carlsonGeorgetown leaders often talk about changing trends and their impact on the future of the university. Skyrocketing tuition prices, increased scholarship demands to match the need for real skills and superior returns on investment all shape the conversation about higher education. Now, Georgetown is discussing several ways to respond, including changing both the degree requirements and the standard academic pace of a student. These sorts of changes would dramatically alter the Georgetown experience.

Much of the rhetoric used to justify these changes revolves around Georgetown’s Jesuit mission. University leaders often hark back to Georgetown’s founders like John Carroll or classic phrases like “cura personalis” and “ad majoremdei gloriam” as a way to ground these changes in a historical context. Given the context of the changes that will be under consideration in the coming years, leaders must reflect on Georgetown’s history and mission before moving forward to ensure that the institution maintains its integrity. Now more than ever, the university community needs to collectively reflect on Georgetown’s past to see it for what it truly was and not just for how the institution’s memory has been preserved.

As time passes, historical events have a way of becoming muddled. Facts can be forgotten or deliberately left out in order to serve the agenda of whoever is crafting the narrative. If a narrative is left unquestioned, it becomes fact until someone is willing to investigate the stories in great depth. It is dangerous for an institution to misunderstand its history because a falsely interpreted past not only threatens accurate representation of the present, but also leads future decisions astray.

Consider the harmless example of Georgetown’s founding date. It is common knowledge that Georgetown was founded in 1789, which is conveniently the same year as the signing of the Constitution and the establishment of the modern American republic. Georgetown leaders now frequently reference the birth of the nation and the birth of the university in the same breath. Yet the year 1789 is not the most logical year to mark the founding of Georgetown University. January 23, 1789, is the date on which John Carroll purchased the land on which Dahlgren Quad would eventually be built. But the university had already been discussed and designed in 1786, and the first classes were not held until 1792. The date was popularized as a mistake.

The first building erected on the Hilltop, Old South, began construction in 1788. The cornerstone, however, incorrectly marked the beginning of construction as 1789. But past university leaders continued to cite 1789 as the founding of the college, etching it into the university’s history. As an indication that 1789 did not become an institution at Georgetown until much later, the 50thanniversary of the 1789 founding date was not celebrated. The year finally became permanent when University President James Doonan, S.J., following his predecessor’s, Patrick Healy, S.J., lead, called for a centennial celebration to be held in 1889. The university’s large debt also played a role in solidifying this date: Eager to find ways to raise money to save the university from financial ruin in that year, Doonan called for alumni to give generously for the centennial. Due to a clerical error on a building cornerstone and dire financial straits, an arbitrary date came to be celebrated as Georgetown’s founding year.

While the story of Georgetown’s inaccurate founding date is relatively inconsequential, it shows the propensity for historical facts to get lost in compelling narratives. The memory of those inaugural years has evolved so much that students and administrators alike do not recognize that the year 1789 lacks historical relevance. We should be wary of the limited amount of university history we learn while at Georgetown. As the university embarks on a journey to redesign itself for the 21st century, we must be cautious of the tendency to selectively remember the past. If we are going to evoke these classic phrases and leaders to justify our plans going forward, we must first demonstrate a proper understanding of the history that surrounds them.

Kent Carlson is a senior in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. COLLEGE ON A HILL appears every other Friday.

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