Forty-one years after stepping down as president of Georgetown University, Fr. Gerard Campbell, S.J. still lives in the Jesuit community here, in a spacious third-floor room in Wolfington Hall.
At 91, he’s much older now than he was when he led the university from 1965 to 1969, but although he wears a hearing aid and talks with some difficulty, he can still speak with some vehemence about one of the issues that occupied his presidency.
“I saw some academic freedom problems, and it came from Rome – the Vatican,” he said. “They were trying to control what we could say and do . and I and a number of other university presidents simply said: `We’re going to do it anyway.'”
This message of defiance came in the form of the Land O’Lakes statement, a 1967 declaration signed by Campbell and his eventual successor, Fr. Robert J. Henle, S.J, along with the presidents of Notre Dame, Boston College, Fordham University and Saint Louis University.
When asked how the leadership of the church responded, Campbell laughed.
“They were mad,” he said. “They said, you have to withdraw it. And all of us at Land O’Lakes simply said no.”
The purpose of the Land O’Lakes statement, said Chester Gillis, dean of the College and Amaturoprofessor of Catholic studies, was to give Georgetown academic credibility.
“It was an attempt to protect intellectual freedom, in part, to be able to function as a university . that is not behold to an outside power and ideology, perhaps, that might inhibit research or the possibility to pursue questions to their intellectual end.”
It was not, he said, an attempt to distance Georgetown from its Catholic identity. But Georgetown’s growth since the Land O’Lakes statement has opened this point to debate.
“Georgetown’s seen as very secular – it’s sold its soul,” Fr. John O’Malley, S.J., a professor of theology, said. “The idea is `OK, you’re a great university, so are your students saving their souls?'”
These concerns began around the time of the Land O’Lakes statement, says R. Emmett Curran, an emeritus professor of history and author of a three-volume history of Georgetown set for publication next month.
“Since the late ’60s there has been . a strong perception of Georgetown betraying its principles,” he said. “It was in the air when I arrived [at] Georgetown in the ’70s, and it goes directly back to those actions that Campbell took.”
Campbell, Curran said, also reformed Georgetown’s board of directors to add, for the first time, lay people.
“That effectively separated the university from the rule or control of the Society of Jesus,” he said. “No longer could Jesuit superiors simply send people to Georgetown, whether to be president or a chemistry teacher. . They would have to be hired by the same process as for lay people.”
The university, Curran said, feared losing government funding if it remained religious – and simply suffered from a lack of talented Jesuits to fill the board.
Campbell himself echoed that latter argument. “[The board] was just too inbred,” he said. “All the Jesuits were members of the community; it didn’t get enough outside help.”
Today, the board retains only a small Jesuit presence – three members out of a total of 40. But Gillis said that that did not mean the board had lost its awareness of Georgetown’s Jesuit spirit.
“I spoke with a director last week . who is on the board of another major university, and a very fine one, and I asked him what his experience [on the board] was like,” Gillis said. “He said, `I’ve noted a significant difference is the emphasis on the spiritual at Georgetown. This does not happen on the other board I’m on.'”
Just eight years after Campbell left the presidency, it was the turn of Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J. to make his mark on the institution.
“He was committed to making Georgetown into a top-tier research university,” R. Bruce Douglass, an associate professor of government, said. “He was anxious to turn Georgetown into the kind of institution it has become: cosmopolitan, aspiring to be an elite university.”
In large part, he succeeded: During his 13 years as president, the university’s endowment ballooned and admissions surged – and the basketball team won a national championship.
Yet he, too, was aware of the tension between academic success and Georgetown’s identity. “Healy once told the Jesuit community at Georgetown that he was confident that Georgetown had become an excellent university, but he was worried about how much it would remain a Catholic university,” Curran said.
“His bedrock principle was that the university needed to be autonomous of any outside authority, including the Church,” he added. “At the same time, he was deeply and authentically Catholic. Those two things were certainly in tension.”
Since Healy’s tenure, questions about Georgetown’s identity have endured, although with varying intensity.
“I think it becomes a matter of controversy,” Douglass said, “when some issue arises that brings that topic to the forefront of people’s attention.”
In the late 1980s, for example, the issue was gay rights. GU Pride had just been formed and wanted the university’s recognition, Curran said. When the university proved unwilling, the organization sued and eventually, after a long stretch of litigation, the university settled.
Now, it may be Plan A: Hoyas for Reproductive Justice, a campus group that angered many last year when some of its members chained themselves to the John Carroll statue in front of Healy Hall to protest the university’s policy on contraception.
But to many, including Gillis, the existence of groups like Plan A does not fundamentally threaten Georgetown’s Catholic identity.
“Yes, I do think there’s a place for free speech on a Catholic university – and dissent – yes,” he said. “Does that mean we are going to enfranchise their principles and their particular positions? No, we’re not.”
Besides, he said, he embraces the challenges of diversity.
“I would not want a place without that tension, that isn’t aspiring for academic excellence of the highest standard and doing that in the context of maintaining its commitments and its identity and its history. That’s a healthy tension.”