Carrying On: Porterfield reconsidered

December 1, 2010

Anyone who has used CHARMS, Georgetown’s online roommate matching service, knows that first impressions are sometimes incredibly wrong. One of my current roommates and I unknowingly talked for the first time through CHARMS, but we did not decide to live together freshman year. We were in the same New Student Orientation group, and only after two months of friendship did we realize we had talked on CHARMS over the summer. We didn’t initially become roommates because I didn’t like Coldplay’s most recent album Viva La Vida as much as he did, and our musical disagreement colored his opinion of me.
Every day, when we meet people for the first time, we develop impressions that are sometimes correct, and sometimes not. When I first met Daniel Porterfield, Georgetown’s outgoing Vice President for Strategic Development, I thought he was just another administrator with a disdainful opinion of student perspectives.
Last year I was involved in Georgetown, Divest!, a student movement that has urged Georgetown to invest its endowment in a socially responsible manner. Last April, after we called for the University to divest from companies profiting from human rights violations in Israel, several members of the group and I met with a group of high-ranking University administrators, including Vice President for Student Affairs Jeanne Lord, Chief Investment Officer Lawrence Kochard, and Porterfield.
During the meeting, Porterfield joined the University in resisting socially responsible investments. I considered him hypocritical and grouped him in with all of the other administrators who refused to take ethics and student opinion into consideration. Earlier this semester, when the CIO’s departure was announced, I had no qualms bidding him good riddance.
I almost felt the same when I heard about Porterfield. When I heard the news of his departure from Georgetown to accept a position as the president of Franklin & Marshall University, my first inclination was to recall his opposition to the cause that I had worked hard for and believed in so strongly.
Then I recalled the second, and last, time I met Porterfield, when he spoke at Georgetown’s Take Back the Night rally on Nov. 12. Remembering his strong words for ending sexual violence against women made me consider that I had the wrong impression of him. As I read news articles and comments about Porterfield’s departure on Vox Populi, the Voice’s blog, my opinion of him fundamentally changed.
I recognize now that Porterfield has worked on social justice issues for decades at Georgetown. His efforts have helped bridge the gap between a Georgetown education and the real world, from his advocacy for the LGBTQ Center to his founding of the D.C. Schools Project. Nevertheless, it is not his views that impress me as much as his earnest dedication to improving our university and our world.
After his impending departure was announced, many of his former students posted congratulatory comments on Porterfield’s Facebook profile, attesting to the personal connection he has forged with students. It turns out he is exactly the kind of administrator I have always thought the University lacked—an individual committed to the students of Georgetown, and also cognizant of the role Georgetown and its alumni must play in our world. Every school needs an administrator who will sacrifice personal time to deliver a short speech at a vigil against sexual violence on a Friday night. The impact Porterfield has had on the lives of many Hoyas is clear. I can only hope he returns as President of the University one day.
Throughout this semester, I have found many things about Georgetown to be worthy of criticism, and it is easy to paint every administrator with the same brush. I have even used the word “administration” as a way to conjure up negative images of unresponsive college bureaucracy. But that shortchanges administrators like Porterfield, who tirelessly work for the benefit of the Georgetown community.
It’s also possible my impression of other administrators may be wrong, but the distance between the administration and the student body makes it difficult to improve my image of them, particularly of aloof senior officials like President John DeGioia and Vice President Todd Olson.
An attachment to my personal cause célèbre blinded me to Porterfield’s work in so many other important areas of social justice and University life. Beyond feeling humbled, I am glad that I was able to rethink my impression of Porterfield. I did wrong by him, but I think he would forgive me for making this into a teaching moment.

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