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:

  1. Either the option or a default policy of online work and study for all students, staff, and faculty
  2. De-densified dormitories that house only a fraction of the student body
  3. 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).

8 thoughts on “Don’t Let Campuses Become Plague Dystopias

  1. Is it just a little tone deaf to use the Black and Hispanic communities adjacent to Notre Dame as a reason for keeping the privileged campus bubble closed so as not to become a dystopia? Systemic education inequality kills more and creates more suffering than all the pandemics combined. How would you describe the lives of those barely existing in the shadows of Notre Dame? Dystopian? Is Notre Dame prepared to continue paying the workers in food service and sanitation who live in those neighborhoods and whose work at the university will be furloughed? Has Notre Dame conducted any studies on the efficacy of its outreach programs? Have they produced sustained, systemic change in the dystopias on its doorstep?

    1. My point was intended to be the reverse. Precisely because ND has a poor record on promoting meaningful social justice in the wider community, it has shown no concern for how its reopening will inevitably cause community spread of the virus in South Bend and Michiana’s at-risk neighborhoods. We know that COVID-19 is more deadly for Black and Hispanic people in the U.S. I want to prick ND’s conscience by pointing out the clear and present danger its reopening poses to POC in the wider community. On the economic side, ND has threatened furloughs but has not yet done it. However, it has the massive wealth to easily weather the pandemic while enabling remote work and study for all. All it would have to do is spend roughly 6% of its endowment earnings rather than the usual 5%. The money it has spent on propaganda alone (the HERE campaign) to support its reopening plan could and should be redirected to promote public health and prevent furloughs. I agree that a holistic approach to “doing better” for the whole community includes promoting both public health and social justice for everyone whose lives are impacted by our campus, whether they work there or not. Fr. Jenkins vowed to “do better” for Black and other minority communities after the murder of George Floyd, so I am calling on him to make good on that promise by caring about the ways that the reopening of campus puts Black and Hispanic lives in special jeopardy. “Black Lives Matter,” I said in my interview with NBC Nightly News in June. That part of its coverage of the ND reopening debate did not make it on TV, unfortunately, while a huge segment on the football stadium did. ND still plans on having a football season, and its reopening seems to be driven by this financial consideration alongside donor pressure for in-person study for undergraduates.

      1. What is Orwellian is the use of the dystopia on your doorstep as a shield to protect the privileged bubble of campus life from becoming a dystopia. There is nothing of “essence” in why the Black and Hispanic communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. They are disproportionately affected because they are disproportionately poor. The epidemiological data shows that poverty is a life-threatening condition. And so your plea “for the love of humanity” and for “wisdom, safety, and justice for each and all” ring more than just a little bit hollow. Make your case for your own safety, but don’t add insult to injury by using the misery of a community that lives in the shadow of 13.8 billion religious dollars.

        1. To be fair, I think you are misstating my argument. The title of the essay is “Don’t let campuses become plague dystopias”–and it is addressed mainly to college and university presidents and other academic leaders in charge of COVID-19 policies on those campuses. The argument of the essay is that if college presidents do not enable online work and study during the pandemic, they run the risk of causing wider epidemiological harm to the whole community, including neighborhoods surrounding campuses. In Notre Dame’s case, it has many at-risk communities nearby, communities which are at-risk during the pandemic because of a long history of racist oppression and poverty in this country. If ND wants to do better, it needs to step up its pandemic response to protect everyone who is affected by what we do (and fail to do) on and around our campus.

          I agree that our whole society is right now a plague dystopia, and that poor communities are living this dystopia in a more grave and terrible way than anyone else. This is the injustice I call upon Notre Dame and other universities to do their part to redress—by making them aware of the dystopian trends under their own noses. Obviously, college campuses cannot solve all the broader economic and public health issues, but they can do their part in protecting and helping those closest to them and their campuses.

          Finally, would you have me be silent on the issue of racial injustice and how it intersects with pandemic injustice in our country? I hope not, for I will not.

          All best, Eileen Hunt Botting

          1. I believe I understand your argument perfectly. I agree with it except for your use of the Black and Hispanic community at your doorstep. To be fair, I believe you are not understanding my argument. This is not uncommon with people of privilege. People of privilege mostly have a paternalistic attitude toward those beneath them economically and educationally. It can be a shock to hear that one cannot use certain communities in the way they feel entitled to use them.

            I invite you to think more deeply about what I am trying to convey. Your essay did not include any consideration of the Black and Hispanic community other than its convenience to bolster the argument for your own safety. It did not argue for keeping those at highest risk on the payroll or take into consideration any other impact on your less fortunate neighbors.

            Of course, I would not want you to be silent on the issue of racial injustice.

            I wish you all the best.

  2. I will leave this commentary with one final thought. I certainly agree that Notre Dame should redistribute its wealth to care for its whole community, on, off, and around its campus. This is not paternalistic but rather a long-standing principle of egalitarian social justice, which I invoke several times in this short thought-piece.

    When I argue that campuses should not become plague dystopias, I am arguing that the campus community is far bigger than its walls or quads, encompassing everyone touched by its policies. So I am arguing for exactly what you want: a recognition that privileged universities like ND, and the people in them, have a deep and foundational obligation to work for social justice for the poor and oppressed, or they risk exacerbating the unequal and unsafe conditions of the pandemic (and the social forces driving them, poverty and racism) in the wider society.

    Maybe I should have used a less provocative or literary title, but honestly, I was driven by a profound and sincere concern for the lives and health of the poor and oppressed in my community in writing the whole essay. Sometimes you have to take a rhetorical risk in order to be heard. I appreciate the subtlety of your rhetorical criticism and your careful reading of my writing but they ultimately miss the point of my essay: solidarity.


    Eileen Hunt Botting

  3. The paternalism I am referring to is not between Notre Dame and the Black and Hispanic community, but rather between you and the Black and Hispanic community. There is no solidarity without keeping every Black and Hispanic employee on the payroll during a pandemic furlough, and so any argument for saving lives through distance learning must include this provision. When you use the Black and Hispanic community in your argument for keeping the campus safe without this provision you are using Black and Hispanic bodies as life rafts for the privileged faculty and student body.

    Which option do you think a Black or Hispanic will opt for when given the choice a) unemployment with little to no government assistance and the possibility of a permanent loss of the job which will lead to eviction, etc, etc. or b) taking their chances, whatever those chances are, of staying free of the virus?

    Why do you think you have the authority to choose for them?

    I haven’t read “Frankenstein and the Language of Monstrosity.” I intend to.

    Here is a piece on Frankenstein by Warren Montag that I find helps people in their understanding of how they are implicated in the creation of the poverty around them. I hope you will read it.

    “The Workshop of Filthy Creation: A Marxist Reading of Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Warren Montag.

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