No Stranger To Controversy

By Dave Heaton Hoya Staff Writer

Solidarity. Diversity. Pride. Choice. During the tenure of University President Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., at Georgetown, each of these tumultuous issues has risen to the forefront of campus debate, often leading to large-scale demonstrations on the part of students.

Though by all accounts a calmer leader than his predecessor, Rev. Timothy Healy, S.J., O’Donovan’s stay at Georgetown will be remembered, at least partly, for the sparks of controversy that have led to wildfires of protest that have taken place since he first took office 11 years ago.

Today, the campus is still reeling from a wave of what has been described by some campus leaders as an “epidemic of hate.” After the Jewish Student Association’s menorah was vandalized twice in Red Square, many on campus joined together to express outrage, dismay and anger at university officials for not having done more to prevent such incidents in the first place. Then, when a wave of anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist graffiti hit on the campus, an emergency group, the Georgetown Unity Coalition, hurriedly formed to lobby O’Donovan and other administrators to develop a better method of dealing with hate crimes on campus. A rally was held in Red Square, with over 300 students demanding a solution to the crisis.

It was not the first time large crowds of students gathered to demand change from the administration. In the year leading up to the wave of hate crimes, crowds numbering at least 300 students demanded more support for the African Studies Program, protested the university policy which led to the firing of four campus ministers, including all full-time Protestant chaplains on campus and an end to Georgetown’s sweatshop labor code – all occurred on separate occasions.

In February of 1999, a handful of students made national headlines by occupying O’Donovan’s office in opposition to the use of sweatshop labor by manufacturers of Georgetown apparel. The 27 students propelled the Georgetown Solidarity Coalition into the spotlight, with the media descending upon Georgetown to cover what would soon become a national trend. Since GSC’s protests began, students at dozens of universities, including Duke University, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Harvard University, Columbia University and others have held similar protests.

Yet O’Donovan has been no stranger to controversy throughout any part of his term. Even upon arrival at Georgetown, O’Donovan was faced with student outcry and faculty pressure for his predecessor’s decision not to grant tenure to popular English professor Daniel Moshenberg. O’Donovan, who refused to overturn the judgment, quickly came under fire for his action.

When he took over the presidency, O’Donovan was faced with a papal mandate to deny funding to GU Choice, a pro-choice group that was seeking university support. Many on campus demanded that O’Donovan make a special exemption for the group, much like it had done when GU Pride was recognized by the university. At that time, administrators issued a disclaimer stating that the group did not represent the views of the Catholic Church or the university. Nonetheless, the group was barred from operating officially on campus, and later changed its name to H*yas for Choice in order to continue operating.

Later in the decade, Georgetown reformed its English curriculum requirements, ending the Georgetown tradition of requiring all university students to study classics literature. Some on campus, who viewed the curriculum as part of Georgetown tradition, were upset that the Jesuit school was abandoning its heritage. This concern was later reinforced by university officials who declared that crucifixes should not appear in campus classrooms. After an ensuing debate over its identity as a university, Georgetown ultimately decided to post crucifixes in the historical buildings, including Healy Hall, White-Gravenor and Old North.

However, by the end of the decade, O’Donovan called for a renewal of Catholic identity at Georgetown. The National Council of Catholic Bishops, who demanded a strengthening of Catholicism at colleges and universities across the country, was acting in response to Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”). That document, issued in 1990, was an official papal decree encouraging closer ties between the magisterium and Catholic schools all across the world. Those new ties are set to take effect sometime in the coming year.

On the heels of Ex Corde and in the wake of a slue of controversies spanning his tenure, O’Donovan has announced that he will retire at the close of the coming academic year. Repeatedly, the leader of Georgetown has stated that the decision to depart was not influenced by any of the controversies that have made his time at Georgetown a restless one.

Related Links

O’Donovan to Step Down In June 2001

 47th President: A Scholar and Administrator

 Fr. O’Donovan, S.J. Photo Gallery

 Georgetown University Presidents

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