O’Donovan Defends Free Speech at Georgetown

Former University President Fr. Leo O’Donovan, S.J. headed the university from 1989 to 2001 — a time when free speech issues came to the forefront of university discussion. In 1991, pro-choice group GU Choice — which would eventually become H*yas for Choice — emerged at Georgetown, facing harsh opposition from both students and Catholic officials. The Hoya sat down with O’Donovan to discuss the intersection between free speech on campus and the university’s Catholic identity.

This is part three of a three-part interview. Parts one and two are available on thehoya.com.

What is your opinion on H*yas for Choice? The group — then called GU Choice — emerged during your presidency and started a debate about university recognition.

I continue to think that the Second Vatican Council correctly summarizes Catholic Moral Tradition in speaking of abortion as intrinsically wrong. But stating that principle does not yet address the reasons for the occurrence of abortions and how to reduce their number. I believe society is also obliged to help women who are pregnant and do not know how they can carry their child to term and take care of the child. Strong social policies should provide the medical help, educational opportunities and general support that can lead to reducing the incidence of abortions — which is after all the point, isn’t it? That’s put very generally, I know. But it’s still true that moral principles must be accompanied by moral practice.

It is also true that there are other problems in society that demand urgent address but are hard to identify as intrinsically wrong. And poverty, even in a country as wealthy as ours, is certainly a major one — because poverty also cripples and kills.

I also think that it is indispensable to recognize the full and true equality of women in society. In that regard, I consider myself a feminist. Most of my feminist friends who are women would say, “Not a very good one,” but that’s OK with me. Whatever they say, I still have to learn from them. But I firmly believe in the full equality of women. I believe that should be the case in the Catholic Church as well as in society at large.

I also believe in freedom of speech, and I believe that the suppression of speech is never helpful. Speech can be used in very irresponsible ways. I’d rather risk irresponsibility while allowing speech. Still, we all know that you don’t say things in the presence of children that you might say in the presence of an adult. And you don’t say things to adults that will be unproductive, unhelpful. This is an old moral tradition that you can tolerate ignorance in certain situations and let people live as they see best. I think that’s about what I’d say.

Even though official church doctrine says that abortion is intrinsically wrong, you believed it was important to have a conversation about it rather than condemn it because you believe in freedom of speech. Why is that?

Well, in a university situation I would always favor enabling a conversation in the company of wise faculty and wise moral and religious guides, rather than forcing that discussion underground. The university is a place where people learn to talk, and talk and talk, and I would suspect every student on the Georgetown campus knows that they learn things from their fellow students and they learn how to wrestle with things that they wouldn’t expect to learn from professors or books.

What do you think of the recent issues at Georgetown surrounding free speech? It seems that students are still continuing to push for a little more free speech. Do you think Georgetown has done enough?

I have absolute confidence in the president of the university, who is, I think, as clear minded and committed to the fundamentals of Catholic teaching and thought as one could be. [Vice President for Student Affairs] Todd Olson, whom I’ve know for years, has been in his position for a long time and clearly has the president’s confidence, so I certainly have no inclination to second guess him. I suppose I would say, as I think I suggested before, that freedom of speech bears its real fruit when men and women are helped to live fuller, truer human lives. Freedom is less about reducing restraint and much more about empowering life. I think that was one of the great lessons of the Civil Rights Movement.

People did not just argue for equality for black people, for the right to vote, for the right to work, for freedom from harassment. In practical ways they voted for people who would represent them well, worked together to renew neighborhoods, formed communities that were sustaining. That struggle was brilliantly presented in the recent show at the Museum of Modern Art, “Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Migration Series,’ and Other Visions of the Great Migration” of African-Americans from the South to the North. It’s not just about freedom, but it’s about living conditions, integrating schools, resisting environments that were in many respects as oppressive as the South had been.

But, as I suggested earlier, argument is of the nature of university life. There are times when I want to ask: What have you done recently to help somebody practically, in addition to assuring them free speech? Do you ever go to a soup kitchen? Have you ever visited a poor school? Have you ever helped to teach illiterate children? Or are you interested in medical help? Have you ever helped out in a clinic? Have you visited parts of the country — or outside the country — where people are desperately removed from the comforts of Georgetown?

When you arrived at Georgetown, how did you approach the endowment?

Well, it was clear that our endowment was not at all commensurate with our educational contribution and reputation. And what were the reasons for that? There was a lingering approach to financing the university that relied overly much on contributions from the Jesuit community and very traditional sources. We did not have a culture of serious professional philanthropy. Part of that was that it was not a part of incoming students’ appreciation of who they were and where they were. In fact, as soon as students become part of Georgetown they become also responsible for its future. Earlier, the percentage of annual giving was very low, and I think while I was president we moved that from something like 20 percent to about 32 percent. That’s my rough recollections. But to improve participation, every percentage is a big achievement; you’re dealing with very large numbers and a lot of communication. I’m very proud that the university continues to be committed to the need-blind, full financial aid policy. It is not a common policy. Several colleges on whose boards I sit couldn’t possibly do that. I think our president and his team are correct that it was a fundamentally indispensable commitment.

Indispensable because it meant we would be making the Georgetown education available for the very best students. Why have we not increased the endowment still more? Well, I would say, there are clear signs that we are increasing it and that prospects for increasing it to something more commensurate with our stature are very strong. Gifts like the McCourt gift are not just fortunate, but signs. I think it was [Theodore] Hesburgh who said the hardest thing is raising the first billion and after that it becomes — I don’t know if he said easier, but something like easier.

So, it’s a matter of keeping at it. As I indicated before, I always thought that we should let our students know as soon as they arrive on campus that this university is now yours and its future is in your hands, and that applies across the board: fundraising, the way we conduct ourselves on campus, if you want the way we claim the right to say what we want to say, which doesn’t mean whatever we want to say, that’s just absurd.

So, more than that, well what can a former president do? Accept invitations for parties where money will be raised for whatever good purpose. But accept invitations also where no money is being raised because the people giving the party don’t have the resources, but they count just a much. I always thought, “If somebody gives what she can, she’s indispensable to the campaign or the future.” She may be the teacher whose best student is Bill Clinton. He only applied to Georgetown, you know, and that terrifies her. What if her star student doesn’t get into college?

What do you think about the efforts of DeGioia and his staff on the capital campaigns recently?

I could devote a whole interview to telling you in various ways what admiration and confidence I have in Jack DeGioia. I also happen to know the chairman of the campaign — he, too, is an alum — and no one is more committed to the university then he is, and nobody is more committed to the importance of financial aid. I should probably pray more often for him and Jack.

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