WASHINGTON — Georgetown University broke with tradition Feb. 15 and selected the first non-Jesuit to lead the nation's oldest Catholic university — John “Jack” DeGioia, the school's former senior vice president.
“I'm honored to take on this new role and to continue working with our distinguished faculty, staff, students, Jesuits, alumni and friends,” said DeGioia, who graduated from Georgetown in 1979. “Together we will build on our success at Georgetown, strengthening academic excellence and deepening Georgetown's Catholic and Jesuit identity.”
Jesuit Father Brian O. McDermott, rector of the Georgetown University Jesuit Community, said that DeGioia's experience as both a student and administrator at Georgetown make him a great choice for president.
“He has a deeply personal appreciation for Georgetown's Catholic and Jesuit mission and our tradition of academic excellence,” said Father McDermott. “He has a lived knowledge of Jesuit higher education and has worked for more than 20 years to fulfill Georgetown's promise as a great university.”
DeGioia has held the position of senior vice president since 1998. He oversaw a $200 million budget as chief administrative officer of Georgetown's main campus from 1992 to 1998. Before that, he served as Dean of Student Affairs for seven years.
Many students, alumni and Church officials expressed disappointment that Georgetown didn't select a priest to run the university.
“While many of us were hoping that a Jesuit priest might be found for the leadership of this important Jesuit institution, I welcome Dr. John DeGioia,” said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington. “He is known and respected as a fine Catholic educator.”
Junior Steve Feiler, a former Grand Knight of Georgetown's Knights of Columbus, agreed.
“Despite my strong sentiments that a Jesuit should lead Georgetown University, I welcome Dr. DeGioia as a loyal son of Georgetown who is otherwise eminently qualified to be president,” Feiler, of Montclair, N.J., told the Register. “Still, it pains me that there won't be a single ‘S.J.’ on my diploma.”
But Robert Swope, editor of The Georgetown Academy, told the Register that what mattered most is the person's commitment to the Catholic identity.
“I don't think it really matters so long as you have someone who is authentically Catholic and knows what it means to be a Catholic university in the Jesuit tradition,” said Swope, a senior from Hesperia, Calif. “The fact that he doesn't have a collar on his neck to deflect criticism may mean that there is going to be more scrutiny applied to the guy,” he said.
Swope however was concerned that Father O'Donovan might remain de facto president because of his new position as chancellor.
Father O'Donovan's Term
Controversy plagued Georgetown during Father O'Donovan's tenure, which began in 1989. In February 1991, Father O'Donovan and then-Dean of Student Affairs DeGioia agreed to fund an on-campus pro-abortion student group.
Almost immediately, Cardinal James Hickey, archbishop of Washington at the time, said the funding was “inconsistent with the aims of a Catholic university.”
Just months later, in November 1991, the controversy erupted again when DeGioia rejected the publication of a GU Choice pamphlet that described contraceptive use.
“GU Choice was granted access to benefits for the purpose of fostering the maximum exchange of ideas on issues related to the abortion issue,” DeGioia said at the time. “The pamphlet was outside the appropriate purview of activities for GU Choice,” he said, according to The Hoya, a student-run newspaper.
Georgetown eventually denied funding of the organization and insisted that the group not use the word “Georgetown” or “Hoya” in their name. On-campus, it is now known as H*yas for Choice.
But perhaps the most contentious episode in Father O'Donovan's tenure occurred when Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler, a pornographic magazine, spoke on campus in 1999.
DeGioia was not involved in the decision to bring Flynt to campus.
Some were elated that a priest did not become president of Georgetown University.
“The move is a chance for the University to free itself from the expectations of the local archbishop and move into the world-class ranks that its faculty and its students can propel it into,” said an editorial in The Georgetown Voice, a left-wing weekly magazine on campus. “We hope that, in choosing DeGioia, the Board of Directors has also chosen to value academic freedom above religious orthodoxy.”
Jonathan Zimmer, a junior from Princeton, Mass., disagreed sharply.
“There are a lot of students here who say we should stop being a Catholic school because half of the student body isn't Catholic, and the school is somehow ‘imposing’ Catholicism on them to the detriment of other student's beliefs and academic freedom,” Zimmer told the Register.
“They're missing the point. Archbishop John Carroll started Georgetown in 1789 not to bring the Jesuit educational tradition to the New World. At that time, Catholics were excluded from most colleges and universities,” he said. “Carroll built a school where anyone, not just Catholics, could receive a quality education based on Jesuit principles, regardless of their religion.”
A few years ago, Georgetown University returned crucifixes back into the classrooms. A student-led initiative, it was the most visible sign of Catholic renaissance on the Jesuit campus.
Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C