Q&A: DeGioia Talks Georgetown’s Role in Politics, Reconciliation

SPENCER COOK FOR THE HOYA President John J. DeGioia discussed Georgetown's legacy of slavery, the university's role in national politics, and the men's basketball program.

SPENCER COOK FOR THE HOYA
President John J. DeGioia discussed Georgetown’s legacy of slavery, the university’s role in national politics and affordability in an interview with The Hoya.

As the academic year comes to an end, The Hoya sat down with University President John J. DeGioia yesterday to discuss Georgetown’s role in today’s political landscape, the process of reconciling with the university’s history of slaveholding and recent changes to the men’s basketball program.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Recently, you signed the amicus brief, and in the past months, you’ve signed several letters in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration. Given today’s political climate, what do you think is Georgetown’s role in both Washington, D.C., and internationally?

We’re inextricably linked to the city in which we are located. Many of these are issues that are being worked on right here in Washington. We are called upon by our colleagues to participate in meaningful ways. That was particularly the case for me this year, because until just a few weeks ago, I was the chair of the American Council on Education, which is our overarching convening body of colleges and universities. It’s the context in which we’ve been working with [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program], then the international travel issue. The amicus brief was in regard to the latter. I’ve signed a few more letters this year than has been the case in the past.

It’s a challenging time. We recognize that because we’re here, and we have members of our community – including members of Congress. We have 28 members – 21 representatives, 7 senators. We have several staffers. The one thing we know that there is bipartisan agreement on among our alumni is their love for this place. So, in the degree to which they can be helpful in advancing the interests of higher education, we look to them to ensure they understand the issues that are at stake, and why we hold the convictions that we do so deeply.

With our DACA students, we’ve been meeting very regularly with them. We’ve put in place a full-time resource, an undocumented student coordinator. We’ve been at the front end of support for the DREAMers. The leading member of Congress in support of these students is Richard Durbin, who has two degrees from Georgetown. He and Lindsay Graham offered a new piece of legislation on Dec. 9, the Bridge Act. In his testimony, he had this big picture of Luis Gonzalez (COL ’19), a sophomore here at Georgetown. There’s 750,000 DACA students on our college campuses. We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect them and make sure they have the trajectory to be able to complete their studies.

Do you think that the value of a Georgetown education is different today?

It’s never been more valuable than it is now. If you put in mind a little bit of an expansion on this, I would say that never before has higher education been more important than it is right now, from every possible perspective.

When I came to Georgetown in the mid-1970s as a student, one of the more popular books at the time was by a Harvard economist named Richard Freeman called “The Overeducated American.” The basic thesis of the book, based in fact, was that there was no wage premium to go to college. In the 1970s, you didn’t make more money if you went to college than if you went to high school. You didn’t go to college for the money. You went for other reasons. 1983 was an inflection point. Every year after, the gap has grown so that basically, the more education you have, far more income. The resources that we provide in the context of your education ensures that you’re capable of contributing as a citizen, that your education has enabled you to be that much more capable of participation.

Right now, two-thirds of all new jobs require post-secondary education. Only a little over 40 percent of Americans have post-secondary education. We’ll underperform the economy in the next decade by 11 million jobs, meaning there’ll be 11 million more jobs created than we’ll have graduates for those jobs.

Education has never been more valuable in every way, from participation in the economy to participation in our democracy, and to be able to have the critical values necessary to engage fully.

It’s been a year and a half since you charged the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. What progress do you think Georgetown has made so far in reconciling with its history of slaveholding? What improvements still need to be made, specifically in further engaging with the descendants?

The goal for us was to engage the question, the history, the meaning of our historical participation in the institution of slavery. The work of the working group was extraordinary. It exceeded all my expectations. I believe truly that when a university commits to doing its very best work, it’s capable of doing something that no other institution in our societies can do. This was a perfect example of it. It enabled us to confront the question in a wide range of public forums and opportunities for public learning.

The biggest surprise for us when we launched the work was that it was not as well-known as we would’ve imagined. We’ve known our history, we’ve taught our history. One of our earliest digital humanities websites were the documents of the sale, which we put online in the ’90s. It became a bit disappointing to learn how little of that history was being carried by our community. That was one of the challenges we wanted to confront. Here, 18 months later, I don’t think there’s anyone who isn’t carrying that history into the future.

One of the great gifts of this engagement, which we hadn’t anticipated, was the depth of commitment and interest of our descendants to connect to the university. Next week, on April 18, we’re going to have a very special day here with a liturgy in Gaston Hall. We have more than, right now, 125 descendants coming to that special service. The Cardinal of Washington Donald Wuerl will be one of the conveners with the head of the Jesuits for the United States. We’ll be able to bring together the Georgetown community and the descendant community in a meaningful, sacred event. We’ll seek contrition and offer hope toward the future. We’ll also be renaming the two buildings, Isaac Hawkins Hall and Anne Marie Becraft Hall, next Tuesday. With the engagement of the descendants, we’re discovering new ways of being a university and how we might be able to contribute in meaningful ways.

In terms of the unfinished work, we know the implications of the failure to ameliorate the original evil of slavery in 1838 for us and 1865 for our nation. We had failed reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow laws. It was another 100 years before the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act. We live today with that failure. We live with the fact that we never ameliorated the original evil. We’ve done a lot of work in trying to understand, what are the manifestations today of that enduring legacy of slavery and segregation, and how can we contribute to addressing that?

For example, we did a study this past year on health disparities in the District. Right now, if I’m an African American and you’re a white man in the District, the average difference in our life expectancies is 15 years. I’m six times more likely if I’m African American to suffer from diabetes. We know how to treat some of these things. We know what good health care practice looks like. We want to see how we can contribute to making that more accessible and more available. We have a center for health disparities downtown. We want to expand its reach and see if we may be able to make meaningful contributions to improving the health care of our citizens in the District.

It’s one example. The working group on racial justice was charged with helping us come to terms with the implications of taking on that responsibility.

In a recent poll conducted by The Hoya, students cited affordability as their number one issue going into the student government election. What are some ways that you can ensure that a Georgetown education is affordable to all students?

If that’s the number one issue for our students, it’s also the number one issue for our leadership. We begin every year when we build our budget with that as our goal. The way in which we’ve been able to ensure affordability over the course of the last roughly 40 years here is a commitment to an admissions policy of being need-blind and a financial aid policy of meeting full need.

The need-blind part is essentially, we don’t believe your ability to pay is a factor in our decision to admit you. Meeting full need, once you’re admitted, we’re committed in ensuring you can cover the full cost. Right now the expectations on borrowing are generally in the high teens, over four years. The expectations on borrowing are pretty reasonable. The average borrowing is higher, roughly around $25,000 over the four-year period. That’s below the national numbers. It’s eminently affordable given the average starting salary of our students. When you take into account income-contingent repayment, there are lots of ways in which the borrowing should not be an obstacle.

The difference is our financial aid budget, which is now well into nine figures. We’re $100-million-a-year-plus. It’s enabled us to sustain all this. We build the budget first with that as our goal. What do we expect our increases are going to be in the need of our students? We’ve been very fortunate – we’ve been able to unlock the philanthropic potential of our greater community. We’ve raised more money in the last six or seven years than we’ve raised in the past 222 years in the history of the university. We raised $434-odd million dollars in this last campaign. We never had that kind of performance. We’re going to try to do even better as we go forward.

Over the past weeks, we saw some significant changes to the basketball program. From your perspective, can you walk us through that decision-making process of how and why these changes were made?

Let’s begin with an extraordinary leader who served our community for 13 years as our men’s basketball coach. If you look at segments of his time here, between 2006 and 2013, you’d be hard-pressed to find another coach in America who was more successful. We made six tournaments in that period, won the Big East championship, the regular season championship three times, won the tournament at Madison Square Garden, won the Final Four. The last two seasons were difficult, but what we have is a man who represented this institution with dignity, class, honor. No one embodied the values of this place as well as John Thompson III.

He and I began conversations at the end of the season to try to determine whether the conditions were in place, where he would be able to take the program and ensure the level of competitiveness that he and we would all expect. In conclusion, it was ultimately my judgment. I determined the conditions weren’t in place here, given what had unfolded. It was with great appreciation and profound regret that we needed to make the change, but we made the change.

We did a national search. I asked three members of our community to take leadership as a working group: the vice chairman of our board, Paul Tagliabue, Kevin Warren, another member of our board, and Lee Reed, our director of athletics. They considered lots of candidates, and in the end, there was one who put his hand up very high and said this is a place where he’d like to take a stand.

There’s nobody of his caliber in the history of basketball that had the success he had as a player who has then worked so hard to become a head coach. Fourteen, 15 years in the NBA, working under some of the great teachers, he’s prepared himself for this moment. It was clear he was going to get a head coaching job soon. He wasn’t clear where, but he had done everything to earn it. I was very happy that this was the place he decided. We’re really excited to have him back.

My last question is more of a personal reflection. You’ve been the president of Georgetown for 16 years. Looking back on your term, how do you think you’ve changed as president?

I’ve come to appreciate the purpose of the university. I always appreciated, respected, cared about and worked for it. But the notion that we’re here to ensure the context for the formation of young people, for the inquiry of our faculty, and that together, we work to contributing to the common good. I’ve always known that, but I didn’t have that vocabulary so clearly articulated in my mind. I’ve grown into this vocabulary. I’ve grown into this through the work of being a part of this community. What I always have appreciated and what I have always known is that we’re capable of doing things here together that none of us could do on our own. That’s the power of trying to seek out the common good, and I appreciate that more than ever today.

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