Q&A: DeGioia on Faith, A Campus Reconstructed

ERICK CASTRO/THE HOYA University President John J. DeGioia delved into the university’s and his own Catholic identity in light of Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C.

University President John J. DeGioia delved into the university’s and his own Catholic identity in light of Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C.

Amid the buzz of the papal visit, The Hoya sat down with University President John J. DeGioia Thursday to discuss Georgetown’s Jesuit identity, DeGioia’s personal connection to his faith and a variety of campus issues including construction, sexual assault and sustainability.

How do you feel about Pope Francis’ visit to D.C. and why do you think it’s significant that he chose the District?

I’ve said in recent conversations with family and friends that in all the years that I’ve been living here in Washington, which goes back to the mid-1970s, there have been incredible things that have unfolded here in Washington. Some of the inaugurations have been historic, and they’ve been extraordinary. Lots of other kinds of events have been incredibly memorable, but I don’t know anything that has galvanized the city quite like the visit of this pope. It has been really extraordinary to see. I think it’s a reflection both of the authenticity of the individual, the sheer quality of his character, what he personally embodies. In our tradition we kind of call this a sacramental quality. He is the embodiment of a set of values in such a profound resonance with our university. You can see them in our efforts to try to live out the integrity of our commitment to the values that have animated this place for 226 years. There’s a lot that resonates with his own personal history as a Jesuit, so it has been a pretty special time. I had the privilege yesterday to attend the welcome at the White House and then to go to the Mass at the shrine and so it was very special for me and for my family to be able to have that opportunity. Today, I had a chance to listen and read his remarks before the joint session of Congress and I think his drawing upon the examples of four Americans: Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton was a perfect way of capturing what I think is so distinctive about this individual. He was able to draw from the best of the American experience and tradition, while at the same time finding moral leaders who are capable of serving as exemplars for the best in ourselves.

Are you disappointed that the pope is not coming to campus? Will you get the chance to meet with him?

Many have asked me, “Is he coming? Will he come? Of course he has to come!” We began conversations with Cardinal Wuerl and the archdiocese nearly a year ago once we knew that it was likely that he was going to be coming here. Most importantly, we wanted to ensure that we could be of support in any way possible to the archdioceses for this extraordinary visit. It also became pretty clear very early on that the logistics of this trip would be very, very difficult for him to make his way on this campus, so I’m not surprised. It would have been extraordinary if he could have come to visit here, but I understand why it didn’t happen. I’m just so pleased though that so many members of our community were able to have a chance to be a part of this visit.

I know that although you are the first layperson president of Georgetown, you are deeply religious. Can you tell me a little bit about how being at Georgetown has deepened or affected your faith?

I grew up in a very solid family deeply committed to the Catholic faith, but it was something taken kind of easily, lightly. We said grace before our meals; we went as a family to church on Sunday. I have an uncle, my mom’s brother, who’s a Jesuit who has taught at Jesuit universities his whole career. When I came to Georgetown though, I think I came like many at 18, because this is a great university and it felt like the right place. It was only after time as an undergraduate, as my time here continues, that I realized that one of the reasons that it felt so right to me was because of the profound respect it had for the faith of each member of our community. We just celebrated the life of Rabbi [Harold] White on Sunday and Rabbi White and I were friends for nearly 40 years. He served this community long before I ever got here and it was beautiful to see the community come together in that moment. I had the privilege just a week earlier to celebrate Rosh Hashana with our Jewish community in our celebration of the High Holy Days. I think in the testimonies offered at Rabbi White’s memorial, two of the most beautiful were offered by our Imam and by a Catholic priest. I think the profound respect this university community has always shown to me personally, but also I think it has shown in the full diversity of our community. It shows the importance of faith as a dimension of our lives, which was something that I began to appreciate very early on. Then, a really interesting thing happened while I was here, beginning in the early to mid-1980s. The resources of the tradition that has animated Georgetown, the Jesuit tradition, began to be available in ways that just weren’t accessible to earlier generations and it was because of the work of extraordinary individuals, some of whom are here. They’ve been doing this for many, many years and they’re in their 80s but John O’Malley wrote some of the most important work about the early Jesuits. Howard Grey and Brian McDermon have done extraordinary work in making this spirituality of St. Ignatius available. What I realized rather early on is that we are part of a living, breathing, dynamic tradition and we’re helping to interpret and develop and extend and explain and make it ever more alive in this moment. For us, it’s really finding that combination. We strive to be one of the great universities in the world and we strive to be authentic Catholic and Jesuit and to do so in a way that acknowledges the tensions between trying to get that balance and a profound respect for engaging those tensions and critiquing ourselves in being able to respond to those tensions. The motto of the university, “both into one,” originally comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. We’ve sort of taken a lot of liberty in explaining what “both into one” really means. I think one of the ways it takes meaning in our lifetime is really finding this balance between being a university and being a place that is authentically Catholic and Jesuit and finding a way to really integrate those in a way that enables us to be true to who we are.

How do you think the Pope’s causes — immigration, environmental issues etc. — align with Georgetown’s values? What can we learn from him?

Well, I would say two things. First, we have found incredible validation for the kinds of approaches we’ve taken to some of these issues and an incredible challenge to take whatever we’ve done and make it even that much stronger. Let me give you a couple of examples. So, the encyclical that came out in June, Laudato Si’, the most anticipated encyclical in our lifetime, and he didn’t fail in any way to meet anyone’s expectations.

For Georgetown, we made a decision in 2005 to cut our carbon footprint by 50 percent by 2020, and we’re at 72 percent today. We’ve exceeded all of our expectations. Until we read the encyclical, and when we read the encyclical we realized that one of the terms of engagement when we launched this in 2005 was you were permitted to use renewable energy credits as part of the tools that would enable you to accomplish your goal. Reading the pope’s encyclical, renewable energy credits, that’s not going to work. While they’ve been perfectly appropriate when we started, it’s not perfectly appropriate in 2015. So we’re no longer at 72 percent; we’re below 50 now. So we’re going to double down on our efforts and move the needle ever further. I had the privilege to engage an incredible architect and visionary, Bill McDonough, who wrote a book in 2002 called “Cradle to Cradle.” I engaged Bill, we met in June, the encyclical came out a couple weeks later and I was glad I had already reached out to Bill because it was clear we were going to need to take this further. The pope, in his letter, talks about the circular economy. “Cradle to Cradle” was an early effort to try to show how you might be able to act more circularity in the way in which you organize your lives together in a community. I wasn’t sure if anybody would come because it was early August, but I invited a hundred members of the community to come together for a two-day workshop led by Bill. We broke down into four team categories. We looked at multiple dimensions of the university; many students came back from all over the place just for those two days. Bill introduced the concepts and we had working groups at each table, trying to unpack everything from water to waste to transportation to energy usage and how we engage that. We’ve been working on a number of important fronts. I had signed an agreement for the university some years back in the context of a group I worked with, the Global Economic Forum, the Global University Leaders Forum, where we signed an agreement that committed us to a compact with other global universities to try to address issues of sustainability. Then, we had a leadership effort here in Washington that we were a part of, where the universities of Washington committed to new levels of sustainability. What we hope we can do from a number of initiatives — from the Georgetown Environment Initiative to our work on sustainability to the circular economy — all of these are an effort on our part to try to respond to this challenge.

Recently, the Association of American Universities found that 23 percent of women reported being sexually assaulted in college. Can you evaluate the problem of sexual assault at Georgetown?

I would begin with the priorities, which is to ensure that this is the safest possible place for students and that no one be blocked, limited in any way by a fear that this wasn’t a place that provided the strongest possible context for them to live their richest possible life here. The degree to which concerns about sexual assault are blocking, limiting any of our members from being able to realize a full experience here, that is always our first priority. I’ve had an opportunity to work on these questions for nearly a quarter century because at one point in my years here at Georgetown, I was the Chief Student Affairs Officer — the Dean of Students — from ’85 to ’92 and in that context we confronted these dynamics in a very direct way. We established a framework that included a personnel and sexual assault working group. We’ve had a deep history and deep engagement in trying to ensure the safest possible environment for our community. At the same time, we recognize that in any context like this, you have to just stay at it, keep working, try to find the next way we can deepen and engage with our students where they are so that we can be supportive in the most appropriate ways. For structure, we can provide leadership, wherever it’s possible for us to do, and whenever it’s possible to provide, we’re doing it. We share all these responsibilities because all students have to live out their own lives to ensure that they understand both what we expect and what we believe are the appropriate standards for behavior here, and that we’re prepared to provide a framework to support and sustain that. And if there are things that only a university can do, we want to make sure we’re doing those. It’s been about three years now we’ve had the online program that was part of orienting everyone to our community, two years now we’ve been a leader in modeling best practice regarding bystander training and awareness. We just entered into a new agreement with our students. It is great leadership from Georgetown University Student Association and by our colleagues. It’s a terrific piece of work. We added the online app last year, which I think was received well. We’ve developed a new training program for all those who were involved in hearings. We critique and receive critique following some of the hearings. We’ve also been participating in some of the national and local discussion. I was part of a meeting here in Washington in August. We are very aware of how important this issue is right now, what an appropriate kind of understanding and responsibility it entails, and we’re trying to ensure we’re doing everything in our power to respond to those expectations.

We recently completed the capital campaign early. What do you think that says about the university and its alums? Georgetown is still ranked #21 in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, despite our low endowment. What does that mean, to you?

We’re going to work all year to try to achieve even more. We did accomplish the target goal of $1.5 billion, and you’re quite right that the rankings in U.S. News put a disproportionate amount of attention on endowment. And the history for Georgetown is we were actually owned by a religious community, the Jesuits of Georgetown until 1969, and we didn’t begin fundraising like traditional universities until the early 1980s. We’ve done four campaigns in our modern history. We’ve raised roughly $2 billion since I took on this role. My experience has been with incredibly broad and deep generosity in our community. I think, relative to our peers, we’re doing relatively well. In terms of the growth rate, to raise $2 billion in this last decade, that’s a pretty good tribute to this community. It is completely predicated on generosity. We wanted to raise $1.5 billion; we wanted $100 million for financial aid. This is a deeply committed community, and for me it’s a privilege to engage with it in this way. These are folks who believe in us; they believe in our values, they believe in our mission, they believe in our history, and most importantly, they believe in our future.

There’s always things you are raising for: financial aid, faculty and infrastructure. In this case, we organized the campaign around four priorities: financial aid, faculty, infrastructure and what we call transformative opportunities. If you think about the first one, scholarship support, I would say that that enables us to ensure that the next generation of the best students will always be able to consider Georgetown as a realistic opportunity. Our way of ensuring the future of the institution and the quality of the student body is to ensure our affordability. The way we ensure affordability is through two policies: need-blind in admission and we meet full need of all of our students. What does that mean? We don’t believe that your ability to pay is a relevant factor in our decision to admit you. When we construct a class, when Charlie Deacon and our committees on admissions construct a class, we think they should look at a number of things about you, in determining admission. We don’t think one of them is your ability to pay.

Number two, when we say faculty, it is normally the programs faculty are interested in. Right now, there are number of issues that are of real concern from a faculty perspective that need to be a part of our agenda. The campaign enables us to ensure we have the resources to adapt accordingly. For example in the last decade, China has emerged as more important. How have we responded? Victor Cha created an incredible program in the School of Foreign Service around Asian studies. We’ve put an office in Beijing. We’ve facilitated a lot more flow of ideas and talent between and China and Georgetown. We wouldn’t have been able to do that without philanthropy. We’ve launched some really exciting and incredible projects, the most important I think in this context being Designing the Future(s). Designing the Future(s) is identifying a number of ways in which we might be able to adapt and move forward as an institution. But we need to be able to do so in a way in which we’re very cognizant of the cost. So if cost weren’t an object, we’d be doing all sorts of other things around here, but we want to always try to ensure affordability. So finding that right balance, and what Designing the Future(s) is doing is looking at both exciting new adventures for us in learning, and how might we able to restrain, constrain the growth in cost.

How is current campus construction going, and how does it fit in to your future vision for the university?

We’ve done one billion over the last 14 years here on campus. We needed to, in terms of the constraints of the neighborhood community, in order to move forward in the growth and development that we needed to, and when we launched the Southwest Quadrangle project, that was a prerequisite for us to do the things we needed to do, which was we needed a new home for business, for performing arts, for science. We were able to ultimately get that done. What enabled us to do the billion plus was the great generosity of our community. The really annoying stuff, I think will be done by Thanksgiving; the library walk, the Quadrangle, the new bus turnaround facility down near McDonough Gym, these have been the most annoying of the projects and I think we’re going to have those finished this fall. That leaves the two big projects, which is the Thompson Center and the new residence hall next to Reiss. I think those are on track to be finished by early summer of next year. We may get a window there where there won’t be a towering crane on campus for the first time in 15 or 16 years. We’ll miss the towering crane, but we won’t miss the disruptions.

I know that you’re in the process of developing the newest campus plan with the neighborhood – how are the deliberations going and how much is the university willing to compromise with students and the neighborhood?

Our goal is always to just stay at the table, and keep working until we get an alignment between what we need. “We” is a complicated “we”. Our faculty have interests, our students have interests, our alumni have interests, and as an administration we seek to create the best possible balance for our own perspective. And then we bring it out to the public, and we have multiple neighborhoods. When we established the Georgetown Community Partnership, that gave us the most stable and consistent way of providing continuity over time in this conversation. We don’t have a lot more that we can do on this campus, we know our limits, there aren’t that many more places that we can build. Our ambition for this campus is not unreasonable. I think we’re realistic about what more can be done here. I think we’re going to have the ability to get alignment with our students, our faculty and our alumni in terms of this campus. I don’t think people want to see a whole lot more construction around here; we know we can do some work. Lauinger, I think would be well-received by many, a bit next to Regents Hall. And the long-range dream of flipping the Yates Field and Shaw Field, where Shaw Field could go on Yates and Yates could go on Shaw Field. That’s probably the longest-range. And the most immediate issue is really around academic medicine. MedStar Health is ready to build a new hospital, and we are ready to support them and the site for that is the parking lot between Darnall and the existing hospital. That would be worth taking a look at, a very exciting project, we’re very supportive of MedStar’s interest in getting that done. I think that will help our medical students and our residents really be able to move forward in this new way. That one is ambitious, a big, big project that we all need to get everybody in alignment regarding that. I’m pretty confident we’re going to be able to get alignment between all of the parties, because I think our expectations are reasonable and modest, and I think we just need to make sure that everybody is a part of it.

The construction going on around campus has made it quite difficult for disabled students to navigate campus? Do you plan to address their needs in the future?

I think truly it’s unintentional; there’s no excuse for not being able to accommodate. We know what our responsibilities are to respect a number of our community, ensure we are attentive to that.


Correction: Both DeGioia and the pope spoke about Dorothy Day, not Doris Day.

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One Comment

  1. So much respect for the way DeGioia’s leads. Georgetown is in good hands.

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