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What’s a Hoya? Jack DeGioia

At 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning early last April, seventeen Georgetown students gathered in the ornate Hall of Cardinals on the Healy Building’s second floor for an intimate meeting with a man whom most of their peers had only ever seen from a distance. Following greetings from an uncomfortable-looking Daniel Porterfield (COL ‘83), Georgetown’s vice president for strategic affairs, the students—representing campus groups dismayed by the content of The Hoya’s recent April Fools’ Issue—sat down and waited to be joined by the man they were there to see, Georgetown University President John DeGioia.

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A few days later, over a hundred students witnessed DeGioia’s announcement that his office would create three working groups to challenge diversity problems at Georgetown. Speaking from the stage of the Intercultural Center Auditorium, DeGioia was calm, his words prosaic. But in the meeting that Saturday morning, according to one of the students who met with DeGioia, Jodi Callendar (MSB ‘09), the president had been visibly emotional.

“In my opinion,” she told the Voice in April, “he was genuinely upset that the Georgetown the students there saw wasn’t the one he knew and loved.”

It would be easy to take the president’s surprise at what he heard in the Saturday meeting as an indication that he is uninformed about campus life, and his subsequent Emergency Town Hall meeting as a reminder that DeGioia appears most prominently to the student body when crises arise. But his emotion and public appearance speak to the kind of school DeGioia hopes Georgetown is, and to the deep attachment he has developed for Georgetown over his three-decade long career here. In a way, the events lend themselves to both interpretations.

For this story, the Voice spoke to a dozen longtime faculty members who have known DeGioia throughout his career, and senior administrators who have worked closely with him as president. By and large, they agree that he knows the issues and history that drive student life and activism at Georgetown better than almost anyone else working for the University, thanks to the years he spent working for Residence Life, and as the dean of student affairs. But DeGioia’s positions of late have removed him more and more from the day-to-day of campus life, leaving some to wonder whether the experiences and opinions of students still inform his decisions as president of Georgetown University.

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Georgetown has been Jack DeGioia’s only employer since he graduated from the College as an English major in 1979. He began working as a residence hall director immediately after. From the start of his professional career, it seemed clear that he would rise to prominence in Georgetown’s administrative hierarchy, and quickly.

“We never talked about what he thought he would be doing in five years, but we talked about how Georgetown in 1983 was a rising force on the national education scene. He had an articulate grasp of how our location and our academics could make us a power,” Porterfield, who met DeGioia as an undergraduate student when DeGioia worked for ResLife, said. “Even as a young man, he wanted to be a part of any group that would help the institution develop into what [it] would be.”

DeGioia found himself in a position suiting these ambitions soon enough. His management skills earned him notice, something that would occur frequently throughout his career. Less than three years after starting to work for ResLife, he was promoted to special assistant to President Timothy Healy, on the strength of several enthusiastic faculty recommendations. As an assistant, he earned a reputation for streamlining Healy’s notoriously chaotic office. An impressed Healy promoted DeGioia to dean of student affairs in 1985, where he supervised a staff of over 250 employees, and became responsible for overseeing departments and a budget of about $35 million. At the time, he was six years out of college.

As dean of students, DeGioia became involved in nearly all facets of student life. He established a program to boost the academic performance of Georgetown’s student athletes. He became the faculty adviser for the popular student-run bar in the basement of Healy, called The Pub, where he would stop in for a drink some weeknights, former General Manager Mark Corallo (COL ‘88) told the Voice in September. DeGioia took the blame for the highly unpopular alcohol policy the school passed in 1987, and made the much talked-about decision in 1991 to fund GU Choice, which became H*yas for Choice a year later after the University withdrew its support for the pro-choice group.

Whereas his subsequent jobs would divest him from the minutia of student life, his position as dean of student affairs made DeGioia one of the most visible, involved figures on campus—akin to Todd Olson, the current vice president for student affairs.

DeGioia was next promoted to two administrative positions that gave him tremendous responsibility for the University’s financial and administrative well-being: associate vice president and chief administrative officer for the main campus in 1992, and senior vice president in 1995. Meanwhile, he also received a doctorate in philosophy from Georgetown’s graduate school, and subsequently joined the faculty as a philosophy professor. As senior vice president, he solidified his reputation as a talented manager by engineering the sale of the Georgetown University Medical Center—which was annually devastating Georgetown’s finances—to the non-profit hospital management firm MedStar in 2000.

“To carry that off is major,” Otto Hentz, S.J., a friend of DeGioia’s who has known him since he was an undergraduate, said. “If he had done that and retired, I think we would have been happy.”
Thanks to the sale’s success in stopping the hemorrhaging of Georgetown’s money, said Senior Associate Dean Hugh Cloke, another entity had gained confidence in DeGioia’s management skills: the Board of Directors. And theirs was the approval DeGioia ultimately needed to become president in 2001.

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From his Leavey Center office, Todd Olson has a clear view of the heart of campus. To the west, he can see the Yates Field House, the Rafik B. Hariri Building, the Southwest Quad, the Harbin athletic field, and the bare expanse of earth where the new science building will eventually stand. Healy Hall’s austere towers peek out over the roof of the Bunn Intercultural Center to the south. It is a fitting view for the man DeGioia relies upon to take the pulse of campus and report back about the state of student life.

DeGioia’s responsibilities preclude all but the broadest management of main campus affairs. Erik Smulson (COL ‘89), DeGioia’s chief of staff, wrote in an e-mail that demands on his time typically include meetings with faculty, Jesuits, administration leaders, alumni, student groups, and foreign dignitaries. In the past two weeks, he has gone to Florida to attend a meeting hosted by the Knight Commission, a group concerned with college athletics, travelled to New York City to host a town hall with alumni and friends about the University’s upcoming capital campaign, and attended a dinner in honor of the Rabbi Harold White. Today, he will greet Kapil Sibal, India’s minister of human resource development and Education and 20 Indian educators “for a workshop with Georgetown faculty,” Smulson wrote.

“You have to understand, the institution is a three-campus, $990 million operation with thousands of stakeholders,” Porterfield said. “It’s as complex an organization financially, legally, hierarchically that exists in American life … Ultimately what the institution needs of the president is for him to be [its] chief executive.”

DeGioia leaves it up to a group of thirteen vice presidents, deans, and directors to translate his broad directives into policies that affect students and faculty on Georgetown’s main campus.

Although many of them regularly communicate with the president about their offices, they primarily report to Provost James O’Donnell, who describes himself as the “man who makes the trains run on time” for DeGioia. For example, O’Donnell said, the admissions dean reports his budget and the specific recruitment methods only to O’Donnell, who presents broadly to DeGioia the goals and plans of that year’s admissions process.

“When we talk about building the science building out back there, the president has the ultimate power to approve what we’re doing, and he’s the one in consultation with the CFO and the board,” O’Donnell said. “But he expects me to go away with deans and financial officers and make the financial plan that will get us in the position to build it.”

Rather than micromanage the University, the vice presidents interviewed for this piece said, DeGioia affects campus life indirectly, laying out his vision for the school, which different campus departments must then work to fulfill. DeGioia is concerned with the specifics of student life, Georgetown academics, and faculty composition to the extent that these factors contribute to his hopes that Georgetown will become a globally known, academically prestigious, and financially stable institution where important intercultural and interreligious dialogue take place.

The effects of DeGioia’s vision, his vice presidents said, are evident in the new partnerships and institutions that have appeared since he came into office: the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs; the law school in London; and the School of Foreign Service Campus in Qatar. His presidency has also been marked by new policies such as the pledge for more need-blind financial aid in the upcoming capital campaign.

Longtime faculty members interviewed by the Voice said that DeGioia’s three immediate predecessors affected the University in the same way—enforcing a singular set of goals instead of directing the day-to-day activity of campus life. DeGioia has always seen Georgetown as a preeminent university, and therefore dedicated his presidency to continuing the fundraising and recruiting initiatives his predecessor, Robert Henle, S.J., had begun—initiatives Georgetown needs to achieve national prominence.

As a manager, DeGioia’s style is decidedly collaborative and consensus-building. He is not a pushover, but “he has a talent for finding out who knows best about what, and he’s not shy about calling them up,” Hentz said. “When he’s addressing an issue, he sees all of the points on the compass.”

Wayne Davis, who is the chair of the Philosophy Department and the president of the faculty senate, said that when hiring faculty, DeGioia is likely to defer to the suggestions of the search committees he appoints. And despite ongoing tensions between the University and the surrounding Georgetown neighborhood, veteran Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said that—thanks to DeGioia and his openness with local leaders—community relations are better now than he has ever seen them.

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Administrators seem aware of occasional student grumblings that DeGioia is aloof and under-involved in campus life on Georgetown. Speaking to the President’s limited on-campus presence, Cloke said emphatically that a president who acted like he was “the mayor of Georgetown, out on the streets everyday” would be a president who was not doing his job.

“I don’t think you have to be immediately there for everyone in these moments to convince people that the institution is concerned about them,” he said. “I think at some point it’s a waste of somebody’s time. It’s like Obama going to Copenhagen for the Olympics.”

Even students who understand DeGioia’s staggering number of time commitments, however, say that he could do a lot to improve his interactions with the student body.

“DeGioia is a great leader for Georgetown who has helped solidify our status as a major research university, but he and the student body would benefit if he had a bit more non-ceremonial exposure on campus,” Eden Schiffman (COL ‘08), who was the speaker of the Georgetown University Students’ Association, and worked with the President’s Office while at Georgetown, wrote in an e-mail. “Students want to hear … his vision for Georgetown beyond the ‘Global University’ tagline.”

For the past couple of years, DeGioia’s campus absenteeism has also made him a regular target in student publications. The Hoya has lampooned him in past April Fools’ Issues. Jack Stuef (COL ‘10), the editor of the satirical Georgetown Heckler, has used his publication—and a fake Twitter feed impersonating DeGioia, which Twitter shut down in June at the request of the University—to build an elaborate caricature of the president as a crass, sloppy-joe loving, clueless buffoon.

“I just sort of derive from what little sense I’ve got of him that he is aloof and … he very often doesn’t seem to know what’s going on on campus,” Stuef said. “He just kind of finds out about things a week later.”

Since he has been president, few students have chafed at his perceived detachment from campus more than the members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning working groups founded just before he became president. In 2001, the groups suggested that the University fund an LGBTQ resource center like the Women’s Center and appoint a full-time resource coordinator. The University created the position of part-time resource coordinator in 2002, but no one who held that position was given an office until 2006—and only after heavy student lobbying. It took an attempted student sit-in in DeGioia’s office in 2007, following two campus hate crimes, for DeGioia to authorize the full-time resource center.

Even students who have worked with the resident on his office’s initiatives, such as these working groups, do not necessarily encounter the president more frequently than their peers. Many members of the diversity working groups, for example, have only met with DeGioia once since they began their work. Much in the same way he runs the University, DeGioia relies on his vice presidents to keep him informed of the groups’ progress.

Ryan Wilson, (COL ‘12), the co-chair of the working group that will make recommendations about University admissions, is not altogether disappointed by this.
“Day to day, I think that DeGioia could be more present. Day to day, he is not as involved with the student body as he could be,” Wilson said. “But he has placed his top guys—Todd Olson, [Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity] Rosemary Kilkenny, the Provost—on this and some other big [student-driven] initiatives.”

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It was because of his talent for management and his success as a senior vice president that DeGioia was chosen eight years ago to be Georgetown University’s 48th president. When then-President O’Donovan announced his intention to retire, DeGioia seemed to many like a natural candidate to take his place. Pietra Rivoli, a business school professor who sat on the selection committee, said that the 23-person committee tasked with finding O’Donovan’s replacement interviewed tens of candidates, Jesuit and non-Jesuit alike, from private sector, educational, and public policy backgrounds, but that none of them evinced the knowledge of Georgetown that DeGioia had.
“He knows where the light switches are in every building,” Rivoli said.

Government professor and former head of the Main Campus Executive Faculty Anthony Arend, another member of the selection committee, added that DeGioia’s vision for Georgetown “resonated with the search committee. It signaled an understanding of the University and a real sense as to where Georgetown should move in the next century.”

Rivoli said DeGioia also showed unparalleled enthusiasm for the University.
“He was spellbinding, he was captivating. That’s why he is where he is today,” she said. “An interview would finish and we’d all look around at each other and sometimes it would be, ‘Meh, I don’t think so,’ but with Jack, I remember we would all just look around at each other and say, ‘Wow.’”

The selection committee passed their recommendations on to the Board, which unanimously voted for DeGioia. On February 16, 2001, the Board announced its decision to appoint the first lay president of Georgetown University.

DeGioia had already assumed the powers of the presidency when the Septemeber 11 attacks happened, although his inaugural ceremony had not yet taken place. Many in the Georgetown community felt that DeGioia’s reaction to the attacks epitomized what makes him the right leader for Georgetown University.

Within hours of the attacks, DeGioia, like school administrators across the country, spurred the University to secure the campus and account for its students, faculty, and staff. And just as quickly as he had ordered the Department of Public Safety to shut down most incoming vehicular traffic, DeGioia assembled a group of students and administrators, tasking them with responding to the emotional needs of Georgetown’s community. Arend and former GUSA President Ryan DuBose (COL ‘02) recalled that DeGioia wanted to know what resources Georgetown could give to its student groups and athletic teams to turn them into impromptu support groups. Was there anything the University could do financially to help students who might need to get to their families in other parts of the country?

By the end of the day, DeGioia had attended and spoken at Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim services across campus—an extremely important gesture, Arend said, at a school whose community expects spiritual as well as administrative leadership from its president. At the Muslim service, Wayne Davis said, DeGioia sought to reassure those attending that the Muslim community was welcome at Georgetown.

“What I’m sort of reflecting is the community came together, and President DeGioia was our leader,” Arend said. “And it was a moment like that you say to yourself, ‘This is the man we want to be president.”

Photography by (ordered sequentially): Lexie Herman, Hilary Nakasone, Helen Burton, Shira Saperstein, Matthew Funk, Helen Burton, Jue Chen, Helen Burton, Courtesy James O’Donnell, Jackson Perry



6 comments on “What’s a Hoya? Jack DeGioia
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  5. Fiore on said:

    Eh, maybe he’s that great.
    But my lasting memory of him will be the comically evasive speech he gave during commencement weekend. I had to look up what sport he played at Georgetown even after he “recounted” his time on the team to us.
    I hope he’s not that evasive while doling out his vision.

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