This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ahead of the first day of classes, The Hoya sat down with University President John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95), to discuss two key campus issues, as well as his reflections on his nearly two decades leading Georgetown University.
The university has taken some pretty notable steps on the issue in the past few months — the effort to hire an archivist focusing on the Maryland Province of Jesuits, but also the school’s board of directors deciding not to take a vote on the student referendum calling for a reconciliation fee. Can you talk a little bit about if and how the university has incorporated descendants’ input into decisions like these two and into the school’s ongoing approach to the issue?
The key element right now for us in our engagement with the descendants has been a process that we put in place over the last two years — a dialogue process with the Jesuits, Georgetown and the descendants. The dialogue process is facilitated by the [W.K.] Kellogg Foundation — they’ve really done some powerful work around racial healing.
You’ve identified some of the other steps that we’ve taken: the archivist, the slavery archive. Adam Rothman has a course that goes live this fall, [“Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation at Georgetown”]; we’re pretty excited about that as a first effort to try to educate our students evermore on the history.
I think that was one of the most powerful learnings from the referendum last spring — was this incredible generosity of spirit that was demonstrated in our students: The interest in finding their own way to be engaged and way of ensuring that this will always be a part of what you learn when you come here — that you’ll be connected to what this place is trying to do and that story and how we might be able to contribute in ever-new and meaningful ways to addressing the issue of racial healing in our country.
Does the board have plans to implement the referendum?
Well, it would be premature at this point to know how we’ll best proceed because it is in this more complex ecosystem that we’re working in.
So focusing on responding immediately to the referendum, what we’ve done since April: We’ve brought together a group of alumni who’ve expressed an interest in meeting with our student leaders, that took place later in the spring. Then we had a group of board members have a separate meeting with our student leaders. And then those folks reported to the full board, and the full board had a full discussion at our June meeting on the issue, recognizing that how we respond to this needs to reflect the full context that we’re operating within.
[Chief of Staff Joseph Ferrara] has, just as recently as a week ago, met with the student leaders, and I think they understand where things are in the process. I think one helpful thing was the referendum didn’t call for it to be implemented until the fall of 2020, which I think does reflect the complexity of the issues that were raised, but also the context in which it’s being raised because we need to be respectful of the ongoing dialogue with the descendants as we deal with this.
So I think we’re going to be engaging it. It will include bringing the board in, but right now the board looks to us to work the question as rigorously as we can, and that’s what we’re doing.
Three years ago, the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation published its report as well as its recommendations for the university — many of which have still gone unmet, including a steering committee to oversee the implementation of these recommendations. What actionable items is the university prioritizing going forward? Is the committee one of them?
Well, again, I think as you saw, there was issues regarding naming and we did the apology, we did the liturgy, we did the renaming of the buildings, we’ve launched the slavery archive. We’ve done a number of pieces, and we then began the dialogue process. I think that, frankly, is what is shaping our ability to be able to respond more as we go forward. We don’t want to get ahead in other responses until we do so in a way that is respectful of the dialogue process.
It’s a public document — everybody knows what we’ve done and what we haven’t done. What we haven’t done is, I think, almost inextricably linked to what we’re discussing in the dialogue process.
Shifting gears, I want to talk about Title IX, another incredibly salient and important issue on campus. The longstanding search for the full-time Title IX coordinator has come to an end. Now Samantha Berner’s appointment to the role in a permanent capacity has led to a vacancy in the Title IX investigator role on a full-time basis.
We’re using an outside person right now until we finish the search.
Can you give me a timeline on when you think that vacancy will be filled?
Do you have any estimation?
No, I have no idea. The team that’s doing it is giving it their best effort. But we’re using an outside, external investigator until we are able to complete the search.
As we discussed in our last conversation, first the vacancy for the full-time Title IX coordinator and now this new vacancy for a full-time Title IX investigator — along with lack of transparency around Berner’s promotion to the full-time coordinator role — has degraded students’ confidence in the office, including survivors’ confidence. What active steps are the Title IX office, and your office, taking to restore students’ confidence?
Well, I don’t share your perspective on the degradation. I don’t accept the first premise.
That being said, I have great confidence in Samantha, and I think anybody who works with her will see that the office will be protecting and respecting the needs of this community in the most effective way possible. The proof will be in the performance, and I have great confidence in her ability to provide that leadership.
As it relates to me, I was responsible for putting in place the task force that came through with the set of recommendations that we’ve been implementing over the course of the last year and a half. That task force will now evolve into a more permanent framework, sort of a core response team that will be in place the beginning of this year, which I think will provide some additional strengthening for the framework and hopefully that will help sustain confidence.
This year we’ll have all first-, second- and third-year folks through the bystander training.
So I think those help, I think the fact that we did 11 town halls in light of last November’s issuance of the Department of Education’s proposed change in regulations, that we were able to put those all online in a very transparent way, that we were able to submit those and we’re now awaiting the determination of the Department of Ed.
And then we did another climate survey, and we did that in a much more comprehensive and extensive way with the AAU [Association of American Universities] schools, and we’re expecting that report. We expect that from the consortium of schools that we’re working with — we’re expecting that, hopefully in October. And when we put that out — hopefully that’ll reassure people.
The depth of commitment is extraordinary, and it disturbs me and troubles me to hear that you would describe it the way that you do. And I’ll go back and ask my colleagues: Are there more steps that we can take?
Looking Back, Looking Forward
You’ve served as president of the university for almost two decades, longer than any other president. What has your legacy been from your tenure so far?
I’m gonna leave that to others, on legacy, because I’m just showing up every day and giving it everything I’ve got. But right now, I’m very proud of everybody here. I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of this university community. I still teach, so tomorrow morning I’ll have my first session with this year’s seminar and I can’t wait.
Tomorrow is the first day of classes for the new year. What are your tangible priorities for this year? What issues are most important for the university to grapple with in the coming year?
This is an unusual moment right now, for higher ed and in our country.
We don’t really have a label for you all, yet. You’re not millennials. The label “Gen Z” that I know some people have developed — that hasn’t really stuck. MTV came up with the name “the Founders,” and their point was: The millennials did a lot of disrupting, but you all know that more disruption isn’t really what’s needed now. Now we need to rebuild, rebuild.
I really believe the university’s role is to help build institutional structures for our nation and our world. We contribute to that work of building the structures that enable us to realize the full promise of all of our people. And we need to do a lot of work right now together in helping to rebuild those.
So I think the big question for Georgetown is: Where can we contribute in meaningful ways to the common good at this point in time? And that’s a fantastic challenge; it’s also daunting — trying to find the best way to organize ourselves to be able to do that work and to embrace that work and engage that work.
When St. Ignatius founded the Jesuits, his mission statement concluded, and we do this “for the glory of God and for the common good.” The common good is that idea that there’s a good we can achieve together that we could never hope to achieve alone. Well, that’s what you bring a whole community together for, to try to work on those kinds of questions. And I hope we can make a contribution this year.