University Registrar John Q. Pierce could very easily be indentified with the spirit of Georgetown. Not only are his wife and three sons all Hoyas, but he has been on the Hilltop since his undergraduate years and graduate studies, and then stuck around in the Registrar’s Office. A man of many stories, Pierce speaks of the characters and events that have transformed Georgetown through his experiences. This week, the guide sat down with the Registrar to get a behind-the-scenes look at one of Georgetown’s most important jobs.
How did you come to work in the Registrar’s Office?
Well, I was an undergraduate student at Georgetown from ’68 to ’72, and I was what at that time was called a “day hop,” because at that time Georgetown encouraged registration from students who lived off-campus. I also needed to work to pay my tuition, and my sophomore year I got a job in the School of Continuing Studies. In that job, I learned about how to schedule classrooms and how to produce a schedule of classes.
What was one of the most interesting events you recall in Georgetown’s history?
One of the most dramatic events in my time here was when I was a student, and the Cambodia bombing generated huge demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, including an attempt by demonstrators to close down the city of Washington in May. Mr. Nixon, who was president, was determined that the city would not be closed down, so we had soldiers with bayonets fixed across the city. Many of the demonstrators wound up in the dorms here, and there was no way to distinguish students from demonstrators. They sent helicopters to drop tear gas on campus. There were trashcans burning and cars were overturned. The academic vice president at the time was Thomas Fitzgerald, and he realized that if the police came on campus to root out the demonstrators, our own students would have been injured, so he got a few of the Jesuits together and he stood in front of the main gates and blocked passage. He averted a catastrophe.
How is Georgetown now different from what it was when you first came here, in terms of technology and registration?
The Intercultural Center and its 48 classrooms made a huge impact in the way classes meet and in the quality of the classrooms. There was also a relatively small reliance on pre-registration. I remember finding the end of the line on the corner of New South, and the registration was taking place in the gymnasium. Everybody came to register two days before school started, and if you wanted to ensure a spot in a class you wanted, the only way to do it was to get in line early. People would come the night before and camp out.
What about add/drop?
The only worry I have is that students are not as assiduous in getting a complete schedule during completion, as they were when they had to stand in line. We never wanted people to go into add/drop unless they had a complete schedule. If you only have three or four courses [after pre-registration and completion], then you’re trying to complete your schedule during add/drop. The only downside of the technology [is] that it’s easier to do that, and I really think that undergraduates should have a complete schedule before leaving for the Christmas or summer break.
You connect the students to the deans and the teachers. How has it been being the mediator of every aspect of the university?
Well first of all, I have felt so privileged in my almost 30 years as Registrar of the university, and the reason I feel privileged is because of my interaction with the faculty, the deans and the students. There are times you can have intense encounter[s] — usually because the person is afraid that something is going to go wrong. Students are worried that they won’t have full schedules, faculty members can be very tense, but when you think about it, they’re like the performers being sent out on stage, so of course they’re nervous! Our job is to be the stage crew that makes sure that all the props are in the right place and that we remain calm so that the people who make the show happen can focus on the part.
If you could describe Georgetown in one word, what would it be?
I would not use a word, I would use a name, and the name would be Royden B. Davis, for whom the Performing Arts Theater is named. He was a Jesuit; he was dean of the College. His combination of commitment to quality of education, care for each individual person and his love for the institution as a whole seems to me to epitomize the very best of the institution.
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