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.