John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79) stepped modestly up to the podium a decade ago to address over 2,000 faculty, staff, students and alumni gathered there to honor him.
“Good afternoon, and thank you. It is a profound honor to accept this responsibility today as the 48th president of Georgetown University,” the newly inaugurated president said.
Ten years later, DeGioia has overseen the largest expansion of campus facilities in university history. From establishing auxiliary campuses both across the river in Virginia and halfway around the globe in the Middle East, to overseeing an over 50 percent growth in the university endowment and strengthening many of its academic disciplines from business to regional studies, DeGioia has left his mark on the past decade.
“President DeGioia’s leadership has built upon the foundations of excellence and strategic growth that his predecessors have laid down,” said Dan Porterfield (CAS ’83), a close friend to DeGioia and former senior vice president for strategic development.
LOOKING OUT FROM WITHIN
Much about DeGioia is unique in Georgetown history. He is the first lay president of a Jesuit university in America, breaking the line of 47 ordained predecessors. Consequently, he is the first to have a family of his own, with his wife, Theresa, and young son, J.T.
“He really was a major forerunner in showing the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities that a layperson could lead a Catholic institution with fidelity to its religious mission,” Porterfield said.
Despite the non-traditional choice by the board of directors, DeGioia gained the backing of the majority of the community almost immediately; his reputation as a deft administrator preceded him.
Porterfield recalled that there was unanimity among the Jesuits on the board of directors about the choice.
“Fr. Brian McDermont, S.J., said at the time, speaking for the Jesuits on the board of directors, that they believed Jack DeGioia was a ‘providential decision for the next president,'” Porterfield said.
Before his appointment, DeGioia had spent his entire professional life on the Hilltop. After receiving his diploma in 1979, he took a job as hall director in New South Hall. In 1982, he began work as an assistant to former University President Timothy S. Healy, S.J.
He rose quickly through the ranks, becoming dean of student affairs as a 28-year-old in 1985. He was appointed associate vice president and chief administrative officer for the main campus in 1992.
In 1998, former University President Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J. (CAS ’56), put him in charge of fixing the finances of Georgetown University Medical Center, giving DeGioia the title of senior vice president.
Three years later, when it came time for a search committee to choose the next president of the nation’s oldest Catholic university, its members settled on DeGioia. Leaders were impressed with his work negotiating a complex financial deal to sell the clinical operations of GUMC to MedStar while retaining the academic institution of the medical school.
DeGioia’s long tenure on the Hilltop also made him a logical fit for a leader.
“He came to the job with exquisite experience. … I think at the time of his election he knew more about Georgetown University than anyone but God,” Fr. Otto Hentz, S.J., said.
In-depth knowledge of his alma mater gave him the ability to manage and transform the institution effectively. But Special Assistant to the President for China Affairs Dennis McManus, S.J., commented that over 35 years at Georgetown has not boxed in DeGioia’s perspective. Hentz agreed.
“People wondered that since all his years had been at Georgetown, he might be narrowly focused, but the opposite is just the case,” Hentz said. “His vision is very broad.”
According to Hentz, one of DeGioia’s greatest strengths is his hiring of quality staff to manage the complex operations of the university.
“My impression is that he’s an effective administrator because he hires effective administrators. What amazes me is how much he is on top of all that’s going on at the university,” he said.
PRESERVING A JESUIT IDENTITY
Ten years later it seems that any question of DeGioia’s commitment to the university’s Jesuit and Catholic identity has all but disappeared. According to McManus, of all the achievements the president has made over his 10 years, one of the greatest has been the strengthening and rejuvenation of Georgetown’s Jesuit character.
Current Vice President of Mission and Ministry Kevin O’Brien, S.J. (COL ’88), agreed that DeGioia has carried on the founding principles of the university.
“He has been very intentional about promoting the Catholic and Jesuit character,” O’Brien said.
Hentz explained that, being Jesuits, many of DeGioia’s predecessors became complacent with the school’s identity.
“In the ’50s and even the ’60s, we sort of took it for granted. There’s no cruise control in these matters,” he said. “In some ways, his commitment to the Catholic, Jesuit identity of Georgetown is more impressive precisely because he is not a Jesuit.”
As the first lay president, DeGioia engaged actively in promoting the ideals of the order. He instituted seminars on Ignatian spirituality for senior administrators and the Board of Trustees to help teach the leaders of Georgetown what it meant to be a Catholic and Jesuit university.
In 2003, DeGioia instituted the Office of Mission and Ministry to augment his efforts to preserve the university’s spiritual heritage. He has consistently chosen a Jesuit to fill that role — the singular priest in the senior administration hierarchy.
Those close to DeGioia emphasized that he personally is deeply ingrained in the Catholic spirituality of the order. He has twice made the full 30-day journey of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, the backbone of Jesuit spirituality, according to O’Brien.
Out of his active pursuit of the university’s traditional heritage has come an enhanced commitment to interreligious dialogue. Under DeGioia, multiple conferences have drawn religious leaders from around the world to campus to discuss global faith interactions and understanding.
He also makes a trip to Rome every year to meet with the superior general of the Society of Jesus, the leader of the Jesuits, as well as leaders from the Vatican. Stemming from his conversations with Jesuit leaders have come some of his plans for Georgetown’s international engagement.
“Our education must be put in service to the world,” O’Brien said. “It is both our goal and our way of operating.”
LEADING AN INTERNATIONAL EXPANSION
The extension of the university into the global sphere has been one of the most significant developments of DeGioia’s term. Porterfield drew a connection between DeGioia’s work worldwide to former President Healy’s work nationally. Healy is credited with transforming Georgetown from a local institution to a national center of higher education. Porterfield said DeGioia engineered a similar change from a national to international university.
The past 10 years have seen an unprecedented increase in international engagement. Georgetown opened a branch of its School of Foreign Service in Doha, Qatar in 2005. It has made key investments in partnerships with both India and Israel, as well as in China, a process that culminated in a high-profile trip by the men’s basketball team to that country this summer.
McManus noted that DeGioia’s work in the international sphere presented a vastly different set of challenges from Healy’s national development.
“It’s a very different world. It’s a very diverse world,” McManus said. “When you try to go global you not only have the issue of languages, but you have discrepancies in levels of socioeconomic development.”
Porterfield postulated that the university still had a lot to discover about its international engagement.
“It’s not clear what will define institutions as global,” Porterfield said. “Out of a sheer force of conviction that it would empower Georgetown … for future generations to develop global relationships now … he was committed to building the relationship because he saw the long-term strategic value.”
“A different president might not have chosen to do that work,” Porterfield added.
GROWTH ON THE HOMEFRONT
Back on the main campus, DeGioia has overseen impressive growth on the Hilltop. With the building of the Southwest Quad, Rafik B. Hariri Building, Davis Performing Arts Center and the under-construction New Science Center, Georgetown will complete the largest expansion of campus facilities in university history.
Overall university property has also expanded significantly with the opening of the Qatar campus, the Clarendon location for the School of Continuing Studies and the groundbreaking for the Calcagnini Contemplative Center in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Porterfield said that the new space has drastically improved student life on campus.
“[The expansion of facilities] drastically enhances the university’s competitiveness,” he said.
Under DeGioia’s leadership, the U.S. News and World Report ranking has stayed fairly constant from 23 in 2001 to 22 in 2011, rising to 21 at its highest. He also worked extensively to shore up university finances in order to facilitate the university’s growth.
“Clearly his focus in stabilizing the financial platform of the university has been a priority,” said Erik Smulson, vice president for public affairs and senior adviser to the president. “It gave confidence to some of our alumni and donors that we would be a good manager of the funds that they were willing to give us.”
In 2004, the university created the Investment Office and appointed a the first chief investment officer to oversee the growth of Georgetown’s endowment.
Since DeGioia took office in 2001, the endowment has grown over 50 percent to top $1 billion. This remains modest with respect to peer institutions, but growth continues to offset operating costs and provide additional financial stability.
Under DeGioia, a $1 billion fundraising campaign was completed in 2003. At the end of this month, another $1.5 billion capital campaign, which has already hit its halfway mark, will enter its public phase.
Solidifying the financial base was necessary for one of DeGioia’s other main priorities to become possible: Meeting the full need of all applicants, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“The first pillar of the [capital] campaign is scholarships,” Smulson said. “He recognizes that making institutions of higher education affordable for students from all economic backgrounds is a key priority.”
ENGAGING WITH THE COMMUNITY
Amid the turmoil of the ongoing campus plan battle, DeGioia has experience on his side.
This is his second time as president encountering opposition from the surrounding community. He inherited a contentious situation with the 2000 Campus Plan, which was ultimately resolved in court in 2003. He also played a significant role in his position as a senior administrator during the 1990 Campus Plan proceedings.
The DeGioia administration has made a conscious effort to play a positive role in the District and its surrounding areas. “Our engagement in the city … has never been greater,” Smulson said.
According to Smulson, both the construction of the Southwest Quadrangle, which allowed more students to live in campus residences, and the Ward 7 initiative, which is a partnership between Georgetown and the Meyers Institute for College Prep, have been significant investments in improving neighborhood relations.
But for all his work at Georgetown and around the globe, many administrators emphasize a single point: DeGioia’s commitment to the undergraduate experience.
“His ability to translate to faculty and senior leaders why we value the development of undergraduates … has very significantly affected choices that senior leaders make in how to respond to student needs,” Porterfield said.
DeGioia has remained active in the academy, teaching an Ignatius Seminar for freshmen in the College. According to Smulson, who served as his chief of staff for four years, his class and weekly office hours are some of the most important events on his calendar.
However, some students feel that DeGioia could engage more on campus.
Brad Hilson (COL ’12) echoed that sentiment. “I never see him on campus. I’ve been here for three and a half years now and I never see him … I don’t think he’s a very student-oriented person.”
A JUGGLING ACT
For a university president, however, the job is much more than just community relations and fundraising campaigns. Those close to him say that the non-stop commitment takes its toll and that DeGioia doesn’t give an inch.
“There is no person in this university, not one, who would ever tell you that when they were working with President DeGioia, they worked harder than him,” Porterfield said. “He has been a servant-leader in the role of president in support of Georgetown University and its people.”