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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Purdue and Notre Dame Are Going to Open for In-Person Instruction

How the leaders of these schools signal their intentions speak volumes, through their silences as much as their words.

May 26, 2020
 
 

In recent individual op-eds, Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University, and Father John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, both declared they’re going to open their campuses for in-person instruction in the fall.

Daniels believes opening is the “best option from both a scientific and stewardship standpoint, at least for our particular institution.”

A failure to provide in-person instruction would be, in Daniels’s words, equivalent to telling students, “Sorry, we are too incompetent or fearful to figure out how to protect your elders, so you have to disrupt your education.”

Father Jenkins says his decision comes from a “moral” standpoint, believing that science cannot answer how to weigh the competing risks of continuing distance learning versus returning to face-to-face instruction.

Daniels frames his duty as being to the students of Purdue, who, he says, have signaled a desire to have in-person instruction by their deposits on enrollment.

Father Jenkins takes a somewhat different tack, arguing that individual risk is often weighed against societal good, such as when we send soldiers to war or ask medical professionals to “risk their health to provide care to the sick and suffering.” While Daniels is saying that Purdue has an institutional duty to the private interests of students, Father Jenkins is saying that Notre Dame students spending a semester at home would be a blow to the larger societal good.

Why does Father Jenkins believe this? Because “the education of young people -- the future leaders of our society -- is worth risking a good deal.” He says that “The mark of a healthy society is its willingness to bear burdens and take risks for the education and well-being of its young,” a more genteel version of Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick’s statement from April on the importance of ending mandatory social distancing -- “There are more important things than living.”

Purdue is determined to meet the needs of its student consumers. Notre Dame is accepting risk on behalf of its more vulnerable members for the benefit of the world.

Similar to Daniels, Father Jenkins frames the choice as having sufficient “courage” to accept the risks of in-person instruction. “Perhaps what we most need now, alongside science, is that kind of courage and the practical wisdom it requires. Notre Dame’s recent announcement about reopening is the attempt to find the courageous mean as we face the threat of the virus and seek to continue our mission of education and inquiry.”

While I do not quite understand where the confidence these leaders have in their institutions and communities to pull off an acceptably safe return to campus, I fervently hope they are correct. Perhaps they will manage to install a system of testing, tracing and quarantine that the federal government has essentially punted on and states have found difficult to implement.

We know that while some young people can become extremely sick from the COVID-19 virus, the hospitalization rate for those 18 to 49, which would cover more than 80 percent of those working and learning on Purdue’s campus, stands at only 37 per 100,000, meaning Purdue could expect 20 to 30 COVID-19-related hospitalizations if the incidence matches the broader U.S. averages.

On the other hand, if they experience an outbreak along the lines of New York City, with its rate of 233 hospitalizations per 100,000 for those 18 to 44, they’re looking at well over 100 COVID-19-related hospitalizations.

The mitigation efforts like masking and social distancing suggest that they may be closer or even below the lower bound. On the other hand, we’re talking about average young people at college. Daniels says frat parties are canceled. I’m wondering how he can be so certain. It’s not hard to imagine multiple superspreader events happening on a college campus on any given weekend.

I respect the right of these leaders to make the decisions that are in the best interests of their institutions -- though I’m wondering how the faculty and staff feel about these choices and whether or not they’ve been consulted -- but I’m concerned about what the rhetoric around their choice of reopening signals.

If reopening is a matter of competence and courage, not opening must therefore be a consequence of incompetence and cowardice.

Of course this is not the case.

Not reopening to face-to-face instruction could be a choice predicated on the competence of and confidence in the quality of online instruction an institution can offer. An unkind reading of Daniels’s and Father Jenkins’s op-eds is that they are admissions of a failure of the institutions at delivering quality online instruction. This would be particularly ironic for Daniels given his commitment to Purdue University Global (formerly Kaplan University). If any institution should know how to deliver quality online instruction, it is Purdue.

Not reopening could also be a problem not of courage, but of resources. Purdue is redesigning 700 classrooms and labs and 9,500 dorms for lower occupancy. What if an institution cannot afford this retrofitting? Are they cowardly or incompetent or simply poor and underresourced?

Is it not an equal act of courage for an institution to commit to another semester of distance learning in the name of protecting the health and well-being of students, staff and faculty, knowing that such a move may prove so damaging to their revenue that it puts the institution at risk?

When did courage become equivalent to a willingness to allow others under your supervision to be ground up in the gears of commerce?

It is ironic that Mitch Daniels, former politician, has written the far more ethically consistent justification than Father John I. Jenkins, a priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross?*

In Daniels’s formulation, the consumers want what Purdue provides. The people who are at risk or providing what students want are the minority, and besides, it’s their duty to put themselves at risk because what they provide is a necessity.

It is the same logic that keeps our meat processing plants open despite rampant infection and death among those without the power or capital to refuse to work. It's not an ethos I can get behind, but it's internally consistent.

Father Jenkins’s statement fails to even properly examine the moral dimensions suggested by his own framing. He claims that an open-for-business for Notre Dame is clearly superior to the potential additional sickness and death without ever discussing what degree of additional sickness and death he is weighing the harm of closing against.

Father Jenkins's secondary rationale for opening -- that we could be living under the threat of this or another virus for the foreseeable future, therefore we may as well be brave and get to living in the new normal -- does not grapple with the moral question of why now versus next spring or next year, when, even if we do not have a vaccine, we are likely to know significantly more about how to successfully treat those afflicted with the virus.

His implication that the future leaders are irreparably harmed by another semester online suggests a false choice, that the only way to prepare students for leadership is through residential education. His comparison of the risks of in-person instruction (presumably to faculty and staff) to soldiers going to war or medical professionals treating the sick is a false equivalence. No one signed up for working at a university believing it involved life-and-death hazards. I would not let a first-year writing student slip those fallacies by unnoticed, let alone a man educated at Oxford.

I disagree with Mitch Daniels’s point of view and his weighing of incentives and imperatives, but at least he’s relatively transparent. And who knows? He may be right. I hope so. I fear not.

It’s the priest who is attempting to hide the ball.

For both of them, I would like to know how many infected, hospitalized and dead members of the community they are anticipating based on their weighing of the risks and rewards. What is the loss that they have judged acceptable for the gain?

Father Jenkins says we must find the "courageous mean," but if I don't know both halves of the equation, how can I possibly calculate the answer?

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*The original version of this text identified Father Jenkins as a Jesuit priest, which is incorrect. I appreciate those who alerted me to this error.

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