Georgetown Welcomes New VP

“I am attempting to put on a new set of lenses”

On Aug. 18 Vice President for Student Affairs Juan Gonzalez sat down with Hoya Staff Writer Tom Johnson for his first interview since coming to Georgetown.

Q: Mr. Gonzalez, thank you for the opportunity to meet with you today. What is your first priority as the students you now represent arrive on campus?

A: My first priority is getting to know the institution. I say that in the broadest terms – certainly getting to know the individuals that I am going to work with on a day-to-day basis. I have also made an attempt to start visiting with students. I have literally dropped in on students as they are sitting down to have dinner, just to introduce myself. My intensity in the very early part of my time here is to get acquainted with the Georgetown philosophy – its way of viewing the world. It is almost as though I am attempting to put on a new set of lenses, to view the university through the Georgetown University lens. To be honest, so far it has been tremendous fun. It has been fun learning about Georgetown.

Q: Are you finding that Georgetown is different from California Polytechnic, your previous school?

A: There is a tremendous amount of similarity. For example, there I was on the verge of planning and breaking ground on an 800-bed new dormitory. Here I am involved in the Southwest Quadrangle project, where there is a 780-bed residential component. Literally I have left one residence project for another residence project, and they are almost identical in their phases. There is always the commonality of a shortage of fiscal resources, and making prudent decisions on fiscal resources. One of the first things I became acquainted with last week was the proposal that was submitted to the BZA [Board of Zoning Adjustment] for the master plan, and the issues are very similar between Cal Poly and Georgetown. Our relationship with the community, the portrayal by the community of the Georgetown students is very similar to how community members at Cal Poly portrayed some of our Cal Poly students that live in the residences in the local community, and I think both universities are responding with a high level of integrity as to the need to examine the behavior of students, and also the role and function of the university beyond its boundaries.

Q: Are the residents being reasonable in their concerns? The Georgetown Current, the neighborhood newspaper here, has said in articles this summer that Georgetown students are in a state of anarchy. There are always concerns about student behavior, such as the community’s refusal to accept enrollment increases if it means more students will be living off-campus. Is this portrayal of Georgetown students an accurate one?

A: That’s a very good question. Let me respond perhaps not precisely in the way you’ve phrased the question. We probably have close to 1,200 Georgetown University students who live in the community. To believe that every single one of those students behaves perfectly 24 hours a day would probably not be a reasonable expectation. My sense is that there is a minority of students that persists in having very loud parties and persists in consuming alcohol openly and publicly, and there may be students that share their alcohol with minors, underage students. My suspicion is that we are talking about a relatively small number of Georgetown students who behave in this manner. Is it reasonable in one broad stroke to describe all Georgetown students that live in the community like that? I don’t think it’s appropriate. I think it’s unreasonable. But I do believe there are incidents where that behavior does exist, that there are students who behave in that manner. That’s unfortunate, and I wish it weren’t so. But I do believe in the three R’s. First, that students and individuals must ultimately respect themselves. Second, that they respect others, their neighbors, their fellow students, their community. And the third R is that of responsibility – you must be responsible for your own actions and your own behavior. So if you are not going to respect yourself and respect others then very likely there will be ramifications for your behavior, and you’re going to have to carry the responsibility of sustaining that impact.

Q: There has been a lot of debate over the role that alcohol plays in the lives of students. For example, The Washington Post was very critical of Georgetown last year, citing both the death of David A. Shick and the menorah desecration as alcohol-related incidents. Is this a problem, and if so, what should be done about it?

A: I haven’t read the Post articles that you mention, but I do have a belief that consuming alcohol does not make an individual brighter or smarter or more intelligent. In fact, it does quite the opposite. So the consumption of alcohol diminishes you in your ability to think, to react, to be analytical. Alcohol gives people a false sense of reality. So it’s unfortunate on a national scene, where there is sufficient data to support the conclusion that students are drinking more and more, and at a younger age – that college students are drinking quantitatively more, that they are consuming to the point of alcohol poisoning, otherwise known as binge drinking. So my sense is that it is occurring here at Georgetown. I do not have the statistics to look at what percentage of students are involved in binge drinking. But I think the institution has a responsibility to help students with this issue. It isn’t solely a Student Affairs issue, though. I think it’s an institutional issue, and that it’ll require the community of Georgetown to respond to it, faculty, staff and students. And I specifically include students, because I think students are probably one of the most important change agents when it comes to influencing others in regards to consuming alcohol and partaking in drugs.

Q: Your predecessor, James A. Donahue, was Georgetown’s last dean of students; you are its first vice president for student affairs. Presumably, this means that you, unlike Donahue, will report directly to [University] President [Leo J.] O’Donovan, [S. J.] Will the change of title affect the relationship between you and the students?

A: I don’t believe so. I have 10 years experience of being a vice president. And I hope that anyone who has worked with and gotten to know me in my previous experience would say that the vice president for student affairs, and more specifically Juan Gonzalez, is first and foremost a student advocate. So my priority and the conclusion I draw from that is that I get to know the students, that I live among students, that I am very cognizant of their opinions and their feelings, so that as a vice president, who will get an opportunity to meet with other vice presidents, and the president and the provost, I will better serve the institution as a whole. I do this best if I am aware of the opinions, needs and attitudes of students and am a student advocate.

Q: You have said, that as vice president, you plan to integrate the students’ experience inside and outside the classroom. This is very similar to what James Donahue pledged in his tenure as dean of students. Why is this important, and how do you plan to do it?

A: First and foremost, I would like to lead the department of student affairs to an awareness of where we believe we can influence, encourage and produce learning on the part of our students. Not just to say that we provide great programs, or that our programs are well attended, or that students are coming to our services. But really, in the most sincere manner, we must look at all our programs and start delineating what is the learning outcome that we are trying to produce on the part of students. Once we identify what the learning outcome is going to be, then we take the next step and say ‘How are we going to measure it? How do we know that students did indeed learn that particular outcome?’ Let’s measure it, and once we understand what did occur, ‘How can we improve the program the next time we deliver that product or that service to students?’ So, the first step is, let’s be very cognizant of the learning that we want to be held responsible and hold ourselves accountable for when it comes to working with students. So then we can go to the people on the academic side of the fence and say, ‘This is the learning that we are holding ourselves accountable for. Is it similar to what is occurring in the classroom?’ And so, I call this creating common ground. Because once we create common ground, once we become responsible for the creation and the inspiration and the encouragement of learning that is very similar and complimentary to what is occurring in the classroom, that is how I believe we move the agenda forward. Not only do we hold ourselves accountable, but we actually take the necessary steps to measure that learning, to collect the data, analyze the data and become serious about the assessment of our efforts.

Q: Many student leaders here feel that extracurricular life at Georgetown would be enhanced by a larger activities budget. For instance, the authors of the Report on Student Life for the past two years have recommended a commitment from this department for an annual increase in funds for student groups. Is this a priority for you?

A: In a very general sense. The quality of the student experience, particularly outside the classroom, is a priority for me. So my sense is that as I begin my first year here, I am going to begin doing a bit of an environmental scan of the quality of the student experience, and the kind of learning and the kind of quality of the experience that is occurring. Some of it, I suspect, may be very well related to the amount of resources that are provided to students to do that. But resources may not mean just fiscal resources. It may mean, ‘Are we providing students with the appropriate guidance and advice as to how to plan their extra-curricular activities? Do we have sufficient space? Do we have sufficient funding? Are we able to train students in leadership positions?’ It is one thing to provide resources, but if you are not providing students with the necessary leadership training and mentoring, we are not looking at the complete equation. All too often, the answer or solution is that we just need more money. But I think that’s too simplistic. I think the complete environmental scan needs to occur, and we may end up saying ‘Yes, we do need additional resources, but we also need to complement that with additional space. We also need to complement that with the mentoring and advice of our leaders, our student leaders, and our student involvement.’ It’s a full spectrum of issues that may affect the quality of life on campus.

Q: One of the things that you have been praised for coming into this job is your attention to issues of diversity. Last year, some members of the university community felt that Georgetown’s diversity was threatened by race-related incidents on campus, such as a threatening letter sent to African-American students. What should Student Affairs do when incidents of this type occur?

A: I go back to the question regarding ‘How can we be partners with the academics.’ To be honest, I think first and foremost we ought to be very aggressive in identifying what kind of learning can we be responsible for in creating a greater sense of awareness regarding diversity – how to help students feel more comfortable in accepting issues of diversity, issues of tolerance and issues of acceptance. For example, in the residence halls, the Residence Life folks have day-to-day contact with students, and they not only work with students, they observe students, they participate with students in countless activities and discussions. I think our Residence Life staff should be very well trained and prepared to deal with the issue of diversity and tolerance. So Student Affairs in general ought to be very cognizant of the learning that we want to be producing and encouraging in our students, and then we need to be very cognizant of the kind of activities that will be required to produce that learning.

Q: One of the ways that Georgetown is diverse is religiously. Georgetown is a Catholic university, but its student population is 43.8 percent non-Catholic. Some students feel there is not enough Catholic presence on campus; others disagree. How important do you think Georgetown’s Catholic identity is to a healthy student culture?

A: Frankly, I think the issue of Catholicism, the issue of spirituality, ought to be a cornerstone that is dead center in the experience of Georgetown students. I think the university takes great pride in acknowledging that attending Georgetown is also about being very sensitive and desiring to attend to your spiritual side. One of the beautiful things about Georgetown is that it also allows and encourages spirituality defined by your own particular religious beliefs. So I personally love the fact that Georgetown encourages the Muslim students to practice and enjoy their religious beliefs, or Jewish students, or Protestant students, or Catholic students. But the cornerstone is that spirituality is the center of focus of the Georgetown experience, and that we are prideful of that, and that we are acknowledging that and that we purposefully attempt to provide services and counseling and experiences that can help students better understand their spiritual side.

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