On the Record with President DeGioia

January 29, 2015

The Voice sat down with University President John DeGioia on Tuesday to discuss pertinent issues on campus.

How do you see the free speech policy evolving and where do you see it going in the future?

Well, what I would say is that [free speech] is a lived reality here on campus. The document, the process, is something that is lived throughout. I began serving in the role of dean of students in 1985, and between ’86 and ’89 I chaired a committee that actually drafted out policy on free speech and expression. We formalized that in 1989. We also established the committee on speech and expression which would be a standing body for the university that would engage questions that would emerge from time to time. I believe the combination of both the policy and that committee have provided the strongest possible framework to support speech and expression here at Georgetown. The policy was very explicit: we would not limit speech either on the content of the view being expressed or the person expressing that point of view. This was a rather radical step when we put that in place in the late ’80s. But I believe it’s absolutely consistent with what it means to be a university to foster the free exchange of ideas and opinions. But we also created a framework in which you could challenge or question some of the judgements that could be made either by those who were speaking or by those who might have to, in some respects, constrain an activity or an event because of its disruption to the normal flow of life in the community. I had the privilege of overseeing that for three years, until 1992 when I then became associate vice president for the main campus. Our leadership in student affairs has always provided the ongoing attention to the policy and to support the committee.

Now, over the years, changes have been made to the policy and the committee has reviewed countless cases of acts of expressions where people in our community might question, “Is this appropriate?” We have language in the policy that limits speech when it is grossly obscene or grossly offensive on very specified matters. Well, people differ on those matters. So the committee has been a very responsible body looking at these very independently. It’s faculty and students. It’s available for the vice president of student affairs to bring cases for their consideration. They can weigh in on their own, they don’t need to be asked. The policy, as I said, has gone through some iterations over the years. It’s a living document. And about a year and a half ago, members of the administration and of our student government came together and reworked elements of that documents. Those were the changes that went into place last summer. As long as we live, there will be questions, issues, matters that require our attention related to the policy, the focus of the committee and concern to the whole university community. I believe we have demonstrated over the course of more than 25 years a profound commitment to the widest possible speech and expression, to an openness to examining the framework that we provide, and to regard these matters with the most serious care and attention possible. I believe there’s a track record to prove that over more than a quarter century.

How do you think that free speech fits in with Georgetown’s Jesuit values?

I have never felt that our commitment to the widest range of speech and expression in any way challenged or compromised the identity, the mission, the purpose of our university or as Catholic and Jesuit. In fact, I only see it as being informed by our commitment to speech and expression of the widest range of discourse is informed by our Jesuit and Catholic identity. I only think that they mutually reinforce one another.

There has been a lot of press on your recent $400,000 donation to Georgetown Scholarship Program.

I was honored that our board had chosen to acknowledge my service, my performance. IT was an honor. I was truly touched and honored by the board. At the same time, I just felt it was the most appropriate thing to do. I was a beneficiary of need-based financial aid as a student. I’ve been deeply committed to sustaining our program of need-blind admissions, meeting full need, and I think the GSP program has been a magnificent way of sustaining that tradition. I think the representatives of GSP honor embody the very best of Georgetown. I was honored that I was in a position that i was able to make the gift.

The University has shown a commitment to honoring financial need. Our ratio is very low compared to other universities in the 568 group.

I chair the 568 group. There are only 21 members. Some wonderful institutions have not been able to sustain that participation. But I think it’s at the core of our identity, of who we are. We are 226 years old this week. As we think about that and we think about what sustains a university, what enables it to ever be more authentic and true to who it is, we have to reimagine, reinterpret what that means in any given moment. In the late 1970s, our predecessors came along and said, “You know, in this moment, one way in which we can honor the tradition, the heritage of this university is by fostering this set of policies that will ensure that students from throughout our country can think of Georgetown as a realistic possibility without any constraint.” We don’t ability that your ability to pay is a relevant factor in our decision to admit you. And once we admit you, we want to do everything in our power to ensure you can come. That is a contemporary interpretation of what it means to be Georgetown.

Do you think Georgetown will ever be able to eliminate its loan program?

I don’t think so, at least not at the present moment. There are at least four institutions that have been able to do that—Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford—and they’re no longer a part of 568 because they’re using their own methodology. They have the financial resources to do so. And if we had the financial resources to do so, we would do the same thing they do. Among our peer group, the only one that has been able to abandon student loans has been the University of Pennsylvania. Penn doesn’t require borrowing. Here’s what’s interesting: we require our students to borrow $17,500 over four years, in total. That’s what gets packaged in our loan program. But our students borrow more—they borrow $25,000. We track that very carefully. … But the average starting salary for a Georgetown graduate is actually ahead of the national average. The national average is $46,000, for Georgetown it’s about $53,000. If you start taking away living expenses and everything else, and you look at what is a fair percentage of your income when you are out in the work force after you leave the university? The number we always use is no more than roughly 8 percent. Well, if you’re borrowing somewhere between $17,000 and $25,000, your monthly payments will be below 8 percent based on the average of roughly $50,000. So far, so good. We don’t have the resources. Penn is a little larger than us and it is costing them well over $100 million to buy up the student loan piece. I know why they’ve done it and I admire them for doing it. We just don’t have the financial resources to be able to do that and I don’t think we’ll be able to.  Now, more borrowing at Georgetown takes place at the graduate level. The vast bulk of the borrowing is actually with graduate students. But that financial equation is different. They borrow far more. But they also have a different understanding of the value proposition as it relates to job prospects. Our law students, for example, are very heavily indebted. But the starting salary and some of the opportunities they are getting are commensurately high.

How are the new grading policies being implemented?

I think it is at the discretion of the department chairs to the timing of implementation. But I don’t yet know how it’s being implemented department by department. I know the main campus executive faculty passed a resolution regarding these matters. It really is about providing faculty—and this is my interpretation—with a deeper understanding of the context in which they are engaged in their work, to know that there is a larger context in which we are participating and it’s helpful to know how one’s grades might fit into that larger context.

Do you think these new grading policies will be damaging for students as they enter the job market with potentially less competitive grades?

I think we’ll need to give this very careful attention as we go forward. … I have a lot of confidence in our students and what they represent and what the Georgetown degree means. If the implication of this is that the grading is ever more rigorous my hunch is that it will work its way into the understanding of how to make sense of a Georgetown transcript. But I think this is something that we do need to ensure we are consistent and coherent as an institution in how we bring this out. I’m confident that Bob Groves, our provost, and our deans will be working with our department deans and chairs in ensuring that. … Our undergraduates do pretty well in the job market. But it’s a pretty complicated job market—that’s worth further attention. I believe our current economy does very well in onboarding 22 year olds with degrees from places like Georgetown. But then it gets a little more complicated: that first job is not your last job. I think all of us need to be a little more sensitive to the nature of this current employment market and that we, as an institution are providing support throughout the years that follow. We’re trying to figure that out—how we can do that right now.

We recently had features on mental health and leaves of absence. How do you think we are tackling these issues as an institution?

Sure, on this one I would begin with my years as being a student. We understand the dynamics of early adolescence in terms of its psychodynamics, so a third of young people in America will cope with a clinical depression. and then we have a whole range of behaviors that require intervention or support in meaningful ways by our community. So we’re very intentional about building a safety net to catch students at risk, but also ensure that the students have access to the resources that they might need to work through a particular challenge that they may have at a particular time. So the most significant piece of the safety net are counseling and psychiatric program, CAPS. This has evolved over the years, it’s a work in progress, but it’s evolved over the years to provide some of the most powerful interventions and framework for support that I think is unique. If you’re 18,19, and 20 and you need support, this is not a bad place to be. So our effort is to try to provide that in the richest way we can.

We begin at the residence hall level in the way we prepare our residence hall staffs to be able to recognize and refer students who might be in need. We do the same with our faculty. We launched the Engelhard Initiative in recent years, which is a special set of classes where we integrate some of the issues into the curriculum itself. If you’re not familiar with that, that’s a really really cool project. I got to speak about the Engelhard project at the White House conference just a year and half ago. But the combination of the training that we do  the support we provide for our senior leadership our deans or associate deans the Engelhard Project, it’s an anchor and the foundation provided by CAPS. Jim Welsh, Phil Lowman, Dr. Olson, Jean Lorde, these are people who so deeply care in providing that support. We recognize the dynamics of being at a place like this. The level of expectation for performance is very high. Here’s what I would say. I do think your earlier comment that this is a place that people want to be at I sometimes talk about it this way: You can use phrases like cura personalis and the Jesuit principles, but for me the most powerful idea embedded in the whole identity of this institution is grounded in Ignatius’ spirituality and the used to introduce the spiritual exercises the presupposition. The pre is essentially we assume the best in one another. By doing so, by assuming the best in one another, we will find the best in ourselves. And that’s the deepest conviction on which this institution is built: to always presume and presuppose the very best in one another. I know we have all sorts of challenges in our community at any given time, but one advantage of being here for a length of time like I have is that I do think that overarching this place there is that kind of goodness that pervades the place, that people want to bring out the best in one another and know by engaging in that community project they find the best in themselves. I think that helps create an environment where these resources can be best accessed and made available to people.

In the years coming, where do you want to take the University or where do you see as ultimate, feasible, or concrete goals for the University for the years to move forward?

Well as I said, I want to try hold on to the terms and conditions that enable us to be who we are and so that ensuring that we sustain our policies of financial aid and admissions, need blind full need, that we’re able recruit and retain the best possible faculty. Continue to provide the infrastructure that will enable our faculty and students to do their best work. I’m very proud of the buildings that have come up in recent years. I think it’s really changed our capacities in important ways. But I think, we’ve got two projects going on right now, that I think are going to help us live with a set of questions, the answers to which will help us answer that. One is Designing the Future(s). The other is one we launched today called global futures, which is a companion to designing the future(s), it’s a compliment to. Randy Bass has been leading designing the future(s), and it’s really our effort to try to understand what does a university in the 21st century need to be able to do. And what kinds of changes might have to begin thinking about. We change very deliberately, very carefully, and very intentionally. And yet we do change. We’re different today than when I arrived 40 years ago. What kinds of changes do we need to be thinking about as we move into this new century? And designing the future(s) is providing a framework in which to wrestle with that. And global futures is an effort to wrestle with a piece of the puzzle for the university. How do we go from being a great international institution to being a truly global one? And what’s the difference between international and global? And what kinds of things should we be thinking about in terms of the nature or the purpose of the university from a global perspective? So those are two pieces that I think, we’re living them. If we can live those, I have no doubt that the women and men who comprise this community are going to enable to determine what’s most appropriate for us as a university as we move forward.

I was the Leisure editor before this, and I guess my fun question is what’s your favorite movie?

My favorite movie … Guardians of the Galaxy.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article mistakenly identified the Engelhard Initiative as the Angel Heart project. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

Dayana Morales Gomez
Dayana Morales Gomez is the former editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Voice. She graduated from the School of Foreign Service.

Read More

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments