After 13 years at the helm, University President John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) has reached a milestone. The Georgetown fixture is now the longest-serving president in the university’s history, surpassing the 12- and 13-year tenures of former presidents Fr. Leo O’Donovan, S.J., and Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J.
But DeGioia says the real significance of the 2014-2015 academic year is not entering his 14th year in office, but the anniversary of his time as part of the Georgetown community. Forty years ago, Dean of Admissions Charles Deacon sent 18-year-old Jack his acceptance letter.
“I’ve been a part of this place, now, this will be the 40th year,” DeGioia said. “To this day I feel very blessed that I was invited into this community and given the opportunity to do the work I’ve been able to do here.”
DeGioia was named Georgetown’s 48th president in July 2001, after a career as a philosophy professor and senior administrator on campus. After graduating from Georgetown with a degree in English in 1979, he became a hall director in New South and has since served as an assistant to the president during Healy’s presidency, dean of student affairs, and senior vice president during O’Donovan’s time in the president’s office, negotiating the deal that sold the university’s hospital to MedStar while retaining its School of Medicine. He earned a doctorate in philosophy from the university in 1995.
“I’ve been in this office 13 years, and sometimes I still feel like it’s their office,” DeGioia said of his predecessors.
DeGioia is the first layperson to lead Georgetown, following 47 priests — mostly Jesuits — in the role.
For O’Donovan, Georgetown being led by a layman relates to the Second Vatican Council’s recognition of the importance of laypeople to the Catholic Church.
“I see the fact that Jack was elected president as a layman not only as reflective of his great quality, but also as the impetus of the council,” O’Donovan said.
“I think I would not have been able to serve long if I hadn’t been able to find ways for us to be the most authentically Catholic and Jesuit,” DeGioia said.
For much of Georgetown’s history, the lengths of its presidents’ tenures were limited by the position’s Jesuit link. The university president simultaneously served as rector of the Jesuit community, a position that one person can only hold for six years, until the two roles were separated in the 1960s.
Since then, university presidents have served around a decade. DeGioia began as president at 44 — a younger age than most of his predecessors.
“He acquired the experience and understanding of the university and its values at an early age and became president at a relatively early age, so it’s not surprising he has a career marked by longevity,” said Paul Tagliabue (CAS ’62), president of Georgetown’s board of directors.
“I was a little younger when I started. That was a little unusual,” DeGioia added. “I sort of joke, the old Indiana Jones line, ‘It ain’t the years, it’s the mileage.’ I’ve got some mileage on me.”
When DeGioia entered the president’s office in 2001, he was confronted with the university’s serious financial concerns and infrastructure needs. The first few years of his term were devoted to building new residence halls and academic construction, the university’s fundraising campaign and its commitments to faculty salary growth and need-blind financial aid, DeGioia said.
Since the mid-2000s, DeGioia has been able to focus on less immediate needs, including strengthening Georgetown’s global presence, involving extensive travel, launching the McCourt School of Public Policy and examining long-term approaches to academics.
“It’s almost been like two jobs for me,” DeGioia said. “The job I did from ’01 to ’05 and the job I’ve done since ’05.”
Now, DeGioia said, he thinks of Georgetown in terms of five elements: academic excellence, its home in Washington, its international character, its Catholic and Jesuit identity and its community.
Over the next year, DeGioia said, he’s looking forward to the university’s Designing the Future(s) programs, continuing to launch the McCourt School of Public Policy and finishing the Healey Family Student Center.
Beyond that, DeGioia said he will stay in his second-floor Healy Hall office “as long as it makes sense.”
“When I was a child, my dad was in the air force for a company that moved us a lot, and by the time I was 11, I had lived in 11 different places in three different states,” DeGioia said. “People often say, ‘How’d you stay at Georgetown all this time?’ If you’d moved 11 times by the time you were 11 years old, you might want to stay put for a while. But I know what it’s like to move, and when the day comes, if it makes sense, I’ll be ready to move.”