Apologizing at Notre Dame

Inside Higher Ed reported last week on a development from the University of Notre Dame following the tragic death of a student-worker on campus. The student, Declan Sullivan, was filming a football game for the school in dangerous winds when the platform on which he was standing collapsed from underneath him. He was killed, and investigations began. This was the usual course of actions, but what the school's president, Rev. John Jenkins, did next, was somewhat unusual. From the article:

"Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, issued an open letter last week apologizing for the death.

'There is no greater sadness for a university community than the death of one of its students under any circumstances,' Father Jenkins wrote. 'Declan died in a tragic accident while in our care. For that, I am profoundly sorry,' Father Jenkins continued. 'Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care, and we failed to keep him safe. We at Notre Dame -- and ultimately I, as president -- are responsible. Words cannot express our sorrow to the Sullivan family and to all involved.'"


Why is this so unusual? According to Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education, colleges and universities are so bogged down by the fear of lawsuits, that after tragic events like the one at Notre Dame, apologies often come halfheartedly, and sometimes months or years after the incident. "I think this is a refreshing thing for the president to do," said Meloy, who added that such statements typically follow a consultation with a lawyer and trustees. "I’ve taken the view that this is a better way to go than to hide behind the idea that, by admitting something, you’re causing a problem or making things worse."

The story goes on to explore how other universities have dealt with similar situations, the reasons why apologies are often so weak, and how students reacted to the situation at Notre Dame. When the phrase, "mistakes were made" passes as an acceptable express of remorse by our leaders, it is refreshing to hear someone in a position of power take responsibility, offer sympathy, and try to correct the situation. 

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Kathryn Hunter
8 years ago
Fr. Jenkins was neither grandstanding nor avoiding lawsuits-he was doing what presidents before him have done and acknowledging that we are a family at Notre Dame, and that we care for each other. For some, 9 days would be considered respectful-attending to Declan's family and its needs first. Then acknowledging-on the University's own website, and not in a press conference or release-that the University takes its role in loco parentis seriously. Telling other studednts that it will do what it needs to do to learn from the situation and keep them safe. Telling parents of those students that the University can be trusted with their treasure. And it was letting any students who didn't know that grief counseling was available.

It is unfortunate that because this act gets picked up by the media its motivations are questioned. It is sadder still that some of us, Catholics who are taught to look for the good in people before the bad, cannot acknowledge the goodness of this one act without overshadowing it with a critique of other acts. Disagree with many things about Notre Dame-never doubt that the University cares for its students.
8 years ago
That was a tragic death and this is a good move by the president of ND.

Perhaps, now he will follow it up with an apology for the millions of deaths he indirectly supports by confering honors and undue respect at a Catholic college for the most pro-abortion American president in our history...

As Stalin said, "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic."
8 years ago
Hey Tim, I have only commented on two posts on entire page of current stories here (and I even complimented Fr. Jim's podcast!)  I hear you, though.

8 years ago
I look  forward to Mr. Joyce's comments.  He is one of only a few who stand up for conservative Catholic values on this site, and he comments, generally, only on those posts where the liberal perspective is endorsed.

How boring this site would be if the only comments were from those who agreed with the post.  You should thank Brett for his contributions; otherwise, you might as well re-name the site, "DailyKos".  Keep 'em coming, Brett; don't let them censure you.
8 years ago
Mr. Reidy,

Your reply is an attempt at censorship that you and others have taken before.  Instead, you should welcome contrary voices since the opinions by the authors here are often so homogeneous.  There is plenty of opportunity to comment by anyone and I see no evidence of contrary opinions stifling comments by others.  In fact on some posts I see people that rarely post expressing their opinions which says to me that there are more people reading the articles than the comments would indicate and that there is no inhibition by what one says that stops other people from commenting.

This attitude is not the one knew when I was taught by Jesuits who seemed to welcome a good debate and were eager to educate those who had contrary opinions. 
8 years ago
Thanks to Michael and JR - I also look forward to reading your opinions on here and am glad we have a much more robust opposition than on sites like the partisan Commonweal.

That said, I think this is also a credit to America Magazine and Tim, who are pretty fair about this sort of thing and allowing other voices to be heard.  If only they could hire a traditionalist blogger to the staff ;)

My comment is slightly off-topic; however, my point is that the respect that Jenkins shows the family of the student and his display of valuing human life - as opposed to hiding behind legalities or bureaucratic rationalizations - should also be shown when dealing with the terrible issue of abortion.  I.e. he should also be courageous enough to stand against politicians who actively support a practice that kills millions of innocents each year - rather than hiding in nuance and technicalities.

The reaction to the death of one student, as compared to the deaths of millions is telling.  Both deserve a Catholic witness but only the single death is witnessed to by this "leader" of the top Catholic university.
ed gleason
8 years ago
I posit the existence of a secret site where certain posters get their talking point instructions every morning ...
8 years ago
If we could change the tort laws then we may get a more open discussion of things.  This is discussed on one of the accompanying articles.  One has to be very careful of what one says especially one who represents a large organization.  It is sometimes a fine line to walk trying to be honest and trying to avoid someone taking what you said and using it against you.
As far as the tort laws which underly part of the post here, it is difficult to weight the injustice of certain situations (correcting situations leading to a tragic death) versus the greed of some who can play the system for economic advantage.  Does any one really think the tort lawyers are interested in the plight of the victims they represent?  But how do you correct grievous situations that exist and prevent gross negligence in the future?
A related thing is that bad stuff happens and trying to ensure that nothing bad happens will stifle a lot of desirable things.  It is one thing trying to ensure safety, it quite another to take every possible means including restrictions on activities to ensure nothing bad ever happens. It may turn out that in this particular case, it was unnecessary and that bad judgment was involved but that should not be used to restrict behavior or action unless it is totally risk free.
8 years ago
''I posit the existence of a secret site where certain posters get their talking point instructions every morning ... ''

I believe the Clintons had their War Room and then there was the Journo list.  Liberal talking points do have an amazing sameness to them, shallow, lack of insight etc..  I am surprised the ''right wing'' ad hominem wasn't added.
8 years ago
Well, it seems that I, too, have been added to the list. Tim, in all honesty, you would have to concede that when the impulse to monitor comments is afoot, the impulse invariably lands on all those those pesky Catholics loyal to the Bishop of Rome. Look carefully and you will see that Brett commented on the amoral abortion stance at Notre Dame and I commented on homosexuality.
Vince Killoran
8 years ago
Thank you AMERICA staff & editors for providing this space.  I know that some of us use it far too much (myself included) and often go off topic to settle political points.

I don't take offense at your gentle reminder of the guidelines, especially since this is one of the more open spaces on the Catholic webspace.
ed gleason
8 years ago
Let;s review this > Fr Jenkins apologizes about a tragic accident. He does so even in the face of giving ammo to those hated Democratic progressive greedy tort lawyers.
Not good enough because of that worthless paper he gave to Obama..... ND must lose to Army on Sat.. and then to USC later.. penance is a b-h
8 years ago
Neither Higher Education nor this piece takes note of what others have, namely, that the Indiana Workers Compensation law evidently applies and liability accordingly will be limited to under $8,000. That is not to suggest that Notre Dame will be that niggardly, of course. But it is to suggest that the statement, though worthy, is scarcely bold. And since it did not come until nine days after the accident, it is fair to assume that it came after counsel became satisfied as to the pertinence of the Workers Compensation Law. 


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