Why Reopen?

This historic and daunting test of the Notre Dame community demands loving charity and compliance, inspires faith and doubt, and requires the luck of the Irish. I’ll take that bet.

Author: Paul Weithman ’81

Weithmanwhyreopen Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

In betting that Notre Dame can safely reopen, house students and conduct classes for the fall semester that opens next week, the administration is embarking on one of the boldest experiments and making the one of the biggest gambles in University history.

The highest stakes of all, of course, are the health and well-being of Notre Dame students, faculty and staff, and residents in the South Bend area who are unconnected with the University but who stand some risk of being infected as the campus population swells.

As high as those stakes are, they are not the only ones. Notre Dame has made enormous financial investments in reopening. The money spent on the HERE campaign, on students’ pre-matriculation COVID-19 testing, on securing quarantine space and on outfitting classrooms with technology for remote learning all will have been squandered if Notre Dame needs to shut down shortly after reopening.

The gamble is also huge for administrators. University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, ’76, ’78M.A., has shown the ability to stick courageously with difficult and unpopular decisions, not least when he faced a firestorm for awarding an honorary degree to Barack Obama. For all his courage and accomplishments, this experiment may well be how history remembers his presidency.

This experiment could well fail because of circumstances beyond anyone’s control. A successful outcome will require a tremendous amount of luck. The experiment also could fail because even a relatively small number of students behave irresponsibly. Notre Dame is staking a lot on the behavior of several thousand 18- to 22-year-olds. Why would anyone think that gamble is worth making?

I have no special insight into the minds of the University decision-makers. I can only say what I might think were I in their unenviable positions.

Even before instituting public health protocols intended to place the University in a bubble for the duration of the pandemic, Notre Dame can seem a space apart. It is a beautiful and blessed place, one of whose raisons d’etre is to prepare undergraduates to contribute to a world that all too often seems to be neither. We hope, in the brief span of a college career, to get them ready to make what halting and temporary progress is possible against the ignorance and shabbiness of the world.

Their preparation takes place in a community of learning. When the University shut down for the latter half of the spring semester, the faculty proved that a great deal of learning can take place even when students are away from campus. Every educational community is also a formative one. Students learning remotely can acquire the values of inquiry and intellectual honesty. But Notre Dame’s ability to form and transform students in other ways depends crucially on their presence — to experience what makes ours a distinctive community that imprints upon them something we hope they will draw on long after they have left.

What our current moment throws into sharp relief is that we do not just transmit those values to sustain our students after they graduate, in hopes of making them better teachers or lawyers or entrepreneurs or executives or scientists, important as that is. We also transmit them so that students will be able to sustain our community while they are here. Notre Dame depends on a virtuous circle — or better, on a circle of virtue — whereby students are continually formed in the values that define us and are continually asked to sustain the community that transmits those values by living them out.

Those values — of charity, loving concern for others, responsibility and compliance — will be sorely tested by the behavior we ask of students in the coming weeks and months. Acknowledging that clarifies the real gamble University is making: that the Notre Dame community can at once inculcate and draw forth the best in our students to see us through the crisis.

I am clear-eyed about the dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. I especially fear for students about whom I care deeply. But I also have faith in the face of that fear — faith that undergraduate members of our community will do what they must because they want to remain here rather than return home, but faith too that they will be inspired to restraint and sacrifice by ideals we call them to when we hand on the traditions that make us Notre Dame. This is not faith in a miracle cure, nor is it the kind of magical thinking according to which the virus will just disappear because wishing makes it so. It is faith that our institutions can effectively summon compliance with the sensible public health protocols that will keep our community safe. If our experiment succeeds, we’ll have proof that our faith was not placed in a possibility that is merely theoretical, and that the values we preach can get traction in the lives of those we are here to teach.

And so, if I were in the unfortunate position of having to decide what Notre Dame is to do, I would place my faith in our community and bring our students back.

But faith itself is a gamble, for it is the nature of faith that we can only have it in what we believe to be possible but not certain. Doubt is faith’s twin and constant companion. Anyone who has faith of any kind has wrestled with it. I would never berate those who doubt the wisdom of our current experiment. I have no desire to impugn the motives of faculty colleagues who disagree with the decision to reopen, for many of them are friends of mine. Some will think, even if they do not say so, that my talk of Notre Dame as a special community is the gauzy illusion of an alumnus in autumn. Tolerance of this disagreement, as any other disagreement, helps make an educational community possible. I will extend it to those with whom I disagree, as I hope they will extend it to me.

Speaking for myself, I’m glad we’ll be here.

Paul Weithman is the Glynn Family Honors Professor of Philosophy and a Notre Dame parent.