COVID-19 Turnabout

.@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.

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