The next time you check the COVID-19 dashboard of your favorite university on your laptop screen, imagine asking: Who’s the bravest of them all? Pretend you’re like the Evil Queen in Snow White, who gazes in a mirror, asking who is the fairest of them all, in order to eliminate the competition – as if treating COVID like an evil spell in a fairy tale might awaken our moral imagination.
“It’s worth the risk,” the president of the University of Notre Dame and philosopher Fr. John I. Jenkins sententiously opined in The New York Times on May 26, citing “courage” as a cardinal virtue for schools facing a pandemic.
His midwestern Catholic university’s plan to reopen campus during a lethal pandemic for in-person work, study, and presumably, football—two weeks earlier than usual—would, he proclaimed, be an act of exemplary bravery and soldierly fearlessness in the face of death.
The reality of reopening in August was messier than its philosophical justification by Fr. Jenkins. Like UNC-Chapel Hill and SUNY-Oneonta, Notre Dame had to go online almost as soon as it brought thousands of students back to campus. An outbreak of over 600 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in its tri-campus community forced most classes and many offices to return to a remote mode for two weeks.
Unlike those public universities at Chapel Hill and Oneonta that weathered early outbreaks by pivoting to online work and study for the remainder of the semester, Notre Dame turned back to square one. It resumed in-person work and study on September 2 soon after its Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick announced plans to host six home football games this Fall—each with close to 16,000 ticketed spectators.
The second coming of Notre Dame during the pandemic also saw the rhetorical return of its philosopher-president’s weaponization of Aristotelian courage as the mean between maskless abandon and endless quarantine.
In the opinion pages of the Chicago Tribune, Notre Dame professor Patrick Griffin invoked the “deeper wisdom” of his Roman Catholic university in order to celebrate its campus re-reopening on September 2. The historian Griffin also appealed to Notre Dame’s survival of the 1918 flu pandemic to dismiss the view that the COVID-19 crisis in American higher education is “unprecedented.”
Like Sean Astin in the lead role of the 1993 film Rudy, Griffin sentimentally imitated the manner of a Knute Rockne locker-room rally speech at the halftime of a Notre Dame football game. Urging students and faculty to return to the classroom with confidence, he followed Jenkins in equating in-person work and study during a pandemic with “encouraging us to face life’s realities with prudence, humility, perspective and, most especially, courage.”
Griffin naturally failed to discuss the dangers his virtuous student or professor would face. According to The New York Times’s coronavirus tracker, there have been more than 50,000+ cases of COVID-19 that have been contracted across more than 1,000 American colleges and universities since March. Even institutions with rigorous reopening plans grounded in medical science, like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—including rapid virus testing twice a week—have still faced COVID outbreaks, and the difficult choice between a temporary lockdown or a semester-long shutdown of face-to-face instruction on campus, in order to flatten the curve.
“A New Front in America’s Pandemic: College Towns,” said the front page headline in the story The New York Times ran on September 6. About half of the counties where college students comprise 10 percent of the population have seen their “worst weeks of the pandemic” since August 1. Whether they depart their campuses due to shutdowns or holiday breaks, asymptomatic young people with the virus might reseed the epidemic in their hometowns during the fall and early winter, the peak time for viral and respiratory infections in the U.S.
For the sake of argument, we can agree with Fr. Jenkins that intuitive, instinctive, and “courageous” reactions to danger do in fact, in some situations, play a role in crisis decision-making. When the danger comes from an epidemiological crisis, information is often incomplete and imperfect. For this reason, intuitive and value-driven decisions about whether to open, reopen, or shut down college campuses might be seen as reasonable, perhaps even reflecting “deeper wisdom.”
But during a novel and catastrophic pandemic, intuitive reasoning must be combined with other proven methods of mitigating risk to public health, such as consulting doctors with long experience in epidemic containment; seeking epidemiologists with statistical models for the risks presented by a contagion; and careful scientific analyses of the pros and cons of particular reopening plans, consulting the best available evidence.
It is particularly unwise to ignore the fat-tailed risk of pandemics, in which low-probability events—far from the center of the statistical distribution of a contagion—can give rise to extreme outcomes. We ignore to society’s detriment these extreme risks when we rely solely on strategies based on average expectations for risk management. Genuine wisdom during a pandemic requires a humbler acknowledgment of the likelihood of extreme, fat-tailed risks. To be precautionary and plan for the worst-case scenario in this circumstance is not to be cowardly, but rather to be prudent in the face of the unexpected potentially catastrophic surprises and disruptions that are likely to arise from a complex and ever-changing viral disease system.
Right now the wisest decision for academic institutions is to help with local efforts to control the epidemic and accurately document its movement through the community. Rather than vainly trying to contain campus outbreaks, colleges and universities should be building and sharing knowledge of the pandemic. They should work closely with local and state officials and citizens, scientists, and health care providers on an effective and collective public health effort to suppress the virus.
If they are to draw any moral lesson from the era of the global flu pandemic of 1918-19, American colleges and universities ought to enforce stringent social distancing protocols, and also ban large crowds from attending public events like football games, in anticipation of the peak season for influenzas and coronaviruses. In October 1918, Notre Dame’s campus saw the death of a nun, three undergraduate students, and a boy in the Congregation of the Holy Cross’s boarding school. The legendarily competitive Coach Knute Rockne at least had the common sense to cancel three football games during the deadliest month for the flu in Indiana.
So next time you check the COVID-19 dashboard of your favorite university on your laptop computer, ask yourself again: Who’s the bravest of them all?
True grit and concern for public health would be shown by moving online and volunteering for a coronavirus vaccine trial this Fall, rather than racing back onto campus for classes and football.
Edwin Michael, formerly of Notre Dame, is an infectious disease modeler and Professor of Epidemiology at the University of South Florida.
Eileen Hunt Botting (@EileenHBotting) is a Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame and the author of the forthcoming book Artificial Life After Frankenstein (Penn Press, 2020).