There’s Father Jenkins, seated in a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd in the White House Rose Garden.There’s Father Jenkins, shaking someone’s hand.There’s Father Jenkins, alongside the Rev. Franklin Graham, the evangelical leader who, earlier that day, had led thousands of people in a prayer march on the National Mall.There.And there.And there … is the Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, in the middle of a crowd, in the middle of a pandemic, without a mask.
The Rev. John I. Jenkins has spurred a crisis of confidence that illustrates the peculiar leadership land mines of the Covid-19 era.
Jenkins’s decision, on September 26, to attend what some are now describing as a White House “superspreader” event prompted an immediate analysis — by both journalists and social-media sleuths — of photographs and videos that appeared to show Jenkins repeatedly ignoring the advice of public-health experts related to physical distancing, crowd avoidance, and mask wearing. Jenkins’s acknowledgment, days later, that he had tested positive for Covid-19 has provoked a particularly personal backlash, highlighting leadership land mines for pandemic-era college presidents whose moves are now subject to a new form of scrutiny.Fifteen years into his tenure as president of one of the nation’s most renowned Roman Catholic institutions, Jenkins is facing a crisis of confidence that centers on errors of personal judgment that, some at the university argue, put the campus at unnecessary risk. So too has it invited criticism that Jenkins has preached a standard of behavior to students, faculty, and staff members that he was unwilling or unable to meet himself.A resolution of no confidence in Jenkins was introduced on Tuesday night in the Faculty Senate, but members voted narrowly, 21 to 20, to postpone any action on it. The meeting followed a student-sponsored resolution that had called on Jenkins to resign. (The resolution, which failed to pass the Student Senate, was voted on after the White House event but before Jenkins revealed his Covid-19 diagnosis.)Jenkins was among more than 150 guests at the Rose Garden ceremony where President Trump formally introduced Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a Notre Dame law professor and alumna, as his nominee to succeed Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court. Not long after the event, Jenkins and Trump were identified among at least 11 attendees to test positive for Covid-19.The chain of events, starting with what some professors view as Jenkins’s decision to take a nonessential trip to a politically charged ceremony, have undermined the university’s efforts to message and model appropriate behavior for students returning to in-person instruction, several faculty members told The Chronicle.
This is a stunning failure of leadership: It is do as I say, not as I do.
“This is a stunning failure of leadership: It is do as I say, not as I do,” said Catherine E. Bolten, an associate professor of anthropology and peace studies. “We were told to curtail all but the most necessary personal travel. I know people who have missed weddings and funerals in order to comply with these directives.”“In leadership you should always be considering how what you do affects the other people around you,” Bolten continued. “I hold leaders to a high standard of conduct.”In a statement last week, Jenkins acknowledged that he had set a poor example.“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. “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.”Jenkins had previously apologized in August for failing to maintain proper social distance when he crammed into photographs with students.“It’s the second time something like this has happened with him, and it’s far worse this time,” said Richard A. Williams, a professor of sociology and a member of the Faculty Senate.Jenkins, who was not made available for comment, said in his statement about the White House event that he had been given a nasal swab for a rapid Covid-19 test before entering the Rose Garden. After testing negative, he said, he and others “were told that it was safe to remove our masks.”The standard Jenkins said he had followed, however, differs from what Notre Dame demands of students and employees on campus, where, with few exceptions, masks must be worn “at all times.”During the ceremony, Jenkins was seated next to G. Marcus Cole, dean of the Notre Dame law school, who wore a mask in the Rose Garden, photographs show. (Another photograph, published by The New York Times, appears to show Cole at another point during the day inside the White House without a mask.)Cole did not respond to an email request for an interview.Jenkins’s actions after returning from the event have also drawn scrutiny. His statement of regret, issued on September 28, before his Covid-19 diagnosis, said that, “in an abundance of caution,” he had “decided to quarantine in accordance with university protocols.” That announcement, however, came only after Jenkins had drawn criticism.It is not clear when he began his quarantine, and university officials did not respond to detailed questions about the timeline.“If we had lost a single student to this, a single staff member, a single professor to this, it would be cataclysmic,” said Makira A. Walton, a junior at Notre Dame who helped organize the petition calling on Jenkins to resign. “We need to hold him to such a high standard because it could have been somebody’s life.”“This isn’t just his life that he gets to gamble with,” she added. “He has now gambled with everyone’s lives he’s come into contact with. That’s why we came down so harshly.”On Tuesday night, Notre Dame’s Faculty Senate met via Zoom, where Katrina D. Barron, an associate professor of mathematics, introduced a resolution of no confidence in Jenkins. The resolution said in part that the president had “failed to abide by” public-health guidelines and a university travel policy restricting employees to essential travel.A professor, discussing a motion to postpone the no-confidence vote, said Jenkins had told the Senate’s executive committee that if the “Senate is considering censure of any faculty member, that faculty member should have a right to explain themselves.” (Jenkins was not present at the meeting.)Notre Dame is a private university, but the Faculty Senate’s bylaws state that its meetings are open to the public, Thomas L. Stober, its chairman, told The Chronicle. A Chronicle reporter requested access to the Zoom meeting, which Stober granted. No other news outlets, however, appeared to be in attendance.The Chronicle reporter, who live-tweeted the meeting, did not conceal his identity and was visible on video for much of the meeting. Some members of the Senate, however, were surprised when they learned well into the meeting that a reporter was observing their deliberations. Discussing a motion to move into executive session, which would bar any nonvoting members of the Senate (and the news media) from observing the meeting, a professor said, “If we’re going to discuss this any more, kick the damn reporter out.”Stober pleaded for civility. The Senate soon after voted to move into executive session.‘Learned His Lesson’Notre Dame has come down harshly on students who ran afoul of its Covid-19 protocols this fall. After resuming in-person instruction, the university saw a worrisome spike in positive coronavirus tests, prompting a two-week move to online instruction for undergraduates — and a promise from Jenkins that violators would be punished.“Serious or persistent failure to comply with health protocols will be handled as a disciplinary matter for students,” he said in a videotaped message, “and, depending on the nature of the incident, violation of our standards could jeopardize your presence in our campus community.”Paul J. Browne, a university spokesman, said at the time that the cases had been traced to an off-campus party.“You can have a very strong chain,” Browne told the South Bend Tribune, “but if you have only one weak link, it can cause numbers to spike.”The Rev. Paulinus I. Odozor, a professor of theology, said that Jenkins had exhibited compassion for students earlier in the semester that now ought to be reciprocated.“He showed he could understand how young people could be carried away by the euphoria of meeting their friends again after such a long time away,” said Odozor, who also has an appointment in the department of Africana studies. “If you look at his speech, it was fatherly, it was good leadership, and it was very well crafted not to make anybody feel that they were the bad boys or the bad girls in this situation.”“The empathetic thing to do is to wish him well,” Odozor continued. “He has already told us he has learned his lesson.”Jenkins isn’t the first college leader to be called out for failing to wear a mask in public. In September, E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University, apologized after photos of him out shopping without a mask appeared on social media.Jenkins’s case captured more attention not only because of its intersection with national politics, but also because of his notable early advocacy for the safe resumption of in-person instruction. As college campuses across the nation debated last spring whether to reopen in the fall, Jenkins made a forceful and public argument that the university had a moral obligation to do so. Headlined “We’re Reopening Notre Dame. It’s Worth the Risk,” Jenkins’s op-ed in The New York Times argued that science alone was insufficient to govern the weighty decision about welcoming students back to South Bend, Ind.
The empathetic thing to do is to wish him well. He has already told us he has learned his lesson.
The piece drew praise on Twitter from the former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who wrote, in part, “life is never without risk. Decisions by our leaders in this crisis must reflect that.”Christie, who also attended the Rose Garden event, announced on Saturday that he too had tested positive for Covid-19.Since August, Notre Dame has reported 785 positive cases of Covid-19 after administering more than 24,000 tests. The university’s seven-day positivity rate is 0.8 percent, university data show.Notre Dame’s enforcement mechanisms for coronavirus protocols include a portal for reporting violations. Several faculty members and students, according to interviews, reported Jenkins’s Rose Garden visit as a violation.It is difficult to disentangle the national polarization over the pandemic, and the Trump administration’s handling of it, from the fierce reaction to Jenkins’s actions. Some critics say they have been dismissed as liberal opportunists, pouncing on a story that looks bad for Trump. Sarah E. McKibben, an associate professor of Irish language and literature, said the politics are more complicated than that. The critique isn’t knee-jerk liberalism, she said, but nor is it divorced from the symbolic problem of Notre Dame’s president eschewing public-health guidelines in the company of politicians who have played down the pandemic.“He does it in the heart of Covid denial in the country,” she said. “It’s not just that he puts everybody in our community at risk.”“What does it look like for a university that purports to be a proper research institution to go and partake in that antimasking behavior?” she continued. “It looks like you honestly don’t believe in the science.”Beyond Jenkins’s statement on Friday, in which he described his symptoms as “mild,” details about the current state of his health are sparse. That uncertainty has created tensions on campus, as some professors measure their critique of his actions against the grim realities of his serious diagnosis.“I’m praying for him. It’s really sad,” said Korey Garibaldi, an assistant professor of American studies. “I understand why people are upset, but we literally don’t even know how he is. My friend’s dad died on Friday from Covid, so I just hope that” Jenkins is OK.“Hopefully he emerges with his health,” Garibaldi continued. “The other stuff, in some sense, has to wait.”