After going dark in March, a growing number of America’s university and college campuses are deciding to reopen this fall almost entirely online. Yet even as cases of COVID-19 soar, still other institutions of higher education remain stubbornly committed to in-person work and study this autumn. The reason is simple: universities and colleges fear the loss of revenue from tuition, room and board, food, and athletics if students can’t return to campus this fall.
In late May, the President of Notre Dame and Thomist philosopher Fr. John I. Jenkins defended his decision to reopen its campus in terms of the university’s religious and moral values, including the virtue of having soldierly “courage” in the face of death. This, he insisted, was a virtuous Aristotelian “mean” between the vicious extremes of recklessness and timidity.
In June, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the vast majority of college and university presidents across the United States were planning to follow Notre Dame’s lead in announcing their intentions to reopen campuses for in-person work and study, despite the fact that their closed and crowded spaces would be ripe for the accelerated spread of the novel coronavirus. At both public and private universities, academic leaders put their institutions’ financial interests — in flush revenue streams and plump endowments — above public safety, public health, and the wider public good. Political theorist Jeffrey C. Isaac was among the first scholars to document and criticize this trend as it unfolded at his flagship state university in Indiana.
Flash forward to late July. Every coronavirus map places Notre Dame and the broader region of northern Indiana in a sea of orange, even before thousands of students and employees return to our centrally-located residential campus. Notre Dame is adjacent to some of the city of South Bend’s predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, where people are most vulnerable to death and debilitation from the disease of COVID-19.
Unlike some of its aspirational peer institutions in higher education, such as Harvard and Yale, Notre Dame’s reopening plan lacks three critical policies for public safety and public health during the ongoing pandemic:
- Either the option or a default policy of online work and study for all students, staff, and faculty
- De-densified dormitories that house only a fraction of the student body
- Free provision of surveillance testing for the pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic spread of SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 among its students and employees
If they are unable to implement these public health policies, Notre Dame and other institutions of higher education run the risk of ramping up community spread of the novel coronavirus, on and off their campuses. The gravest injustice is that the lowest paid workers on American campuses — custodians, cafeteria workers, administrative assistants — will bear the brunt of the risk. Faculty, though far more privileged, also face serious risk and injustice. At least one undergraduate at Notre Dame is known to have been denied a medical accommodation to study remotely this fall.
Notre Dame currently plans to have students and employees self-report symptoms of COVID-19, prior to making testing available to them on campus. This short-sighted risk management approach ignores the fact that the virus and its disease seep invisibly into a human community long before symptoms are detected by its sufferers. The IBM-designed app for data collection of self-reported symptoms features the Orwellian acronym RTCA (Return to Campus Advisor). Like an unfunny parody of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, RTCA malfunctioned almost immediately, sending error messages to those forced to submit their private health data through its firewall.
A philosopher of moderation, Aristotle might urge caution to those intellectual leaders who seek refuge from an epidemic by retreating behind scholastic walls, literal or virtual. He lived in the long political shadow of the plague of Athens, which took up to 100,000 lives during the second Peloponnesian War. The Athenian general Pericles ordered the people to hide behind the city walls from the threat of the invading Spartans. Athens quickly became a petri dish for plague — and Pericles himself died as a result.
Two months after President Jenkins publicly pledged to avoid the Aristotelian vice of recklessness, Notre Dame shows no sign of slowing down its crusade to reopen. It has instead launched a promotional campaign of glossy signs to adorn the walls of our campus and support its religious vision of community virtues during the pandemic.
Unfurled on campus in July, one of Notre Dame’s pandemic banners recalls the doublespeak of the Ministry of Love in George Orwell’s dystopian political science fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four: “HERE we are inspired by love and not by fear.” I recoil from this flag’s authoritarian suggestion that here, at one of the nation’s leading Catholic research universities, Christian love demands quiescent, even unthinking, submission to the university’s reopening plan, despite the mounting scientific and epidemiological evidence against its public safety.
To resist this dystopian trend in American higher education is not to feel irrational fear, but rather to use historical and scientific evidence-based reasoning to push colleges and universities to do better for the sake of the health and well-being of their whole communities — on, off, and around their campuses.
During World War II, one small midwestern Catholic college, Lewis University, temporarily suspended its normal operation of classes in order to become a vital training base for pilots in the U.S. Navy. With such a balanced sense of public spirit, Notre Dame and other institutions of higher learning could have the character to endure one more semester of remote work and study. And Notre Dame, as a private Catholic university with an endowment valued at 13.8 billion dollars, certainly has the resources to survive.
During the plague year of two thousand and twenty, I call upon college presidents across the country to reject the path that Notre Dame is taking. Have the courage to turn back — for the love of humanity — from the life-threatening course of reopening campuses too fully and too fast.
Many university leaders — including the president of The New School — have had the good sense, and courage, to slow down or halt their reopening plans before the epidemiological data assure their wisdom, safety, and justice for each and all. If others don’t follow their prudence and compassion, history will judge them harshly.
Eileen Hunt Botting is a professor of political science at Notre Dame, whose next book is Artificial Life After Frankenstein (Penn, 2020).