From hosting intimate conversations with first-year students over dinner at his home to promoting increased racial awareness through the development of an African American studies major, College Dean Chester Gillis’ commitment to Georgetown and its students has been a constant force on the Hilltop since his arrival almost three decades ago.
Gillis will conclude his service as dean in June 2017 and will return as a professor in the theology department after a yearlong sabbatical to work on a book on interreligious marriages in the United States.
Belgium to Georgetown
Gillis, who completed his undergraduate studies at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and received a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Chicago, first came to Georgetown as an assistant professor of theology in 1988.
Gillis became a full professor of theology, held an endowed chair in Catholic studies and then became a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. He also served as the chair of the theology department from 2001 to 2006 and director of the doctorate of liberal studies program from 2006 to 2008 before assuming his current role as the College dean in 2009.
In the theology department, Gillis taught courses ranging from “Problem of God” to Ph.D. seminars. He also created and taught a course on feminist theology for three years.
“[Former chair of the theology department Father William McFadden, S.J.], after a long conversation, said, ‘Yes, I think we should, and I think you should teach it,’” Gillis said. “It was really an interesting kind of pulling back the curtain on women’s issues, in general and particularly with relation to religion and theology, so it was very enlightening for me. I learned a lot more in that course from the students than I knew when I went in.”
Expanding College Offerings
In his role as dean, Gillis has worked to help fund Georgetown’s capital campaign, which will conclude in June, and has been involved with raising funds for the new de la Cruz Gallery of Art set to open in Walsh in 2017.
Gillis’ tenure as dean also saw the creation of the film and media studies, journalism, business administration, philosophy and bioethics, and education, inquiry and justice minors and the justice and peace studies and African American studies majors in the College.
Gillis said in a previous article in The Hoya (“College Embraces New Programs,” The Hoya, Feb. 23, 2016, ONLINE) that he has sought to develop new programs to fit the university’s needs.
“I don’t feel like I have to create these programs just to say I’ve done innovation, no. I think that’s a bad idea, actually,” Gillis said. “We’ll do things that make sense, and make sense for us. Where we don’t need to do it, I won’t do it just to say I did it.”
Office of the President Chief of Staff Joseph Ferrara said Gillis has made a significant academic impact during his time as dean.
“His leadership and vision have advanced the College and the Georgetown community in countless ways. We look forward to working with [Gillis] over the next year to ensure a smooth transition in the leadership of the College and to support his return to the faculty,” Ferrara wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Meeting with students
Over the years, Gillis has displayed a particular commitment to engaging with Georgetown students. Gillis and his wife Marie regularly invite students to their home for dinner.
“So for example, when I have first-year students in, they’re brand-new, it’s in the first three weeks they’re at school,” Gillis said. “I always say you have to sing for your dinner if you come to Gillis’ house.”
Gillis said he learns from students when he meets with them.
“So I learn a lot from them, of the schools that they got into, many of which are very competitive with us and very good, why did they come here? Why did they come to Georgetown, what is good about us, what is attractive about us? And I learn a lot,” Gillis said.
College Academic Council President Alisha Dua (COL ’16) said she found Gillis’ dedication to building relationships with students unique among university administrators.
“He really strives to get to know us personally. Opening his office for Donuts with the Deans and inviting College students to his home for casual dinners are a true testament to this. What other Dean of a top university does that?” Dua wrote in an email to The Hoya.
According to Dua, Gillis is also highly receptive to student input.
“Without a doubt, it is Dean Gillis’ commitment to the students here at Georgetown that has made the greatest impact on the College. In meetings with the Academic Council, he has always been very transparent about administrative issues and keen to understand and consider the student opinion,” Dua wrote.
College Academic Council Vice President Connor Maytnier (COL ’17) echoed this sentiment, saying Gillis has been supportive of the council’s efforts.
“He has always encouraged us to pursue what is important to students and has provided his counsel along the way. He also has been a proponent of engaging students and seeking input on policy and program changes through town halls, which have been a big initiative for the Council in recent semesters,” Maytnier wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Returning to Teaching
Following his accomplishments as head of the College, Gillis said he is looking forward to returning to his role as a professor.
“I love the theology department, I love what we do, I love the students, I love teaching,” Gillis said. “To be back in the classroom will be a good thing, and to go back to my theological scholarship.”
Throughout his time at Georgetown, Gillis said he has been influenced by a number of faculty and staff members and their commitment to scholarship. Gillis cited the staff in the College Dean’s Office as a particular source of inspiration.
“This has been a very good job to come into every day because of the people with whom I rub shoulders every day. They’re very, very good, they’re deeply committed, they’re compassionate, they’re smart,” Gillis said. “If students and faculty knew all they do behind the scenes they would be equally edified; they can’t see it all but I can.”
Gillis said he will move on knowing he had given the job his all.
“You can’t sum up what will be nine years in a few sentences. There’ll be lots of memories, I think a lot of good, clearly some mistakes, things I would probably do differently, but you know, it’s a place that you can give your heart and soul to. And I’ve done that,” Gillis said.
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