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COVID-19 Turnabout

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.@NotreDame in a turnabout finally joins other wealthy schools in declining its share of #COVID relief funds – flushing another opportunity to lead by example #GoCatholicND  Click To Tweet

Several weeks ago, there was a burst of publicity when a number of wealthy universities declared they wouldn’t apply for federal grants to help them defray the expenses of students caused by school closings. When Notre Dame declined to join them, Bill Dempsey wrote Father Jenkins expressing Sycamore Trust’s disappointment and observed: 

I am frank to say that I will not be surprised if Notre Dame ultimately follows its foremost aspirational “peers.” If so, I suggest it would plainly have been better for the nation’s foremost and far the wealthiest Catholic university to be seen among the leaders rather than a grudging follower.

“Ultimately” missed the mark. It took a mere eight days for the administration to move from dissenter to grudging follower. Two contrasting headlines, bracketing this period told the story:

First, take the money:

Defying DeVos and Trump, Notre Dame Says It Will Accept Nearly $6 Million in Coronavirus Relief Funding.

Then, don’t:

Notre Dame Turns Down $5.8 Million in Stimulus Money Amid Endowment Criticism.

Here are the details of this embarrassing episode:

As part of coranovirus relief legislation, Congress provided $12.56 billion to assist colleges and universities and their students in defraying “expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus.”

The schools were required to distribute at least 50% of the money to students for expenses such as “food, housing, course materials, technology, health care, and child care.” (See the DOE description of the program.)

DOE calculated the amount that each of the nation’s schools could receive based on low income student enrollment. Notre Dame’s share was $5,793,244.

When news broke that Harvard, with its $41 billion endowment, was to receive $8.6 million, a chorus of denunciation erupted. It was led by President Trump and included the Secretaries of Education and Treasury and a number of Senators. 

Secretary Devos’s reaction was typical:

Schools with large endowments should not apply for funds so more can be given to students who need support the most. It’s also important for Congress to change the law to make sure no more taxpayer funds go to elite, wealthy institutions.

Harvard responded with a pledge to use all the money for its students, and, when that didn’t dampen criticism, Harvard quickly folded. It declared it would not accept any federal money and expressed the hope that its share would go to other less fortunate Massachusetts schools.

Yale, Stanford, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania followed suit, all announcing they would take care of their students out of their own resources.

This put the spotlight on other wealthy universities, Notre Dame was prominent among them with a $13.8 billion endowment that made it either the 8th or 9th richest school in the United States and either the 8th or 11th richest in the world. 

But Notre Dame demurred. Instead of following the example of Harvard and other of its “aspirational peers,” Notre Dame simply pledged to use the federal money “exclusively for direct financial aid to students whose families have been struck by unemployment or otherwise upended by the pandemic” — the same promise Harvard had made and swiftly abandoned when criticism persisted.

Predictably, the political pressure on Notre Dame increased, and “after a testy back and forth with Sen. Mike Braun (R., Ind.),” as the Wall Street Journal put it,

The University of Notre Dame joined the growing list of top rated schools turning back public funds in the wake of political pressure from Republican elected officials.

This episode and Notre Dame’s role has received widespread publicity. See, e.g., Indianapolis Star and South Bend Tribune and Politico and Washington Times and Forbes and The College Fix.

“Guided by our central University Goals”?

Father Jenkins has declared that “in crafting a response to the disruption wrought by the current crisis, we will be guided by our central University goals,” the first of which is to “ensure that our Catholic character informs all our endeavors.”

It seems fair to question just how Notre Dame’s Catholic character informed Notre Dame’s unwillingness to join other wealthy schools in setting an example of commitment to the common good by declining their share of available federal relief funds. 

These other schools are insistently secular, if not actually disdainful of Christianity in important quarters. Notre Dame is the nation’s iconic Catholic university. There is not a happy comparison here.

And so we end where we began, with Bill Dempsey’s realized prediction that Notre Dame would reverse course under pressure and that 

It would plainly have been better for the nation’s foremost and far the wealthiest Catholic university to be seen among the leaders rather than a grudging follower.


  • University campuses, including Notre Dame’s, have been essentially shut down since mid-March, and there is widespread uncertainty about where and how schools will begin the fall semester. As the Wall Street Journal has observed, “big financial consequences,” turn on the schools’ decisions.
  • Here, Notre Dame did not lag. Rather, Father Jenkins “made national headlines” by leaping over most, if not all, of Notre Dame’s peers in announcing Notre Dame would welcome students back in the fall. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, while Brown is “leaning toward” opening on-campus, as is Harvard but with “mostly online teaching,” Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Columbia, Duke, MIT, Chicago, Dartmouth, and Emory have not yet decided.
  • For details about the Notre Dame’s plans to deal with COVID-19, go here.
  • Notre Dame will begin the week of August 10, two weeks earlier than planned, and skip fall break so as to end the semester before Thanksgiving. The University didn’t explain the early start, but in adopting a similar program the University of South Carolina said it was anticipating a possible resurgence of the virus in mid-winter.
  • What USA Today calls an “unaccidental silence” about football in Notre Dame’s news release leaves the football question still a question. All summer classes have now been cancelled, but recently Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick intimated athletes might return for training ahead of the rest of the students. Notre Dame’s opener against Navy is scheduled for August 29, but other locations have been considered. 
  • COVID-19 is, of course, a major and as yet unquantifiable financial threat to all colleges and universities, including in particular many Catholic schools. As the president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities has said: “This is a dire time for a lot of our organizations. There are universities that have great resources, but most Catholic universities have always educated the poor and run very thin margins.” For a discussion about Indiana schools including Notre Dame, St. Mary’s, and Holy Cross, see the South Bend Tribute report here. (Both St. Mary’s and Holy Cross intend to open on campus in the fall.)
  • A potential major financial blow to all schools lurks in lawsuits brought by students against a growing number of universities, including Purdue and Indiana University but not yet Notre Dame, for a partial refund of tuition during the period in which teaching switched from in-person to online. Most schools, including Notre Dame, made room and board refunds, but none included anything for tuition. The students assert they didn’t get what they paid for and should be charged only for the value of what they actually got. No court decisions yet, so far as we know.
  • Colleges and universities have been compelled to establish rigorous cost-cutting programs. At Notre Dame, in addition to a wage freeze, travel restrictions and the like, the school’s most highly compensated leaders have agreed to salary reductions from 5% to 20% to support student aid.

6 Responses to “COVID-19 Turnabout”

  1. James Shapiro 52 May 23, 2020 at 1:54 pm

    It is easy to criticize when you do not have the responsibility. Father Jenkins has a board and faculty to consider in the major decisions. The faculty are in charge of education matters not the administration. People who have not worked in higher education are probably unaware of this. Faculty were very impacted by Coved-19 which was real. They may have had their plans as to how the stimulus money should be used. The lockdown was a vital step in moderating the deaths. If anyone doubts that they should look a Brazil

  2. It is always sad to see Notre Dame stumble with another miss-step. Once a “pillar of Catholicism”, Notre Dame’s ride down the “road less traveled” has brought its decline since the late 60’s and has not yet been slowed.
    I think Fr. Sorin’s heart must also be saddened seeing the Golden Dome of his beloved “L’Universite’ du Lac tarnished and its reflection on St.Mary’s Lake dimmed.
    I’m sorry, but I will not be helping any of my grandchildren attend ND.
    -Frank Diorio, Class ’56

  3. Ralph J Argen MD FACP May 23, 2020 at 8:48 am

    Bill, We went to Notre Dame 70 years ago. At that time it was the elite of Catholic colleges and universities and the leader. It’s progress moved Notre Dame up to the elite of all the schools and it did it accumulating great wealth.
    I’ve spent many years involved with university following them supporting them and on the science advisory committee for 10 years. At present I’m rather ambivalent about the University. I really haven’t been involved in it’s activities any actions
    I cherish the memory of the years I was there generally supported but feel that my input has no meaning to them so I put very little thought process to it. They will do what they want to do.

    • You may be sure I quite understand, Ralph. There is ample evidence that “They will do what they want to do” irrespective of criticism from any source. If the condemnation of the honoring of Pres. Obama by 83 cardinals, archbishops, and bishops didn’t deter Fr Jenkins et al from awarding the Laetare Medal to VP Biden, it looks like nothing can stop them from “doing what they want to do.” But perhaps not so fast. For one thing, there is the board. Though it seems somnolent, one cannot know; and surely the board knows that ND’s principal asset is its reputation as a truly Catholic university. They cannot over time want to see that asset eroded by repeated criticism by alumni that is reflected from time to time in the media. As to the administration and others on campus, it is the case here as it is with investigative reporting generally that it is usually impossible to measure its impact, which consists in actions not taken. As a professor remarked at one of our breakfasts, “Now they know they can no longer sweep anything under the rug.” (Besides, sometimes one can tell. We have listed in our annual breakfast program a number of corrective actions taken in response to our criticism or investigative reporting, most notably our disclosure of the erosion of Catholic faculty representatio.) Finally, ND is still the most Catholic of the major Catholic universities, a wonderful place still in many ways that graduates many fine and devoted young men and women, and even though it is not nearly as robustly Catholic now as it was in our day, it is too precious a place to watch slip away further and further from the Church without doing what one can. From your sustaining interest and encouragement of Sycamore Trust, I’m sure you agree notwithstanding your well founded feeling that “They will do what they want to do.”

  4. Steve Martinek May 22, 2020 at 7:21 pm

    There is an ignored perspective here. Much of th enational response to the covid crisis has been as antithetical to our American history and legacy as was our response to the 911 attacks, and our long war of occupation of Iraq. Throwing debt-money from future generations at a futile effort to respond to this pandemic was and remains wrong–as was lockdown based upon false data and biased models. That said…because Harvard and ND and others had large endowments, they were able to enroll larger numbers of financially needy stuldent, which then according to a short-sighted and skewed metric entitled them to $6 million of aid, with half to be earmarked for those students. Clearly the model for the aid was not well constructed. It is equally clear to me that the students deemed deserving will now not get the $3 million ND would have been required to pass-thru to them. Jenkins, like Bergoglio, may be an apostate, an ambiguit, perhaps a heretic, surely venal and a fool–but this was not a genuine moment of manifestation of his weaknesses–but those of the federal government response. IMHO Steve

    • Certainly the model for distribution of this aid was not well constructed, as you say, Steve. Urgency breeds error here as elsewhere. But ND students in need will get more than the $6 million, which is really chump change for ND. This has been another opportunity for ND to raise money from alumni, who have contributed $8.7 million to be distributed to some 200 students in need. See https://tinyurl.com/yccx78oy/

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