On the Record with John DeGioia on the Pope, Divestment, and the future of Georgetown Athletics

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October 2, 2015

Photo: Daniel Varghese/Georgetown Voice

On Sept. 24, Editor-in-Chief Chris Almeida sat down with President John DeGioia for a conversation on a variety of campus issues. Here are some of the highlights of their conversation.

On the future of Georgetown

In conversation with the man. Photo: Daniel Varghese/Georgetown Voice

CA: I’ve been talking to some people at Designing the Future(s) and you know, they’ve been working on all these projects but the biggest concern that I’ve heard from them is that they get held up in the different processes for review, like the curriculum committees only meet three times a year, I believe, and when the meetings are so infrequent, how do you make sure that the change comes about?

DeGioia: So, we probably have a bit of a mismatch, right now, between the need for us to manage a faster pace of change, and our traditional structures for governance. We probably have a mismatch. I’ve also said many times, so you’d probably find this if you did a word cloud you’d probably see we have said this a few times: we can’t get better fast enough.

And, at the same time, we are deeply committed to the principle and practice of shared governance. And what that essentially means is, we establish these institutional structures that enable us to work through, in a very formal and predictable, consistent way, how best to navigate change. Ultimately, it ends with our Board of Directors, but a lot of it happens right here on this campus, every day. So, what we’re wrestling with right now is this mismatch, because we don’t want to abandon in any way our commitment to shared governance, and at the same time, we recognize that we probably need to manage a faster pace of change.

So while I understand the frustration of some of my colleagues, I think none of us would want to live in a world where great ideas simply got to get executed without some of form of review; otherwise, you’d be worried about people like, maybe like me, or somebody else, I mean, you don’t want me to run in an unchecked way. But you don’t want anybody to run in an unchecked way, and you want to have a pretty predictable and a framework that provides some continuity for how we work through these changes.

You’d be worried about people like me or somebody else. You don’t want anybody to run in an unchecked way and you want to have a pretty predictable, a framework that provides some continuity for how we work through these changes. Where we are right now is, the provost, the president of the faculty senate, and I have been in conversations which I think what we’ll likely try to do is to create perhaps a new structure, that recognizes this mismatch and identifies a way in which we might be able to accelerate some of these experiments, some of these projects. And I think if all goes well, we’ll probably create a new some sort of new structure that will enable us to get a balance here between the two.

On Georgetown and the Catholic Church

CA: How do you see the university’s standing with the Vatican? Were you disappointed that the Pope didn’t make a public appearance at Georgetown?

DeGioia: Yes, but of course, we weren’t expected. The schedule, and the kind of logistics for moving the pope around Washington do make us a very difficult place for him to get to. And I would say … in regular conversations I had with Cardinal Wuerl regarding the visit, it became very evident to me that it was very unlikely that it would work for him to come here, and I try to keep expectations realistic about that here.

That being said, I had the privilege yesterday to go to the White House for his greeting, and then to the Mass at the shrine. So I feel very blessed that we had this chance. That picture over there is of the Holy Father with my son, my wife and I when we were in Rome. So I do get to Rome with some frequency, work closely with a number of the congregations, these are sort of like the departments of the Vatican, we’ve worked very closely with the congregation on culture, the congregation that works on inter-religious understanding, the congregation in education.

In November I’ve been asked to give one of the addresses. Several thousand people will be coming together for a conference on education, on Catholic higher education, from a global perspective, and I’ll be one of the speakers at that meeting. We’ve enjoyed very good relations with the leadership within the Church. We’ve been helpful to the restructuring, to the conversations that have led to restructuring some of their management and finance function. I get over regularly. Last year I think I made four, maybe four visits in 12 months. This year, I’ll likely have the same number this year, if not more. We’ve had very important partnerships that we’ve established with some key institutions there. So all in all I think things are good, and I’m grateful.

CA: So given the Encyclical, and the way the pope talked about climate change, in that and yesterday as well, how do you see Georgetown addressing divestment, because we’ve said we’re going to divest from coal shares. What’s the next step?

GU Fossil Free has campaigned for the university to fully divest from fossil fuels in its endowment since Jan. 2013. File Photo: Ambika Ahuja/Georgetown Voice

DeGioia: We are. So what I would say is divestment one strategy that is part of a range of strategies that I think institutions like us need to take very, very seriously as we try to wrestle with the impact we have on the environment. We made a decision in 2005 that we were going to try to reduce our carbon footprint by 50 percent by 2020. By the rules of engagement when we started all that, we’re at 72 percent. Based on the encyclical, we’re going to have to bring it back a little bit. Because one of the tools that we use, which was perfectly appropriate, was purchase of renewable energy credits as a tool for reducing your carbon footprint. And we used that to get to 72 percent. If we take that out, which we will, we still have some work to do to get to our goal, but we’re going to do everything in our power to get there.

We view the encyclical as both a validation of the work we’ve been engaged in, and also as a challenge to deepen our commitment to the work. Validation in that we’ve made that commitment a decade ago, we’ve been at it, and working hard at it ever since. We’ve signed on to some other agreements. I serve on a group that meets regularly at the world economic forum, and we committed to a global compact on universities and sustainability, and we provided some leadership here in Washington, for universities in the Washington area commitment to sustainability. This past summer, I wasn’t sure what to expect because I invited a whole lot of people to come for a two day workshop in August. I was very pleased that virtually everybody we invited came, including many students who took some time off their summer jobs, or their summer vacations and came back to campus to be a part of a two day workshop in which we were looking at the principles of the circular economy, which is a key principle in Laudato si’.

I’d say two things. Number one: I had initiated this work before we saw the encyclical, so we knew we were going to be engaging this firm to work with us. The firm is of a visionary architect named William McDonough. And Bill McDonough is a person who wrote a book about 12 to 13 years ago called Cradle to Cradle. And if we go by the acronym, “C to C,” it’s a way of thinking about the environment, using the Pope’s language now, in terms of its circularity. How can we minimize the kind of impact we’re having on carbon, on water, on waste? And what do we need to be doing differently in terms of how we organize the way we live our lives here? We couldn’t have gotten as far along our continuum on reducing our carbon footprint if we weren’t committed to some of this, but we now know that we need to go even deeper. So we convened more than 100 members of our community for this workshop in August. We broke it down into 14 categories of work, and we came up with some really, really good ideas. Now we have a working group for the university, under the leadership of Robin Morey and Audrey Stewart, where we’re really trying to figure out how best to implement the ideas that have emerged. In addition to that, we’ve continued to work with the firm of Bill McDonough, and we’re going to try to do some even more longer range campus planning related to the circular economy.

What other things could we be thinking about longer term that are more structural, more part of the overall infrastructure of the place. And so we’re working hard on trying to get those pieces put in place.

Issues in Georgetown Athletics

CA: So from what I’ve seen of what the Thompson Center is supposed to look like after it’s constructed… [DeGioia: It’s all designed. So there won’t be any surprises.] It’s a very basketball-centric building, it seems to me.

DeGioia: Well, there are two floors of basketball. But I would say this: the attention to sports medicine and to training and conditioning would be far more than for basketball, that would be for the entire athletic department, and we need that. So that was a key part. You certainly will see the presence, the importance of basketball, and you will see how the rest of the building serves everyone.

CA: Currently, we don’t have any tennis courts on campus, aside from Yates. As far as I know the Tennis Team has been practicing either in Yates when they use the courts or at Visitation.

DeGioia: They’re at Visitation. That was an agreement we had worked out with visitation.

CA: Is there a reason there aren’t tennis courts in this building, is that a space concern?

DeGioia: The building itself could only be so big, and when we looked at the program, what we needed the building to do, we then had to establish priorities within that. When we began the designs for a new intercollegiate athletic center, it never included indoor tennis courts.

CA: Is there a plan for constructing [tennis courts]?

DeGioia: We’ve looked. So we have a complicated issue which is the roof of Yates. We’ve got to replace that roof, we’ve got to replace that field. Right now, it’s been cost-prohibitive to be able to do it, but when we’ve looked at that, we’ve also look at what would it take for us to put outdoor tennis courts as part of that renovation. And we’ve got some ideas there, but right now we haven’t been able to execute any of it for cost reasons. That would be I think the only place on campus we could imagine outdoor tennis. We do imagine it there, it’s just, the only place I think we could imagine it.

CA: So there’s–there’s no seating—or not very much seating—for, in the Thompson center.

DeGioia: No. It’s purely for training, practice, conditioning. It was never intended to be a venue. McDonough will continue to be a venue. But McDonough seats about 1,800. And it has always seated 1,800, and it’s not gonna change very much, but it will continue to be available to us for that purpose.

CA: Is is there a reason that there wasn’t any seating planned in there because I know that for a lot of the non-conference games and at some of the smaller Big East games, attendance is an issue because the Verizon Center is so far away. And since I’ve been here, the student section has gone from being behind both baskets to now behind one basket and partially behind the other. Was it ever a consideration to have games hosted here?

A rendering of the John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletics Center, currently under construction. Image: Georgetown Sports Information

DeGioia: No, I can go a bit more into detail, but no. Really for this reason, you know if you look at our our regular season tickets, and you look at our average attendance, overall, we’re in five figures. So our average attendance roughly 12,000, give or take, so some some seasons it’s been as close to 14,000. Probably the difference being the other end zone. But roughly at 12,000 to 14,000. That actually is not bad relative to our peer group, the rest of college basketball. The exceptions have always been, frankly, Syracuse and Louisville. Those two generally tend to do very, very well, and in our conference Creighton does well. They generally tend to average 17, they fill their arena. For us to be in the 12 to 14 range is not unusual, particularly for conference games and for our important regular season games. The footprint isn’t big enough, even if we were to simply design an on campus arena, the footprint where the Thompson center is wouldn’t be big enough to do more than what we do at McDonough.

We’ve got two issues, one is we would’ve had to knock down McDonough to be able to create enough capacity to build an on campus arena. Number two: we’ve never really been able to figure out a traffic flow pattern that would meet the kind of expectation for us to get people to and from a game where you may have as many as 6,000.

I could imagine an on campus arena if you blew up everything and used that footprint. We’ve seen a way to get somewhere between 6 and 7, but that wouldn’t be enough to meet the expectations of our community. We couldn’t build the place and limit it to six or seven thousand. It would be great for those games where we were on campus. When we have a game in McDonough with 1,800 it is awesome. I mean, you can’t believe it’s only 1800 people. But it would have to basically use all of our capacity for the facility, and it still wouldn’t meet our needs.

And when we think about what we need that space to be used for other purposes, athletic purposes, it’s just so much better use of the space to do what we’re doing with it now. But we had a lot of time to think that through because it was since 1951 when we last did a space for collegiate athletics. So a lot of thought went into that by our colleagues in the athletic department. And I think the program that we’re gonna be doing there is the most adaptive and most flexible, that will enable us to do the most for a program that’s frankly is actually unusual in its size. We have 29 sports here, and that’s actually a very large number.

CA: What’s your vision for the football program? So, now the Patriot League allows scholarships–

DeGioia: It does…we voted against that throughout.

CA: Why?

DeGioia: Two reasons. One, we have felt that you really try to strike the right balance between the way in which you organize your sport and its place within your university community. We only had a window of a small period of time in the university’s overall history where we tried to compete at a very high level in football, and it really has been longer than I have been alive that we have not been like that. The decision to abandon all of that was made in the early 1950s, and we hadn’t been at it all that long as it was.

So from a cultural perspective, I don’t think the conditions are here for us to sustain football at a significantly higher level. What we have right now fits Georgetown, I think is much appreciated, respected. I think the students that engage in the sport feel appreciated, respected, and cared for, in this context, but I think if we were to try to compete at a higher level, we’d be trying to be an institution that we’re not. So we found a good place that required more of us in terms of competitiveness by scheduling the Patriot League and the Ivy League. And we’ve been very comfortable in there.

Photo: Daniel Varghese/Georgetown Voice

The decision of the Patriot league was a complicated one, we were not in support of it, we made it clear throughout. I understand some of the reasons why some of the members really pushed for that, and I’m not gonna argue the merits of their case. I’ll accept it on the merits as they presented them. But it’s just not our argument. We don’t think we need to do it for the reasons why they felt they needed to do it. I want to ground it all in culture. It’s just not who we are.

Number two. It’s very expensive. I say that on the first point because if someone came along and gave us a gift to be able to fund the whole thing, I don’t think we’d accept it, because I just don’t think it’s who we are. Now no one’s come along to make this a difficult matter for me or a difficult matter for us.

And if money wasn’t an issue, we could have a serious conversation about whether or not our culture should adapt to the changing dynamics in intercollegiate athletics such that we should play football at a higher level, but the amount of money involved in playing at this higher level is so significant, and I think disproportionate to what it would mean for our community to be able to do it. Important to know that only 24 of the 65 big time football programs are actually making money overall, plus to expect base. Now that adds up a lot since a decade ago where it would’ve been single digits, where it would’ve been three, ten years ago. Now I think it’s 24 out of 65. And these are places that have a history, have a tradition, have a culture, have a conference, have all the pieces that would say they should be successful, they’ve been at it for their history, and they still can’t make it work from an economic perspective. So they’ve decided that it’s still worth doing for cultural reasons. We don’t have those cultural reasons here, so, does that help?

Two reasons, the deepest one is it’s not our mission, it’s just not part of who we are. And it’s very expensive. And if we were able to resolve that one somehow, we’d have to come back and have a very serious conversation as to whether or not.

Greek life at Georgetown, or the lack thereof

CA: Recently it’s seemed like more students have been looking to join Greek organizations that are not approved by the university, and it seems like more of these organizations have been popping up, at least over my last three years here. What do you make of this trend, and why is Georgetown so committed to keeping Greek life off of campus?

DeGioia: We just don’t find the alignment between the deepest values that have animated our community for 226 years and the values that animate this other approach, how to organize campus life. We just believe so strongly in the quality of the residential living that we provide here, the construction this campus, the efforts that we have to ensure inclusion and respect for all of our members. We have just never felt that sense of aligning with this alternative tradition.

We are confident that the approach that we take is grounded in the deepest values that I think at the deepest level we share as a community. I think people come here with this sense that there’s something that animates this place that has a profound worth, and we want to sustain that, and we’ve really felt that that is not in alignment ultimately with this alternative approach.

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