Christopher S. Celenza, who will start as the next dean of the College on July 1, is looking to balance maintaining Georgetown’s traditions with a need to prepare students for an uncertain future.
“On the one hand, the basic experience of the College for Georgetown students is one that really prepares them for life in a specific way, which is to say it can give you the sorts of tools that you can resituate yourself,” Celenza said in an interview with campus media. “We have to be willing and courageous enough to think that we can’t only do something just because we’ve always been doing it.”
University President John J. DeGioia made the announcement in a campuswide email March 2 about Celenza, who is leaving his post as vice provost for faculty affairs at Johns Hopkins University. Celenza also serves as a professor in the German and Romance languages and classics departments at Johns Hopkins.
A Background Rooted in Academia
Celenza has a long history in scholarship, according to DeGioia. He served as the chair of the classics department at Johns Hopkins from 2014 to 2016, was the founding director of the Charles Singleton Center for the Study of Pre-Modern Europe from 2008 to 2010, a multi-departmental study focusing on the history of pre-modern Europe, and served as vice dean for humanities and social science.
Celenza served as director of the American Academy in Rome, a research and arts institution, from 2010 to 2014.
Performing arts professor Anna Celenza, who is married to Christopher, said her husband is motivated by a passion for learning.
“A deep love of learning is what first drew him to academia,” Anna Celenza wrote in an email to The Hoya. “And that love of learning, I think, has only grown stronger over the years. Working in a university setting is so fulfilling on so many levels: interacting with students, scholars and colleagues.”
William Egginton, who is the German and Romance languages and literature department chair at Johns Hopkins and worked with Celenza in the department, said Celenza unifies his interests in literature, history and classics through his work.
“He also managed to bring those three departments together both in small, practical ways, like guiding graduate students, but also in larger ways, the sorts of events that he would plan, the kind of contributions that he would make at an intellectual level,” Egginton said. “He managed to bring all those three departments together in a way that they hadn’t been before.”
Celenza’s work is focused on making the humanities accessible to all, according to Egginton.
“We want to move away from this sense that humanities are for a cloister group of select people who can understand them, and rather really are important for society as a whole,” Egginton said. “We need to understand our history, we need to understand how to read, in the sense of doing deep interpretation and having an understanding of where our traditions come from is vital for a democracy.”
A Balanced Approach to Change
College Dean Chester Gillis, who will take a yearlong sabbatical before returning to the department of theology as a professor, said he hopes Celenza takes a holistic approach when making changes in the College.
“I don’t want to saddle him with my vision or my projects. I hope he’ll sustain many of the things that I have done, but as far as initiatives, he should be his own person and not really inherit mine,” Gillis said.
Going forward, Celenza said the College must equip its students for an uncertain future.
“On the one hand the basic experience of the College for Georgetown students is one that really prepares them for life in a specific way, which is to say it can give you the sorts of tools that you can resituate yourself,” Celenza said. “We have to be willing and courageous enough to think that we can’t only do something just because we’ve always been doing it.”
The College has seen an expansion of its curriculum in recent years, with the introduction of an African American studies major this fall and the introduction of Urban Studio courses next fall – six-credit, yearlong courses that allow students to create projects that help the D.C. community.
Egginton said Celenza has a proven track record of creating positive change.
“I can tell you he’ll be a transformational being, he certainly has in the work that he’s done for us in this last decade that I’ve been with him here at Hopkins, he’s really turned our humanities around in many ways,” Egginton said.
Celenza said he was drawn to the university because of its culture of service.
“I love the fact that so many of the students are interested in doing service of all kinds, I love that it is part of the university’s mission to reach out to people who might otherwise fall off the radar of educational institutions,” Celenza said. “I really love the fact that one of the guiding principles of the university is men and women for others.”
As dean of the College, Celenza said he hopes to embody Georgetown’s mission of service. According to Celenza, his new role as dean is not to overhaul the existing structure but to evaluate which traditions remain vital.
“Deans are at their best when they are serving the community. When they are gathering opinions from faculty members, from students and finding through energy and commitment how people at a university can best work together,” Celenza said. “I don’t see myself as a top-down dean, I see myself as someone who is really responsible for understanding what the ground-up dynamics are.”
Egginton said Celenza looks to balance competing interests when making decisions.
“Some really stuff issues on his plate, and the key to understanding how Chris deals with tough issues, is his deep collegiality and his ability to approach everything with calm, efficiency, but also just a sense of approachability and we’re going to have a conversation about this, and we’re going to put everything out on the table and see where our interests lie and try to forge some kind of a common path forward,” Egginton said.
Celenza said he has a deep appreciation for the university’s emphasis on its Jesuit values, particularly cura personalis, or care for the entire person, as a driving factor.
“On a national level, Georgetown has a second-to-none undergraduate experience,” Celenza said. “This idea of men and women for others is so meaningful. It is very rare that you see universities foreground personal development, this traditional idea of cura personalis.”