Notre Dame students storm the field after the football team upsets Clemson

The Year from Hell for Progressive Alumni

Notre Dame‘s 2020 Year in Review

With less than a month left in 2020, I’ve been thinking a lot about end of the year lists. I love lists but I especially love the lists we get at the end of a calendar year. I will read a year end list about pretty much anything. Best ads of the year? Sure. Art is personal and subjective – until it’s time for a list of the year’s best photos. There’s even a website that lists end of the year lists, which is deliciously meta.

I find year end lists so satisfying because they neatly package 365 days worth of albums or episodes or fashion faux pas into once place. There is a lingering sense of pride when your favorite basketball player places number two on The Ringer’s top players of the year, as if your support for the player is somehow vindicated because the broad consensus is that, yeah, this player had a great year. Similarly, when your favorite player is ranked below your best friend’s favorite (or even worse, left off the list entirely), the next thing you know you’re 15 tweets deep arguing with an anime profile picture about the merits of Buddy Hield versus John Wall.

Replace “player” with “album” or “movie” or “episode” or really any broad pop culture category and the sentiment still fits. We love to have our support for something confirmed to the public, and we hate when someone dares to question our perception of value. 

Compared to the generic American university, Notre Dame is a conservative place. From parietals (visiting hours for the opposite sex in the single-sex dorms) to suing to avoid covering birth control on the employee and student health insurance plan, Notre Dame is a far cry from the hippie commune most conservative commentators imagine to exist on campuses around the country. 

Back in September, as Notre Dame was again trending on Twitter for reasons other than football, I started thinking about what my own university’s year end list would look like. Already in the fall, 2020 was not looking great for the University of Notre Dame. So what would an actual year end list for Notre Dame look like?

Notre Dame’s Top Five Worst Looks of 2020

#5 Field Storm Discourse

In what is, before Bowl Season, the game of the year, the Fighting Irish knocked off the then-top ranked Clemson Tigers 47-40. At home. In double overtime. Attendance was limited to students and media, but those students in attendance were understandably thrilled at the outcome. When the desperate Clemson heave on fourth-and-long fell short, the students stormed the field. Twitter instantly turned from jubilant to toxic, as Notre Dame haters from across cyberspace united to dunk on the carefree Notre Dame students for a supposed super spreader event. 

Now, was storming the field a bad idea during the pandemic? Yes. Should the university have anticipated this when they allowed fans into the first home game versus a #1 team in South Bend since 2005? Or even earlier, when they decided to play football during a national emergency? Also yes. Did the field rush turn into the super spreader event every Twitter pundit predicted? No, because what people ignored was that every student had to be COVID tested the week before the game or their electronic ticket would be deactivated. Regardless, the focus on pandemic etiquette distracted from the excellent performance by the football team and staff, which rightfully deserved to be celebrated.

Notre Dame students storm the field after the football team upsets Clemson
Notre Dame students storm the field to celebrate the football team’s win over Clemson. Credits: South Bend Tribune

#4 July’s “Here” Rebrand

Out of all the topics on this list, the “Here” rebrand is by far the least publicized. If you aren’t a recent graduate or someone who actually spent time on campus this fall, your only exposure to Here was probably the profile pictures of the Fighting Irish social media accounts. 

Here is Notre Dame’s webpage and initiative to remind students, faculty, and staff that we are all in this together. Conceptually, I have no problem with this. But when I compare the stated goals of Here to the experiences younger Notre Dame friends (read: current students) have shared with me from South Bend, the university comes off as tone deaf.

There were no breaks in the semester to account for the adjusted academic term designed to minimize student travel, leading to mental burnout. There was no pass-fail option provided to students, regardless of how much time they spent isolated in quarantine. Twice, university president Father John I. Jenkins, CSC, was caught publicly violating his own COVID guidelines, including when he traveled to Washington D.C. (more on this shortly) and contracted COVID himself. He recovered, but the “rules for thee, not for me” vibe was unmistakable.

Also, can we talk about the choice of “Here” as the word to rally around? “Here, we get coronavirus.” “Here, we have mental breakdowns.” “Here, we fail our classes” The jokes practically write themselves. Altogether, “Here” feels like the Notre Dame administration wanted to look like it was taking care of its family without having to do anything of substance.

#3 Lou Holtz at the Republican National Convention

In August, former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz spoke at the Republican National Convention. Holtz is a private individual well-removed from the university, and expressing his political beliefs is his right. But during this speech, he declared (then) candidate Joe Biden to be a “Catholic in name only” while endorsing President Donald Trump. Not only is this sort of attack on “how religious” Biden is derrogatory and decidedly un-Catholic, it was also flat-out false.

Perhaps Holtz’s time away from Notre Dame has weakened his attention to the university, but in 2016 Notre Dame awarded Joe Biden (and former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner) its Laetare Medal. The university refers to this award as  “the oldest and most prestigious honor accorded to American Catholics”. While I cannot fact check the importance of the Laetare Medal compared to any other honors awarded to American Catholics, I would say President-Elect Biden would solidly qualify as a Catholic in much more than name only. In fact, Holtz’s comments were so absurd that the normally tepid Father Jenkins issued a rebuttal to the RNC speech, reminding Catholics to judge not, lest ye be judged.

#2 Amy Coney Barrett’s Nomination to the Supreme Court

This list is intended to be filtered through the lens of Notre Dame’s worst looks as a university, so I will not be expanding on Justice Barrett’s status as a “handmaid” in the far-right Christian organization People of Praise, her extreme lack of experience practicing law, or the timing of her nomination and subsequent confirmation weeks before the national election. Instead, I want to highlight how what should have been a moment of triumph for Notre Dame and its law school quickly turned into a farce worthy of the Keenan Revue.

Shortly after announcing Barrett as his pick for the Supreme Court, President Trump and his staff put together a celebratory gathering in the White House Rose Garden. Despite ordering students not to partake in any unnecessary travel, university president Father Jenkins and a few other high-ranking officials promptly got on a jet and joined the President in the Rose Garden. Unmasked. Shortly after, it was announced by Notre Dame that Father Jenkins had contracted the coronavirus

The Notre Dame student senate, whose work typically consists of debating which concert to book in the spring, formally denounced Father Jenkins’ violation of health protocols. The Notre Dame faculty gave him a “vote of disappointment” and even debated a formal vote of no confidence. The university managed to completely bungle the ascendence of its most influential graduate since Condoleezza Rice, an embarrassment no matter where you fall on the political spectrum.

#1 The Decision to Host In-Person Classes

On May 26th, an op-ed appeared in the New York Times from university president Father John Jenkins. Before any other major university had decided, Father Jenkins declared Notre Dame would open for in-person instruction in August, novel coronavirus be damned. His opinion piece included this comparison between attending school during a pandemic and being sent off to war (emphasis mine):

We are in our society regularly willing to take on ourselves or impose on others risks — even lethal risks — for the good of society. We send off young men and women to war to defend the security of our nation knowing that many will not return. We applaud medical professionals who risk their health to provide care to the sick and suffering. We each accept the risk of a fatal traffic accident when we get in our car. 

Father John I. Jenkins, CSC

Let’s set aside any discussion of the merits of our nations wars, the ethics of the way the military recruits, or whether military service has always been a choice. Is “sending a young person off knowing they may not return” the attitude anyone, let alone the prominent president of a major American university, should have? Imagine the horrors of Welcome Weekend if your parents had to leave you knowing the survival rate of the average college student was only 90.4% – which is the estimated survival rate of an American soldier in Iraq from 2003 to 2007.

As of December 2nd, there have been 1,789 COVID cases at Notre Dame, including 1,431 undergraduate positives. Out of an undergrad population of approximately 8,500, that comes out to 16.8% of the undergrad student body testing positive in one semester. Furthermore, the university’s tracker has no way of counting how many innocent South Bend residents were infected by a sophomore sneaking into Newf’s or a senior buying coffee at Starbucks. Virtual college is not fun. I will be the first to say it. But attending college should not be placed in the same tier as joining the military when it comes to risk level. Do better, Notre Dame.

The public statements and actions from the university on politicized topics such as healthcare and gender relations have always been hard to rectify with the general “force for good” that is Notre Dame’s pursuit of Catholic Social Teaching. Before President Donald Trump ascended to the White House, Notre Dame affirmed its support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and committed to protect DACA students on campus, in keeping with the messaging from Pope Francis about immigration. Head football coach Brian Kelly put his support behind the Black Lives Matter movement this summer and gave his players broad freedoms to speak out and demonstrate. As the football team is, to most of the nation, the most visible representation of the university, this was a huge step forward. 

This dichotomy between conservatism and progressivism is especially challenging for progressive students and alumni, for whom this was a special Notre Dame Year from Hell. I sincerely hope the university reigns in its behavior, looks in the mirror, and asks itself what kind of school it wants to be. After all, I still owe thousands on my degree, and if I learned anything in my economics courses, it’s that you should avoid negative equity at all costs. 

Ben Testani
Ben Testani is a freelance writer and young professional. Though originally from Central New York, he is currently based out of Sacramento, California. He enjoys basketball, noise-cancelling headphones, and the National Parks Service.
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