By now, it has become cliche to invoke Georgetown’s Jesuit identity across virtually every category of university policy.

“Georgetown University, as a Catholic and Jesuit institution, is committed to providing fair and competitive compensation packages for university employees” — so opens the Just Employment Policy for Georgetown University.

“Inspired by the Catholic and Jesuit principles of respect for the dignity of all, cura personalis, equality, and education of the whole person, the Center seeks…” — so reads the LGBTQ Resource Center’s Mission Statement.

It might surprise, then, that neither Georgetown’s LGBTQ Resource Center nor its Just Employment Policy — which essentially secures a living wage — came easily. Despite proclaiming its accord with its 225-year-old mission, the university created the resource center only as recently as 2008 and agreed to implement a living wage only as recently as 2005. The latter concession came only after the university succumbed to intense pressure from students, 30 of whom conducted a nine-day hunger strike.

Administrative resistance to a living wage policy seems even stranger in the context of recent events. In the past few years, the university has entered an extended partnership with apparel manufacturers observing ethical production practices. This fall, the university made a point to purchase T-shirts for New Student Orientation from Alta Gracia, a factory where workers earn a living wage and are employed in humane conditions.

The university made its own take on the choice unmistakably clear: “Georgetown’s newest students are wearing symbols of the university’s Jesuit values during orientation — T-shirts made by a factory in the Dominican Republic that offers workers a living wage.”

And yet, Georgetown’s commitment to ethically supplied apparel did not simply emanate from the penumbra of its Jesuit values. Students drove that commitment, largely through the work of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee, the same group behind much of the successful campaign to secure a living wage for Georgetown employees, and anti-sweatshop organizers in the 1990s.

Georgetown’s Jesuit values behave like an adaptive machine for the administration. They permit the university to wholly swallow the accomplishments of careful student organizing and incorporate them into a larger narrative. They are the university’s most-used tool for absorbing student achievements.

In some cases, this carries serious consequences; where narrative ownership might protect and rally communities, as in the case of Georgetown’s LGBTQ community, the process of co-opting history threatens to convince a community of its own toothlessness. In these cases, the project of untangling the assimilative account of the past becomes a necessary project.

And yet, more than imprinting toothlessness onto certain student communities, adaptable Jesuit values provide a much-needed line of attack. For GU Fossil Free, this means outlining a proposal that aims to “make clear Georgetown’s moral obligation to divest as both a Catholic and Jesuit university.”

For Hoyas United for Free Speech, the student group seeking expansive protections for substantive free speech on Georgetown’s campus, this means marshalling the argument that Georgetown is not living up to its Jesuit values: “As Women and Men for Others we have a duty to listen to and engage with others’ points of view. Suppressing speech prevents us from fulfilling this obligation.”

In either case, the petitioner extends an olive branch to the university: Jesuit values. To the university, the petition submits “my demand can be a part of our tradition.”

This idealizes the bargain these groups make, which borders on the Faustian. The power students gain by invoking Jesuit values is also their price: They invite the university to seize their narratives. The bargain offers the university the chance to save face.

Rather than suffer a rout, the university can instead experience a come-to-Jesus moment, push outward the boundary of its commitment to Jesuit values and move along. While administrators lick their wounds, the communications office begins to prepare something nice for the website, and students begin to forget.

Matthew QuallenMatthew Quallen is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Hoya Historian appears every other Friday.

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