A College President Infected

After a controversial event in the White House Rose Garden, Notre Dame's president has COVID-19. Some students and faculty members are not happy with him.

October 5, 2020
 
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Reverend John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, has tested positive for COVID-19. Though it is still unclear where or when Father Jenkins was infected, much attention has been paid to the ceremony nominating Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

Since the event took place Sept. 26 in the White House Rose Garden, several attendees, including Father Jenkins, President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, Senators Thom Tillis and Mike Lee, and former Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway, have tested positive for COVID-19. Pictures and videos of the event have shown the roughly 150 attendees sitting close to one another, hugging and not wearing masks. Father Jenkins was in attendance with several Notre Dame faculty and administrators. Barrett is an alumna of Notre Dame Law School and taught there from 2002 until being nominated to the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017.

Father Jenkins’s diagnosis has received particular attention within the higher education industry, as he was among those college presidents who aggressively pushed for campus reopenings. In a New York Times op-ed in May, Father Jenkins argued that reopening Notre Dame’s campus was safe and “worth the risk.”

Staying remote until a vaccine is produced and distributed, he argued, would “risk failing to provide the next generation of leaders the education they need and to do the research and scholarship so valuable to our society.”

As the university opened campus and saw outbreaks of cases in August, Father Jenkins locked down campus, closing public spaces and requiring students to stay in their residences. Students who were caught breaking health and safety regulations would be disciplined, he said, and potentially sent home.

A petition calling for Father Jenkins’s resignation was signed by over 200 Notre Dame students and was thus considered as a resolution by the student body Senate. The resolution specifically referred to Father Jenkins’s conduct at the Rose Garden, where he was seen shaking hands unmasked.

“Students, faculty and staff have also been asked to refrain from unnecessary travel at this time, yet Fr. Jenkins travelled across the country to participate in a large gathering,” the resolution said. “A professor’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court is significant and could be framed as necessary travel, but Fr. Jenkins could have fully participated in the event while following COVID-19 guidelines.”

At least one Notre Dame faculty member who was in attendance was reported to be wearing a mask and quarantining after the event. The university’s travel policy limits university-related travel to only what is essential.

“Fr. Jenkins’ public displays of disregard for public health directly contradict his commitment to the Notre Dame community, directly endanger the safety of students, faculty and staff,” the resolution reads. “He can no longer, in good conscience, call the student body, faculty and staff to adhere to the safety protocol that he ignores.”

That resolution failed to pass, though student senators have said they are open to further dialogue on the issue or other resolutions concerning Father Jenkins’s conduct.

An editorial in the student newspaper, The Observer, blasted Father Jenkins for visiting Washington and not wearing a mask at the event.

“Students have been threatened with and received severe disciplinary action for being photographed without masks in groups far smaller than the one gathered in the Rose Garden,” the authors wrote. “It appears Jenkins made a conscious and deliberate decision to not wear a mask, thereby jeopardizing the health and safety of himself, those at the event and all those in the tri-campus and South Bend communities with whom he interacted after the ceremony.”

Father Jenkins said in an email to campus that he has mild symptoms and has continued to work from home.

“The positive test is a good reminder for me and perhaps for all of how vigilant we need to be,” he said in a statement.

Similarly, last Monday Father Jenkins apologized for not wearing a mask at the White House event. He explained that he and other attendees were given rapid COVID-19 diagnostic tests at the White House before the event began and were only permitted to enter and remove their masks once their results came back negative. He also said he would be self-quarantining.

“I regret my error of judgment in not wearing a mask during the ceremony and by shaking hands with a number of people in the Rose Garden,” he said in his message to campus. “I failed to lead by example, at a time when I’ve asked everyone else in the Notre Dame community to do so. I especially regret my mistake in light of the sacrifices made on a daily basis by many, particularly our students, in adjusting their lives to observe our health protocols.”

This is not the first time Father Jenkins has faced criticism for his conduct related to health and safety. In August he was seen failing to follow campus social distancing guidelines while taking photos with students on campus. He apologized for that incident as well.

The Washington Post has reported that 18 Notre Dame faculty and staff members attended the Rose Garden ceremony and that faculty have responded with dismay to Father Jenkins’s choices.

“Failing to abide by health and safety protocols during a global pandemic that has taken the lives of one million people worldwide is not an appropriate representation of the Notre Dame community,” the student editorial reads. “In fact, it’s an embarrassment.”

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