Each semester for several years, the editor in chief of the Voice has sat down with University President John J. DeGioia to ask about the biggest issues facing the university—solar power, unionization, Title IX, grading policies. The tradition was disrupted by COVID, but as the outgoing EIC, I was able to conduct our first interview with DeGioia in nearly two years via Zoom on Jan. 12. With only 30 minutes, there’s a lot we couldn’t cover, but read on for updates on COVID policies, bystander training, the GU272, and more.
Here are some highlights before the full transcript:
- DeGioia reaffirmed his commitment to resuming in-person instruction on Jan. 31.
- As of now, there are no plans in place to implement mandatory weekly testing, but additional mandatory testing will be considered if conditions deteriorate.
- Despite the recent lawsuit, DeGioia insisted Georgetown’s admissions are need-blind, and that their financial aid program is generous, citing that the university gave more than $145 million in aid this year.
- DeGioia admitted the university was responsible for two classes of students coming to campus without having received mandatory bystander training, which aims to prevent sexual assault. He committed to completing the training, which was previously supposed to occur in January, by the end of the spring semester.
- DeGioia confirmed some money has been raised for the university’s reconciliation fund for descendants of the GU272, but could not confirm a specific number. The fund, which was supposed to launch in Fall 2020, will be announced by the end of the semester, he said.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Context: Currently, classes are all virtual, and the university is planning to return to in-person learning on Jan. 31, though multiple students have reported skepticism from professors about whether this will be feasible. As part of looking towards the coming semester, I wrote an opinion piece with the Voice’s managing editor, Max Zhang, calling for, among other things, weekly mandatory testing, which seven of our ten peer campuses have.
Annemarie Cuccia: So I just wanted to start by checking in, it’s been a while since an EIC of the Voice has interviewed you, so, how has the last year been for you and how do you feel like Georgetown’s been doing over the last couple of years?
President John DeGioia: You know it was two years ago this past weekend that we actually began daily meetings on this new virus emerging from China. It was Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and we realized we were going to need to organize ourselves for what could emerge. The immediate issue was our students in China and whether study abroad would be disrupted and then it was for China, and a few weeks later it was Italy. And March 10, I guess, was the day that I made the announcement we were going to have to go virtual for the spring, and then it was July 23 that we made the decision ultimately for the fall.
You know for me, the minute we stopped being in person in March of 2020, I started reaching out: each day I did an interview with a member of our faculty or staff to just put that up so people could stay connected to folks. I think I did 149 of those interviews, which I loved doing. And then weekly, beginning in August of that first year, I did a Georgetown this week video, really trying to answer the question of “What are they doing?”
For me personally, it changed over the course of the two years. I taught both years, I was virtual and in person, so I had a chance to experience that. I will say this—I could not be more proud of this community and the way in which everyone has responded, our students, our faculty, our staff. I know how disappointing, how heartbreaking, how difficult, these moments have been.
But when we began the work, we said we had three priorities. Our first priority was going to be health and safety, we were going to protect the health and safety of our community and the communities we were connected to. Second, we were going to sustain academic continuity to the best degree we could, and third, we were going to protect the livelihoods of our workforce and we were able to do that. And even to this moment, the amount of work that’s going on right now, we’re going to do everything in our power to get back in the classroom on Jan. 31.
I just could not be prouder, the way in which this community, everybody did their best under the most difficult circumstances, to try to bring out the best in one another.
AC: Those dates are definitely burned in my brain as breaking news posts. Obviously, there is a benefit that comes with hindsight, but is there anything looking back that you would change if you could? I know one thing is students felt there was a little bit of unclarity in the messaging, over the first summer first we were told one thing and then it changed. That happens with evolving public health, but is there anything you would change now?
JD: Well, you’ve got your finger right on it, and that is no matter how hard we tried, and please know we never took it for granted, we were never being casual, no matter how hard we tried, the need for the most effective communication outstripped the best of our efforts. We just stayed at it, we never gave up, we tried new ways. I was never under the illusion my videos were must-see TV, but they were a point to, if you just got so frustrated, you could go and see what we were thinking.
We basically had one message—we were going to do everything in our power to reopen, and I announced that on June 9, we were going to do everything we can to be open in the fall. And then what we saw was a doubling in cases at a time in which we didn’t have the vaccines. And our testing capacity, we were building it, we ultimately have, I believe, one of the best testing regimens in the country. That being said, testing turnaround time was very difficult that summer; we really didn’t have the infrastructure to be able to bring everybody back.
So it was really only two messages: we’re open, we’re gonna be virtual. I hope it wasn’t experienced as whiplash, what we tried to do was explain the reasons. It wasn’t that we had a change of heart, we had a change of fact that we were dealing with on the ground.
In the peak, in 2020, for MedStar Health, which is the largest provider in the region, the peak was roughly 650 hospitalized patients. When I made the announcement on Dec. 29 that we were gonna be virtual until Jan. 31, there were more than that. Well, yesterday, there were almost 1,100 cases.
AC: Following up on the current situation, a few things I was wondering: A lot of our peer universities have a mandatory testing regimen where students have to get tested once a week or twice a week. Is that something Georgetown has considered and what are the considerations around why or why not to implement that? And then as best you can, how do you predict the rest of the semester will go? I’ve already had professors in classes the last two days say “I don’t think we’re going to be back in the classroom on Feb. 1.”
JD: I’m still committed. We saw the first good piece of front-page news this morning that it may be the case that we’ve hit the peak and it’s now beginning to come down. The logic of why Jan. 31 is we hope that we’re going to see a pretty fast decline in the number of cases. I understand why anybody would have skepticism—all of us have had our hearts broken multiple times during these last two years when we thought we were going to be able to do more than what we could. But I remain committed to trying to do everything in our power, trying to make sure we have the infrastructure to accomplish it.
Regarding testing, if you think about the Swiss cheese model, if you think about the layered health approach, at different times, different layers have been more important than others. So a year ago, to bring back as many as we did last spring, which was roughly 25 percent of our students, we had a mandatory, twice-a-week, asymptomatic surveillance testing program because the only way we were going to be able to catch and stop the spread was to do that regular surveillance testing.
What changed? Another layer emerged, and that’s vaccination. Vaccination has been crucial, it’s essentially become the most important piece of our overall public health program. As you know, we’ve required both shots and the booster. Some of our peers may not have a vaccine mandate. I can’t explain why some people are requiring testing and others aren’t. We are, on arrival, you got to be tested. And then once you’re here, our expectation is we’ll go back into the surveillance testing mode, just to see if we can pick things up.
Our sense is, the two most important things we’re going to have in place for the start of this year: vaccination mandate, the booster mandate, and then we’re gonna up our game on the masking. We’ve ordered a gazillion N95s, so everyone should be moving to a better mask because it does seem to make a real difference with the transmission of Omicron. And then if we think it’s necessary to go back to more regular testing, we will. But right now we haven’t sensed that we’re going to need to add that layer.
Financial Aid Lawsuit
Context: On Jan. 9, Georgetown was named as a defendant in a federal anti-trust lawsuit accusing 16 universities of colluding to raise the net price of attendance by considering students’ financial circumstances in admissions decisions. This would mean Georgetown, as well as other universities, is not need-blind, making the common standards they use for allocating financial aid price-fixing under anti-trust law, artificially driving up the cost of attendance. The suit alleges Georgetown gives preferential admissions to students whose families could become donors, citing a quote from Dean of Admissions Charles Deacon. It also argues the standards set by the universities limit the amount of financial aid those universities are able to provide. Read our full story here. This is, to our knowledge, DeGioia’s first interview about the lawsuit.
AC: Handling one more topic in the news—what is your initial response to the lawsuit accusing Georgetown, among other schools, of price-fixing?
JD: Yeah, well, as you can imagine, it would be difficult for me to comment on a pending lawsuit, so let me just say this, because you probably know my role in this. (DeGioia is a leader in the 568 Presidents’ Group, which sets the common standards). We’re committed to need-blind admissions and to meeting the full need of our students. And our engagement in this program has been to work together to ensure we’re using the very best possible framework to assess that need.
Every year for the last 20 years we have increased the overall level of commitment to financial aid. We are at the largest we’ve ever been; we’re distributing $145 million of need-based aid. And the notion that somehow this is contributing to an unfair—what we’re committed to is need-based financial aid. If you want to challenge need-based financial aid, we’re prepared to accept that challenge. Because that has been the way we’ve organized our commitments here since 1978 when we implemented need-blind, full-need as formal policies at the university. And we believe so strongly that that’s where the money should go, and we distribute it in a way that every year we’ve given out more money. So the notion that somehow this was restricting—and we still are need-blind, and we still meet full need, and we meet it for roughly 40 to 45 percent of our student body with the largest commitment we’ve ever made this year. And I think maybe I’d better stop there. I have a hunch we’ll be talking about this for some time.
AC: Just to be clear, you would take issue with the part of the lawsuit that says that Georgetown at least, not to comment on the other schools, but that Georgetown at least is not actually need-blind?
Context: In 2019, students voted on the GU272 referendum to create a mandatory reconciliation contribution to benefit the descendants of the 314 enslaved people the university sold to keep it financially afloat in 1838. The referendum, which students passed with a two-thirds majority, called for the university to add a $27.20 fee for students each semester to be put towards the effort, rising with inflation. The university refused to implement that plan and in the fall instead put forth their own commitment to raise the same amount annually, though not through students. This plan, criticized by the students behind the initial referendum, was supposed to begin funding projects in Fall 2020. Currently, no projects have been funded and in December, students on the team said the university had not responded to multiple requests to meet. Read our explainer here and our most recent article here.
AC: My freshman year students voted on the GU272 referenda, and about half a year later the university promised to help raise the money the mandatory fee would have garnered. The deadline for that was supposed to be in the fall of 2020, an update was supposed to happen. Can you give an update on where this campaign is at and if any money has been raised?
JD: Yeah, I know money has been raised, I’ve raised some of it. This is a little more complex, and no one is more disappointed we haven’t launched it than I am, but it will be imminent.
Let me give you a little bit of background because the work to organize this fund takes place within a larger context of the work we do on slavery, memory, and reconciliation and also work on an initiative we launched called Racial Justice: A Georgetown response. The first element, we launched that in September 2015 with a formal report presented in Gaston Hall in September 2016. And then the second was, I had a town hall in February 2016 where we launched Racial Justice: A Georgetown response. The reconciliation fund I think most accurately fits in the context of our work on slavery, memory, and reconciliation. And there are a few dozen projects that have emerged within that framework.
Now, the timeline for launching the reconciliation fund was constrained by two factors, we can recognize that COVID is just in the background, but far more importantly has been ongoing work in which we’ve been engaged with descendants, and with the leadership of the descendants’ community. And we were, at the time in which we made the decision to create this new program within the annual fund, which is our reconciliation program, we were already more than a year into some work that we were doing with the descendant community, the leadership of the Jesuits of the U.S. and Canada and Georgetown in a process that was facilitated by the Kellogg Foundation. And that process began in the summer of 2018, and we completed it in 2021 and together established the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation. We made a judgment we couldn’t get out with our effort around the annual fund and around our reconciliation fund until we brought that to closure because we were afraid it was going to create confusion, but also we didn’t want to be interpreted by the descendant community of getting ahead of them.
So that work is now done, the foundation is set, and we are now ready to do the work. And together, with students and with descendants, and with other members of our community, we intend to put together the architecture for how we will distribute the funds that we raise. This will be an annual fund initiative, it will be year in, year out, all those commitments that I stated at the beginning will be honored, but we got slowed down. And so what I’d say is, all those obstacles are gone. In the meantime, we begin deepening our relationships with a number of institutions in southern Louisiana (where a large number of descendants live). And those are going to be institutions that are going to be vital partners for us as we distribute the funds that we raise through our reconciliation fund. So my sense will be you won’t have to ask me this question ever again, because this will be off and launched this semester. And I’m really excited about that.
AC: What do you say to students, including descendants, who feel this alternative program is not Georgetown implementing the spirit of the referenda?
JD: Well, I hope as it plays out, it will prove otherwise.
AC: And can you, is there any number you can give on how much has been raised so far, or percent of the commitment?
JD: I can’t. I’d be picking a wild guess. It is knowable, however.
Context: Starting in 2017, following concerningly high rates of sexual assault and harassment reported in Georgetown’s campus climate survey, the university implemented a mandatory Bystander Intervention Training to be taken by all students during their first few months on campus and with additional workshops for student leaders. These trainings were halted during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning no freshmen and few sophomores or new transfer students have undergone the training, which aims to prevent sexual assault. Read our story on it here.
AC: Moving into campus culture issues, current freshmen and sophomores have been on campus for a while without the bystander training that was previously mandatory. Can you talk a little bit about why this happened? It was mentioned these trainings would take place in January. Is there a plan to do that virtually, are you expecting to do that by the end of the month or push it to February?
JD: Well, it definitely won’t be by the end of the month.
JD: So let me say this. We talked earlier, our interviews were disrupted by COVID. I think this is one, I think it’s fair to say, was a bit disrupted by COVID. It’s not an excuse, it’s on us, we should have figured out how to get it done, but we will. And we will get it done this spring—we have two classes that need to go through the training. We will either do it virtually, or we will do it hybrid, or we will do it in person, but we will do it, and it will happen this spring.
It’s a deep commitment we made, you introduced this by saying it was “formerly the case” or something like that—no, it is still the case. We just weren’t able to sustain it in the way that we had in the previous years and we will fix that now and it will occur in this spring semester.
AC: Something constantly on students’ minds is the resources they have available to them. CAPS wait times have been incredibly long for as long as I’ve been here and this is incredibly important as we enter year three of the pandemic. Why do you think Georgetown’s resources fall short sometimes, and what can the administration do to fix that?
JD: Before COVID I had convened six national conventions on student mental health and we had been doing quite a bit of work internally and also in the higher ed community. It looks like somewhere around 2014 we hit an inflection point and we’ve achieved a situation where the needs of our young people across the nation are much, much greater. I don’t think that the experience at Georgetown is unusual, in terms of the demands that we were seeing.
What we’ve tried to do over these last few years is try to address that. We did recruit a very extraordinary leader to be our assistant vice president for student health, Kathryn Castle, who comes out of a mental health background. Beginning two weeks from now, a new director of CAPS will start, and that’s very exciting. We have increased the size of CAPS, we’ve got a whole group of new practitioners, and we’ll continue recruiting in CAPS, but we’re also trying to look at how can we, as a whole community, take responsibility for one another.
So for example, we added the program we’ve done in joint partnership with Timely MD, we call it HoyaWell—this is the online service many students have sought access to. We’ve had some constraints with CAPS because of licensing issues, but we were able to sustain the volume of visits through COVID.
But we’ve got a lot of work left to do. And one of the things we’ve organized over the last year was a working group that is being chaired by Professor Jennifer Woolard and she is outstanding in the area of community mental health. The program is called Cura Georgetown, I think you’ll be hearing more about that because honestly, this is a university-wide challenge. When we offered the HoyaWell to our students, we had also done something similar for faculty and staff. We had never done that for faculty and staff before, and there was a real interest in using that.
So we look at this and we say we’ve gotta approach this in a very different way. The challenges that we had identified in 2017, ’18, ’19, some additional work we have been doing internally, we have to get CAPS to the strongest possible place we can and it is on a really strong trajectory. We’ve made the investments, we’ve got new leadership, I think it is on a good path. But that will not be enough to address the kinds of needs for the wellbeing of our community. And that’s how we’ve organized the logic of this working group, how can we ensure we’re tending to the wellbeing of our entire community, and then what institutional structures need to be augmented and strengthened.
It wouldn’t surprise me that the tele-mental health piece, for some people it was even better, it was a better approach for them. Now, how we’ll do that going forward, I don’t know, those are all questions we’re gonna wrestle with. But what I hope you would experience differently in the spring of 2022 is a different kind of personal experience if you went to CAPS or if you emerged as somebody who needed to engage our resources in a new way, it might be at one of the other pieces of our program, but I hope what you would find is something stronger than we were when you arrived.
AC: Thank you. Alright, really quick, we’ve asked you this before but we ask it to all incoming members of our news team, so if you had to get a tattoo of any administrator or staff at Georgetown, who would it be?
JD: (Laughs) Oh, that’s easy. She does not use the title, she has never used the title first lady, but my wife is the first wife of a president of Georgetown, and I think she counts. So, I’d get the tattoo of my wife, Teresa, but I don’t have one, so don’t give her any ideas!
AC: Thank you very much.
JD: This was great doing this, thank you so much, I really appreciate it. It’s nice to be back in the rhythm.