less easily forgotten. Nevertheless, this year’s seniors have been students at the University of Notre Dame for four years. Many college seniors who spent freshman year in their basements cannot say the same.

Politically, Fr. Jenkins leaves the university much as he found it. Were a new president to take office and call for the cancellation of an event such as the Nov. 3 drag show in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, many faculty and students would zealously voice their displeasure. Nevertheless, the current campaign against the show mirrors the campaign against the Vagina Monologues almost 20 years ago. The conservative Catholic contingent remains vocal on campus.

Under Fr. Jenkins’ leadership, the university has too often failed to be the shining beacon of Catholic education she professes herself to be. From 2005–2023,  Fr. Jenkins oversaw administrative bloat and tuition prices skyrocketed by a full 100%, but much has also improved under his leadership. Fr. Jenkns directed an expansion of graduate programs, the quadrupling of the endowment, and a building campaign that has returned new university construction to a timeless collegiate gothic style. 

Most significant, though, remains his singular, much derided decision to open the university in the fall of 2020. Modern academia has largely forgotten its purpose: the intellectual formation of young people. This is nowhere clearer than in elite institutions’ surrender to COVID. In bucking the trend and opening the university in the fall of 2020, Fr. Jenkins showed in no uncertain terms that all is not lost at Notre Dame.

Paul Howard is a senior in medieval studies and classics. As he moved out of Alumni Hall this semester, he is currently searching for a secret place on campus to take his 2 p.m. nap. Email suggestions to phoward2@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: Jenkins-Nanovic Hall, University of Notre Dame Campus Tour 

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