As Georgetown reckons with its history of slavery, University President John J. DeGioia reflected on the university’s path forward in a wide-ranging interview with The Hoya on Thursday morning. The president also defended the university’s systems for handling sexual assault and reaffirmed Georgetown’s support for low-income, first-generation students amid the admissions bribery scandal.
In fall 2015, DeGioia convened a Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation to help confront the university’s history of slavery. The group’s report, released in summer 2016, included recommendations for public memorialization of Georgetown’s history of slavery and increased engagement with descendent communities, among many others.
Yesterday the undergraduate student body approved a referendum proposing the establishment of a reconciliation fee to support descendants of the 272 enslaved people sold by the Maryland Society of Jesus in 1838 to financially sustain the university.
The morning of the referendum, DeGioia recognized Georgetown’s efforts to fulfill the recommendations of the working group while acknowledging the work that remains.
“I’m aware of the scrutiny of our commitment to fulfill all of our obligations under, that we launched back in 2015. We’ve done several of the things — we had our formal liturgy of reconciliation, we renamed our buildings, we’re engaged in rather extensive conversation with descendants,” DeGioia said. “We know we still have some things to do and we are engaged in processes to do those things.”
The president also emphasized the importance of including descendent voices in Georgetown’s work and the long-term nature of those efforts.
“A key principle that we’ve tried to carry forward over the course of these last few years is: We’ve wanted to engage in work that is appropriate to work with descendants on, to engage with descendants on it,” DeGioia said. “That is work we continue with, and so when we talk about putting in a permanent memorialization, we want to do that together. So there’s some work that just will require — it’s on a longer-term time horizon.”
Georgetown can substantively grapple with its history by working to address the systemic issues created by slavery and its legacy, such as through work on health disparities and criminal justice reform, according to DeGioia.
“We never ameliorated the original set of issues and so we live today with the implications of that, and so the work that we engage in as a university needs to go to the heart of that,” DeGioia said. “There are a range of things that we as an institution, using our institutional agency, can be engaged in, in trying to address those underlying, enduring — the enduring presence of the legacy.”
Asked yesterday morning whether the university would support the establishment of the reconciliation fee, DeGioia said, “We’ll have to take that one step at a time.”
Title IX and Sexual Assault
DeGioia praised Georgetown’s framework for handling sexual assault, including a variety of resources to report and expanded bystander training that is integrated into campus life.
“It’s a comprehensive, holistic approach to addressing the challenge that acknowledges the complexity of the issue and ensures that we have appropriate and confidential ways to report; we’ve got a framework in which you can pursue a disciplinary action — comprehensive in terms of training of bystanders, of connecting it to day-to-day campus life,” DeGioia said. “I think the program is — I’m very proud of it. I think our folks have worked very, very hard over the course of nearly 30 years to have a program that is regarded by many as a model that you could look to for its elements.”
Georgetown implemented mandatory “Bringing in the Bystander” training for all first-year students after its 2016 Campus Climate Survey, which found that 31 percent of female undergraduates and about 10 percent of male undergraduates reported experiencing sexual assault at Georgetown. The university conducted its second Campus Climate Survey from February to March 2019 and expects to release the results in fall 2019.
The president defended the Title IX office, which has come under recent criticism from students in the absence of a full-time Title IX coordinator. Laura Cutway, who was hired as Georgetown’s first full-time Title IX coordinator in January 2016, left her position unexpectedly in June 2018. Amid the search to replace Cutway, Title IX investigator Samantha Berner has served in her own role and as interim Title IX coordinator.
“We’ve had an interim coordinator all year. She’s outstanding. She’s done great work. I would defend her against anybody who would have a criticism,” DeGioia said. “I don’t think that we could have been in better hands, and now we’re gonna bring a new member to the team; we’ll further strengthen the team.”
Identifying, interviewing and hiring qualified candidates for leadership roles at elite higher education institutions can take as long as a year, according to a university spokesperson. Ten months after Cutway’s departure, Georgetown’s full-time Title IX coordinator may be hired soon, according to DeGioia.
“We’re close to bringing closure to the search, expected that will be done imminently for the next full-time director,” DeGioia said.
Admissions Bribery Scheme
Georgetown has garnered national attention in recent weeks after being named among eight schools implicated in a nationwide admissions bribery scandal. Five Georgetown parents were named in the indictment, which charged former Georgetown tennis coach Gordon Ernst with accepting bribes from wealthy parents to secure their children’s college admission. For many in the Georgetown community, the bribery has also underscored the role of socio-economic status in college admissions.
Still, the university has made strides in seeking out socio-economically diverse applicants to expand the accessibility of higher education, DeGioia said.
“Over the course of our recent history — last half-century — we understood a deeper and deeper responsibility to ensure access and affordability [for] the most talented young people from across our nation, regardless of their socio-economic background. And 41 years ago we put in place our need-blind, full-need financial aid policy, which covers more than 40 percent of our student body,” DeGioia said.
The president commended the university for its support of low-income and first-generation students, in particular citing the Community Scholars Program and the Georgetown Scholars Program, which provide resources for first-generation and low-income students, as well as the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access.
“Our Community Scholars Program, our GSP program, the work that CMEA has done over the course of more than a half-century — we see it right now with our graduation rates of our first-generation students, I mean, they’re among the best in the country. We’re regarded as having the strongest program to support them in the country.”
GSP has a 96.4 percent graduation rate for first-generation students, compared to the national average of 32 percent, according to HuffPost.
Despite suggestions stirred by national media coverage of pervasive elitism in the university, Georgetown’s culture is ultimately one of support, according to DeGioia.
“I recognize that the perception that this admissions scandal has created in our nation, but I do believe here at Georgetown, we have a deep, deep community and a deep culture of support to ensure the success for all of our students,” DeGioia said.
Three other schools involved in the admissions scheme — Yale University, the University of Southern California and Stanford University — have rescinded the admission of students implicated by the scandal. A petition for similar action by Georgetown had garnered almost 20,000 signatures as of April 11.
The university is committed to investigating its ties to the bribery scheme but has not yet taken action against students allegedly involved, according to DeGioia.
“We have a very, very exhaustive investigation that we’ve been undergoing. We treat each of the cases on a case-by-case basis and we’ve been meeting with individuals and families,” DeGioia said. “When we’ve completed our work, we’ll make clear what the outcomes are.”
Clerical Sexual Abuse Crisis
As a leading Catholic institution, Georgetown has also had to grapple with the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. In February, following mounting pressure from student activism, the university revoked the honorary degree of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick after the Vatican removed him from the priesthood for accusations of sexual abuse.
The university has also organized seven events focusing on the clerical sexual abuse crisis since September 2018. Reacting to The Hoya’s investigation last month into 13 priests and one nun with credible accusations of sexual abuse and ties to Georgetown, DeGioia stressed the distance of the abuse from the campus community.
“We have found no case of anyone who was accused of anything involving a minor whenever they were affiliated with Georgetown,” DeGioia said. “It occurred at other times in their lives, which was small consolation, but nevertheless.”
A December 2018 report by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus recorded credible accusations of sexual abuse by Fr. William Walsh, S.J., over the course of four decades that overlapped in part with his time teaching at Georgetown during the 1966-67 academic year (“‘Sick Pleasure’: GU Jesuit Walsh Abused Nieces for Decades,” The Hoya, March 15, 2019, B7). There are no known credible accusations of sexual abuse on Georgetown’s campus, per The Hoya’s report.
The safety of the campus community remains the university’s priority in the wake of the clerical abuse crisis, according to DeGioia.
“The first and foremost concern that I bring involving abuse of any kind is to try to ensure the safety and security of the community,” DeGioia said. “So the most urgent matter always is: Is there a potential threat to the safety and security of the community? That’s where I always start.”
In grappling with the abuse crisis, the president also underscored Georgetown’s responsibility to protect marginalized and vulnerable communities.
“We need to go to the margins, we need to protect and respect the marginalized,” DeGioia said. “We need to play our role in transforming the culture to protect the most vulnerable.”