Amid Georgetown’s most active year of advocacy in recent memory, The Hoya sat down with University President John J. DeGioia to discuss Georgetown’s role in national issues, free speech and the conversation on gun control.
I wanted to start with the 272. It’s been about a year and a half since you first announced Georgetown’s efforts to reconcile with its past. How do you evaluate the school’s work so far?
It’s been a transformative opportunity for our university to be able to find new ways of being a university, and when we think about where we are since the launch and then the announcement of the working group, I think there’s been considerable progress to point to. The depth of the engagement that we’ve been able to achieve with our descendant community has been an extraordinary opportunity for our university. We’ve hosted, in here, families for reunions; our archives have had lots of guests and visitors coming in to take a look at the papers. I think I shared with you last spring, I had the opportunity to go visit with descendants in Spokane, Washington, in New Orleans, in Maringouin, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The most powerful moment for me was when you saw a hundred members of the descendant community marching in the procession into Gaston Hall last April for the liturgy. That’s pretty powerful. And when it emerged that they had an interest in connecting with us, that opened up new ways for us to engage as a university and it wasn’t something we anticipated and we were really pleased how that’s unfolded.
Just as a follow up on that, despite the efforts, some descendants still call for monetary reparations. Do you think Georgetown is doing enough to address those concerns from those groups?
Well, again, there have been some members of the descendant community who have made different kinds of requests. What I tried to do in January was articulate a set of principles for an enduring and ongoing framework for dialogue and conversation between the university, the Jesuits and the descendant community. And we’re working from that framework now with many members of the descendant community.
I’d like to move on to Georgetown’s broader advocacy work that’s been pretty active in this last semester or so — the repeal of [the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program], the Muslim ban, the initial draft of the tax bill. In your vision of Georgetown, what is the university’s role as an advocacy body and why is it Georgetown’s role to advocate like this?
There’s a convergence of a number of different things. Our location in Washington I think is relevant. The tradition on which we’ve been built also calls us to ask hard questions of ourselves.
I probably have had more activity in the last two years than at any time. And again, for me, what I always try to do is get a balance because I don’t want to be speaking in a way that would in any way inhibit anyone else here at the university. I wouldn’t want to create a context where my voice was making it harder for other voices to be able to offer their perspective.
The three examples that you just gave, in each case I try to evaluate. I try to discern in my mind what was it that the university community expected of me in my role and then what was appropriate for a university in this context.
So on DACA, this one for us goes back more than 15 years. We’ve been working on a pathway for our “Dreamers” since 2001 and I’ve been an active presence in that work for all these years. One of our alums, double alum, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) (SFS ’66, LAW ’69) has been a leader on Capitol Hill in this regard and we’ve tried to work alongside him and other members of Congress in trying to ensure a pathway for our “Dreamers.”
I think our community would expect me to do everything I can to try to protect our own community. Because I’ve been so active for so long on the “Dreamers,” and now DACA, I think I’ve interpreted correctly what the expectation is of me. I don’t sense that there are those who feel I’m not engaging in the most appropriate way on that issue.
It’s always a judgement call. We try to use prudential judgment at every step. Is this an appropriate place for the president of Georgetown to be involved? Because there are many issues that I could be speaking on. But where does the community expect its president to be speaking?
You mentioned some of Georgetown’s work on things like DACA since 2001. Do you see this heightened level of advocacy, if you could describe it as such, as a one-time thing or is it because of who we have as president?
Again, for me, it’s the issue. If DACA were being sustained, we would probably have a different approach. But because DACA is not, we’re losing the framework for our “Dreamers.” How can we restore that framework?
I don’t think anyone, I mean we’ve polled the country, I don’t think anyone wants to send our “Dreamers” back to countries where they really are not identified with at this point in their lives. I don’t think anybody really wants to send them back, but we cannot manage the political process in a way to get a resolution to this matter, and so right now I feel the need for us to work alongside many, many others in trying to see if we can get a way through this.
To move on to affordability — again that was listed as one of the top issues for students in a recent poll — it’s been a pretty recurrent conversation for the last few years. Do you think Georgetown is doing enough to address student concerns and what more could it do?
I think we’re in alignment, the students and the administration. We’re in complete alignment on the importance of affordability.
The first priority we had in our last campaign was scholarships. We raised more money in the campaign than we did in the entire previous history of the university for scholarships. We raised about $430 million dollars for scholarships. Our commitment to need-blind, full-need financial aid is the vehicle by which we have been able to ensure affordability for undergraduate education here.
We are celebrating this year the 40th anniversary of those two policies, which we bring together here. There are only 25 of us in the United States who are committed to those two policies.
The real challenge has been managing growth in cost, and that is an obsession of our whole team. Again, it’s one of these balancing acts. There’s no day when a student or a faculty member or an alum or a parent doesn’t come in with a brilliant idea about how we could be that much better. But the time we get that much better it usually has associated with it increased cost. So how do we manage the strengthening of the place while ensuring we’re managing to keep the essentially, especially, tuition costs as low as we can.
Moving on to free speech, what is the role of the administration in seeing that need to ensure free speech, but also the safety of your students. Is there a situation you could imagine asking a student group, or yourself, disinviting a speaker?
We are guided by a policy on speech and expression that has been revised in recent years, but it has essentially guided our community since 1989. We do not limit speech, either in the content of the view or the person expressing the view, and any member of the community can invite anybody to come here and speak.
But the first question we ask for any event: Can we ensure the safety and security? Can we provide a context which will ensure the safety and security of our community — protect the speaker and protect our students who might try to come here that speaker? If we can’t answer that question as, “Yes, we can protect the safety and security,” then we don’t allow the speaker to come. Since 1989, that hasn’t happened.
But if we ever got to a point where it did, I would explain that to the university community: It was my best judgement, it was the best judgement. We have a standing body on the freedom of speech and expression — it is our judgement or, if it’s contested, in the end ultimately I believe it’s probably my responsibility to make that final call.
But if, in the end, we made that decision, I would make that clear to everyone why we made it, but we have not had to make that decision in 29 years.
One last question: Last week we had the rally for gun control. Do you see any opportunities for advocacy around gun control? Do you see university policy as sufficient enough in that space right now?
Here on campus, we’ve taken very strong steps to try to provide for the safety and security of our community. Last week I was invited to speak at the rally, on Wednesday, March 14th. I was honored to be asked, because I’m in alignment with those who are concerned with gun violence and safety in our schools.
I am in complete alignment with trying to ensure that no young person goes to a school afraid of gun violence. When invited to participate, I was moved that I had the opportunity to do that. We need to see, again, going back to your very first question, is there an appropriate place for Georgetown’s presence to be engaged as we move forward? And that will be something I’ll be trying to assess.