What draws most people to Georgetown are the intangibles. It is the oldest and most prestigious Catholic institution of higher education in the United States. It is the most competitive university in the nation’s capital. Its ranking alongside other national institutions places it in the top 25 schools in the nation. Its academic programs as well as professional connections give students and alumni unparalleled access to the storied halls of power here in Washington, D.C.

Over time, however, most students at Georgetown come to realize that this university is about something more than just landing internships or getting on the fast-track to Wall Street; it is about shaping minds and people in the Jesuit tradition, drawing out the best in the individual person and remaining true to something more permanent than the changing moods of the day. It is all about principle, soul and standing for something in a world that will believe anything and nothing at all. In short, Georgetown is not really about the money and the power. It is about creating good human beings in the Catholic and Jesuit mold.

The announcement by the board of directors that John J. DeGioia (Col ’79) will become Georgetown’s 48th president effective July 1, 2001, is particularly disturbing in light of this historically understood mission. By choosing to elevate a layman, however devoted to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church he might be, Georgetown’s directors have effectively turned the corner on the university’s past in favor of a more uncertain future.

The symbolic importance of placing a Jesuit at the head of the university cannot be sufficiently stressed. The Jesuits have nurtured this university since their commission from Archbishop Carroll, and the fact that they continue to run it to this day speaks volumes about the value that this institution places on having living links to the best of its past. The Jesuit order is one that, throughout time, has proven its service and dedication to humanity through its mission of education – a mission that we have benefited from as students at Georgetown. By placing a member of the order at the helm, Georgetown has historically affirmed its commitment to developing the whole person consistent with the Catholic and more specifically Jesuit approach to education.

In the person of the president, the Society of Jesus remains ultimately responsible for the sound administration of Georgetown and for keeping true to the university’s mission. By relegating the Jesuits to the sidelines, the board of directors has taken more than just a symbolic action to set Georgetown on a new and different course.

Where this university will go in the future remains to be seen, but it appears that the board of directors is willing to market the soul of our institution for the sake of immediate gains only an accountant could love. How long will it be, one wonders, until Georgetown goes the way of the Ivies, selling out its religious roots in the interests of more secular pursuits? When will Georgetown become the next Yale or Harvard, impressive and monolithic on the outside but full of decay on the inside?

Let us hope that day will never come. Perhaps the idea that having a Jesuit in the top leadership position at Georgetown carries symbolic importance is a fanciful one that belongs to the past. Some will undoubtedly say that it makes no difference who leads the university as long as the money keeps rolling in from corporate America and the increasing number of disenchanted alumni who have a vested interest in seeing this university flourish if only for the sake of their investment in a degree.

It makes all the difference. All actions carry a certain measure of symbolic importance, and none can be so clear in affirming Georgetown’s commitment to its Catholic, Jesuit heritage – and to its Catholic, Jesuit future – as placing a Jesuit in the president’s office. By failing to do this, the board of directors has let us, as a community, down and has set a dangerous precedent for other Catholic and Jesuit institutions across America to follow.

It is important to note that this is not an indictment of President-elect DeGioia. In time and due course, he will be evaluated and judged on the basis of his own words and actions in office. However, the new president should not expect anything less than the utmost degree of scrutiny from all sides. He will – whether justified or not – bear added attention for the simple reason that he is the first layman to head the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic university. Should he fail, he may also be the last. Thus, we implore DeGioia, the future of the university that we have grown to love has been placed in your hands, keep it true to the best of what it has always been.

Joshua A. Williams and Jeff McAlpin are sophomores in the School of Foreign Service.

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