Georgetown students hail from over 40 countries and have ties to nearly every identity imaginable, from ethnicity to religion, sexuality to political beliefs. At face value, the limits to campus dialogue are few. Yet in an era of divisive identity politics, what should be this school’s greatest strength has instead become our greatest weakness.
Georgetown is senselessly divided at the community level. De facto racial segregation is an accepted part of campus life. Political dialogue is often stunted and condescending. Social identity is club based, and limited resources have made these groups necessarily exclusive.
Of course, Georgetown is no stranger to division. During the Civil War, the student body dropped to 17 as hundreds of students enlisted in the Union and Confederate armies. Yet blue and gray became Georgetown’s colors after the war to signal the school’s regained unity, when soldiers on opposing sides began to walk the halls once again as a single student body.
Common purpose is the essence of our Catholic identity. It means we accept certain responsibilities by nature of matriculation: We agree to respect human dignity, help the poor, be conscious stewards of the planet and live in communal solidarity with one another.
Georgetown was founded as a university open to all faiths. Fr. John Carroll, S.J., emphasized the importance of interfaith dialogue at a time when the Catholic Church was far from supportive of dissenting opinion. Fr. Patrick Healy, S.J., who served as university president 90 years after Carroll, was born a slave in Macon, Georgia. About a century after that, in 1969, the College opened up to women.
And then, at some point, things got messy. Georgetown refused to recognize LGBTQ groups on campus until the administration’s hand was forced by federal courts in 1985. Student pushback on these issues brought scrutiny from above. The administration slowly but steadily began to protect itself by codifying its identity as a Catholic university in rules and regulations.
As a result of this continuing tension, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education ranked Georgetown this year among the nation’s worst universities for freedom of expression. Administrators’ responses — pointing out “free-speech zones” in Red Square and on individual doors in residence halls — imply that you better behave on the remaining 98 percent of campus property.
“Anti-Catholic” speech is often listed as a primary reason for the poor ranking. But this policy totally undercuts the Catholic principles of solidarity and community. It makes organizing large groups and outdoor demonstrations exceptionally difficult. During the “Out for Change” campaign in 2007, it resulted in the expulsion of any student wearing an “I Am” T-shirt from inside Healy Hall and DalghrenQuad.
What’s more, if campus dialogue centered on Catholic identity were a sincere value, restrictions on free speech would be unnecessary. H*yas for Choice, a pro-choice student group, has existed on the periphery for years. The group contributes in meaningful ways to an important campus conversation but is refused university recognition and relegated exclusively to the aforementioned “free-speech zones.” If Georgetown administrators and pro-life students believe, as I do, that the arguments against abortion are convincing, then they should not fear open dialogue with those who disagree. In fact, our Catholic identity calls us to participate in that discussion to open minds and soften hearts. The ban on H*yas for Choice delegitimizes the abortion dialogue and removes value from pro-life arguments in the eyes of those who are unconvinced.
For many Georgetown students, Catholic means “no.” No, because donors would be offended. No, because it risks the ire of the Vatican. No pro-choice groups on campus. No access to contraception. No openly gay groups, period. Yet by refusing to engage students in open dialogue on these issues, administrators undermine Georgetown’s founding principles and alienate students from our school’s Catholic identity.
We will not regain a lasting sense of community until we return to the trust and common purpose implied in our Catholic heritage.
Not all of the needed change lies at the university level. As individuals, we benefit from engaging others on new issues and in new ways. Challenge yourself to breach the established lines, whether they are social, political or cultural in nature.
Georgetown students have the potential to spark a major renewal of the university’s Catholic identity — properly understood. In a charged and divisive national environment, we can find in our roots a universalism that aims to teach, not dictate, foster understanding, not resentment, and remind us day by day why we found ourselves on the Hilltop.
Nate Tisa is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. He is transition chair of the GUSA senate. CONTEMPLATION IN ACTION appears every other Friday.