An open letter to Fr. John Jenkins regarding COVID policies
Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, February 2, 2022
Dear Fr. Jenkins,
The University of Notre Dame’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has always been a step ahead of American universities. Beginning with your op-ed in the New York Times, Notre Dame has been a leader for other universities on this issue.
Notre Dame is at a critical moment regarding COVID policies. If the administration does not roll back its current restrictions, Notre Dame, for the first time since the original temporary shutdown in Fall 2021, will have regressed towards more invasive policies. I urge you and the Notre Dame administration to continue to lead universities on this front and proceed with your plan to lift the indoor masking mandate, as well as event and travel restrictions, for the remainder of the spring 2022 semester.
In early January 2022 an anonymous poll was disseminated among Notre Dame students which asked about their support for the current COVID policies. The poll can still be taken by Notre Dame students at this link. The results are updated in real time and published here. While only about 6.9% of the undergraduate population has responded, the results still warrant the administration’s attention.
As of January 29, only 52% of respondents support the booster mandate (this question did not ask students if they in fact got a booster, but only if they supported the mandate). Whether or not we had reached 90% on boosting, 86% think the university should guarantee in-person classes for the rest of the semester, 71% oppose indoor masking, 74% support normal events, 82% oppose travel restrictions, 93% of juniors support an in-person JPW and 87% of seniors support an in-person commencement with usual numbers in attendance.
The results of the poll support my hypothesis that widespread student compliance with Notre Dame’s mandates and restrictions has not been the result of widespread student support for these mandates and restrictions. Moreover, given that respondents were evenly divided on the booster mandate and yet decisively pro-normalcy in every other area, the respondents cannot be so easily dismissed as biased in one direction on COVID.
Besides the result of this poll, I offer a separate, yet related, appeal for a return to normalcy this semester, or at least a return to the policies of last semester.
Towards the end of the spring 2021 semester, a professor made the following comment to a few friends and me regarding the restrictions we had endured over the past year: “You are more likely now to comply with evil than you were at the beginning of this year.” In coming to terms with his comment, I realized the significance of what he meant. Let’s make the claim a bit more precise: Because of Notre Dame’s COVID policies, we are now more likely to comply with directives or laws which we find irrational or evil than we were at the beginning of the [Fall 2021] year.
I’ve just made a very strong claim. Before you dismiss it, consider the overwhelming likelihood that much of the student body’s compliance with our University’s COVID restrictions over the past three semesters has been due to fear of punishment.
In his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Václav Havel, playwright and former president of Czechoslovakia, dubbed compliance with policies one finds irrational (or immoral) “living within a lie.” The solution? “Living in the truth.” That is, living in accordance with one’s own prudential judgments concerning (1) whether particular directives or laws are rational and/or just, and (2) whether non-compliance is worth the risk of punishment. Thus, merely acting in accordance with one’s own judgments — with one’s conscience — constitutes dissent.
As a Catholic institution, the Notre Dame administration should consider the effects its policies might have on its students’ ability to form their consciences and make moral decisions. Fr. Jenkins, I once again urge you and the administration to lift the current COVID restrictions for this semester. Specifically, regarding masking in class, I urge you at least to return to last semester’s policy of allowing professors to make their own decisions.
This upcoming decision is an opportunity for Notre Dame to recommit itself to not just the physical safety but also the intellectual and moral health and freedom of its members. The minds and hearts of your students depend on it.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.