Catholic University of America President John Garvey: ‘I Love Catholic Higher Education’

Outgoing CUA president remains committed to fostering intellectual and moral culture on campus. He is stepping down from his post June 30, 2022.

Catholic University President John Garvey speaks on campus.
Catholic University President John Garvey speaks on campus. (photo: CUA)

The Catholic University of America’s president has announced he is stepping down at the end of the school year. President John Garvey’s time at the university has widely been recognized as a period of strengthening Catholic identity and shoring up the academic offerings in the intellectual Catholic tradition and the cultural tradition of the Church. His work has paid off: Student retention has increased, and fundraising goals have been topped at record levels. 

John Garvey gave an interview Sept. 22 to the Register’s editor in chief, Jeanette De Melo, and senior editor, Joan Desmond, for EWTN’s Register Radio Sept. 25 show.  The radio interview has been edited for print.

Garvey was educated at the University of Notre Dame and Harvard Law School. He taught at Notre Dame Law School and served as the dean of Boston College Law School. He has been president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., since 2010. And he is only the third layperson who has held that position at the university. He’s married to Jeanne Garvey, and they have five adult children and 25 grandchildren. 

In his letter to the CUA community, when he announced the end of his tenure, Garvey said, “I became president of The Catholic University of America in 2010, hoping I would contribute something to build up the institution. I did not foresee how much I would fall in love with it.” 

De Melo: President Garvey, thank you so much for joining us for this conversation. I want to know about your CUA “love story.” How did you fall in love with the university? 

Garvey: Thank you for having me. One of the first questions that the board asked me after offering me the job was where did I think we would live. And I said I thought we’d like to live on the campus, if that was possible, because we’d like to be near the students. I think that was the first part of falling in love with the school: getting to know the students and seeing them at Mass in the morning, in the dining hall, working around our offices, being in classes that I taught. It is a really inspiring thing for somebody who is my age and whose own children are now having children to be around young people and see their energy, their interests, the things that they love doing.


De Melo: Absolutely. And, of course, the past couple of years, with the COVID pandemic, Catholic University really kind of led in a way, in keeping campus open when a lot of other places, especially in the District of Columbia, didn’t. So I’m sure that gave you even more of an opportunity to spend time with those students, who were probably very grateful to be back on campus.

Garvey: Yes, it is related to what I was talking about. There are certain things that you can do on Zoom or on Skype. You can communicate information and see people and wave to them. But for the kind of life that students, especially undergraduates, are living in college, the sort of growth that they experienced between 18 and 22, that’s not something you can do on video. You’ve got to live together with them. 

It was a really difficult period for all college students and for all young people. 

So it was really wonderful for us to be able to bring all our freshmen back in the fall and everybody back in the spring of last year. We were more open than anybody else in the district.


De Melo: Back in 2011, after your first year as the university’s president, Joan Desmond spoke with you for a piece called “On the Record With John Garvey, CUA President,” which covered a range of issues, including your vision of Catholic higher education and also concerns about religious freedom.  Over the years, the two of you had many conversations; and with that rapport you’ve built, it is fitting Joan be a part of this conversation.  

Desmond: President Garvey, I have so many great memories of watching you on the public stage, visiting the university, attending lectures that you gave on topics having nothing to do really with your administrative work, not to mention covering your legal arguments in a variety of forums. So, you are heading into your last year as president at CUA: What are some of your hopes and maybe some unfinished business?

Garvey:  I had worked at Notre Dame and Boston College and here, but I spent the first half of my career at public universities, at the University of Kentucky, where all our kids were born, and the University of Michigan. But I became interested in Catholic higher education just about the time that the Church started paying careful attention to what its universities were doing. Ex Corde Ecclesiae was published in 1990. And for the next decade, the American Catholic bishops worked at writing a document on application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States. And their hope was to revitalize and, in some cases, save Catholic higher education from going down the same path that America’s great Protestant universities had gone down. Most people probably don’t think of it this way. But Harvard University and Yale University and Princeton and University of Chicago all began as religious schools, as congregational or Presbyterian or Baptist schools. But, over time, they kind of pushed religion to the periphery and their divinity schools, and then more or less forgot about it altogether. Harvard has just hired an atheist as its chaplain. And that’s the direction American Catholic higher education and other Catholic universities around the world were heading. 

This was really important to me, because I love higher education, I love Catholic higher education, and I wanted to do something about it. So I worked at that in my other positions at Catholic schools, and at Catholic University, I thought I might have a chance to do something about building up the Catholic intellectual life here by serving as president. So that was my ambition. And I hope that’s a path we continue down.


Desmond: Ex Corde Ecclesiae came out in 1990, and here we are in 2021. So much has happened since then. The Holy Father’s document has inspired a debate over heterodox teachings in Catholic universities, but you’ve said before that the Holy Father (John Paul II) was actually primarily more concerned with what a student would find at a Catholic university that he or she could not find somewhere else. What is so unique now about a Catholic university, especially at this time, with our world politics, cancel culture and the decline of the Western canon? A lot has happened in these decades.

Garvey: Yeah, it has. When the encyclical was published, there was a lot of excitement over the requests that faculty and theology in philosophy who were teaching courses related to the Church’s magisterium receive a mandate from the bishops. So people tended to think that it was a document primarily about that. It wasn’t. The most important sentence in the document was St. John Paul saying that, at a Catholic university, if they are not to lose their Catholic faith, a majority of the faculty should be people who themselves are Catholic. The American Catholic bishops said the same thing: that they shouldn’t just be Catholic and have been baptized, but be committed to the witness of the faith. It is about the kind of intellectual life that we are building here at the university — and it’s every bit as important in literature classes and in music and art and drama, in what we do in our nursing schools and what we do in our business and law schools, as it is in theology. So finding people to join in this enterprise is the primary job of a president and deans and department chairs.


De Melo: That’s a great point that you raise. You have done so much at Catholic University in that regard. I think of the two schools that you opened within the university, the school for business and, of course, the school that deals with the arts and culture. And those both play into what you just said: It’s about more than just the kind of strict Catholic intellectual tradition — it’s how that plays out in the way these men and women are going to leave the school and enter into their professional lives and their social lives. And both of those schools strike me as really helping form them in that. You’ve boosted this Catholic identity through the help of hiring key players. And you’ve done that through the help of donors who have helped you along the way. 

Garvey: One of the best lessons in humility that you get from being in a position like the one I am in is how little you actually do to change the institution. The work is done by other people. In my case, I’ve been fortunate to have some of the most capable vice presidents and provosts, directing the academic affairs, raising money, tending to our physical plant and the health of our employees, looking out for our students and in ministry, in athletics, and housing, and so on. And a step closer to the students, the people who work in student affairs, the faculty who teach them in classes, that’s really what makes the change in the university. And I think what makes the university special is the people we have doing those jobs.

Desmond: One of my favorite initiatives of yours was a real shot across the bow pretty early on, and that was a return to single-sex dorms for freshmen. What was the reaction to that? And why was that important for you?

Garvey: You know, this is something that I announced on my first day of work. It was July 1, 2010. I was going around visiting with people, and I had a visit with the woman who was then our vice president for student affairs, and I said, “Okay, so now, we’re going to be going back to single-sex dorms. I’ll give you a year to figure out how to do that. But we’re going to do it.” 

So … that was my role, in that I just said: We’re going to do it. A year later, we did have a plan. And the plan was to phase it in over three years so that nobody was surprised by it. Everybody came here knowing this was going to be the situation. 

So, year one, it was true, in the freshman dorms and so on. But the morning it was announced I was in California raising money. So we were three hours behind the East Coast. And I opened my mail, and I got an email from a young woman who was a doctoral student at Yale. And she said: I just love what you’re doing there. I wish I’d had that option at Yale. I had to live in a coed dorm, and imagine seeing somebody in the bathroom that you didn’t want to see in the morning.

I thought, well, that’s really nice. And then, all of a sudden, the phone blew up. And I thought, what if I destroyed our business plan? I mean, what if nobody comes here next year when all the students who said they were coming to Catholic [University] decided that they’d rather go somewhere else. So, for about a couple of weeks, it was all the rage. I was on TV for CBS, for Fox. I was on National Public Radio. I was in The Washington Post, and I wrote a piece about it for The Wall Street Journal. And one of my daughters was working in London at the time; she said it was the most-frequently-read article in The Wall Street Journal that week in Western Europe. So people were all fired up about it. 

I had innumerable conversations about it. What I kept saying was: Give me one good reason why we should put them together. I mean, I can give you three why we shouldn’t. First of all, just some modesty, when you’re sleeping and bathing and dressing, is befitting for people this age. But there’s also the fact that binge drinking and hooking-up rates are double and triple what they are in single-sex dorms. So, there’s that, and [those students in that drinking and hook-up environment] have more mental-health problems — they do worse in school — and so on. So why should we put them together? And people would say: Well, you know, they’re going to graduate in a year, and they’ll be living side by side, in one apartment next to another. And I would say: Yeah, what, like it takes practice? It turned out to be a nothing burger — I mean, the students were happy. And it was a big win! 

Desmond: When I met you in 2011, the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate had just kicked off then. That suddenly pivoted you into another perhaps-unexpected role. You were playing a role expressing your views on religious freedom, bringing Catholic University into the equation. Why was that important? And how did that help define your tenure at the university?

Garvey: It was important for two reasons. First of all, it’s not a fight that we went looking for. But it came to us, and I got involved in it because it was going to mean that we were going to be handing out contraceptives to our students at a time when we were trying to teach them about the virtue of chastity. So I just didn’t want that to happen. 

But the second reason why it was important to us was that we’re the national university of the Catholic Church, the place where the Church should be doing its thinking. So it was incumbent on us to say something to the culture about whether this was a good idea or not, and we thought it was a really bad idea. So I got involved in a number of, not just discussions, but active and meaningful debates about religious liberty in the first instance because it matters to our students and in the second instance because it’s part of what our faculty need to educate the world about.

De Melo: President Garvey, you are the third lay leader of Catholic University of the 15 presidents who have served there. Is this is an important aspect of your leadership? Did it make a difference in this moment? 

Garvey: You know, it was something that the search committee was actively looking for when they hired me. I remember spending an evening with Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan, and he was on the search committee. … 

He was saying, you know, we prefer — all things considered — to have a priest, I said: I happen to agree with you about that; it would be a good thing for the Church’s university to do that. But, you know, if you can’t find the right person to do the job, I’d be happy to serve. I found when I came here that there were things that Father [David] O’Connell, now-Bishop O'Connell, did as a regular part of his job that I wasn't capable of doing. We begin the year with a Mass of the Holy Spirit, which he would celebrate on behalf of the community. And same with the baccalaureate Mass or weekly Masses with the students; you know, I attend them, but I’m just a guy like the students in the congregation. So that’s a very different thing. And it’s an important thing in the life of the Church. So there are real advantages to having a priest as the president. I found in my time that there were also things that I could do that a priest couldn’t do. I mean, take the business of going to same-sex dorms, especially at a time when the Church has a big target on its back on issues of sexual abuse. It was possible for me to say to the students: “Look, I know what I’m talking about. I’m married, I’ve got five kids, and I now have 25 grandchildren. I know what sex is about. I sent five kids to college. I know what goes on in college. I don’t want to give you that stuff — we are going back to single-sex dorms.” And nobody could dispute what I’m saying. Not just in what I say, you know — my wife lives here with me. And she has been as present to the life of the students as I have. We walk around campus; we eat with them; we have them for dinner at our house. We’ll have students in the president society working for us; kids will come to our home, and knock on the door, and ask to borrow our sleds or walk the dog. We have a rule of thumb: Students can come and sign out the dog; that way we don’t have to take him.

We see them a lot. And, you know, most of the students that we have, their vocation in life is going to be married couples. And so being here as a couple — we’re living on campus — gives us an opportunity to try and model for the students what being married looks like. 

Desmond: We have so many questions for you. But, hopefully, we’ll have some other opportunities to speak. 

Garvey: I’m reminding people I am not the substitute teacher. I am here until July 1. 

Desmond: Well, maybe the final question for now: What are your plans going forward? We’ve heard something about you and your wife practicing your Italian?

Garvey: Yes, well, so universities are not like other kinds of business, in some ways. We don’t do as good a job at succession planning. I have worked with our vice presidents to think for each one of them, if you get hit by a bus, who’s taking over the next day and what’s going to happen. But for the president, the culture is to get out of the way. So I’m not involved in the search for my successor. I’m not going to have a say. And when that person arrives, come July 1, I’m going to get out of the way for a year, just let them get their feet under them and take control. But I’m still an employee of the university — and the year after that. We have a program in Rome. In fact, we have a campus in Rome, where we’ll have as many as 70 or 80 students. So, every year, we send faculty members over there to be the faculty and residents at their own campus. So Jeanne and I are going to be the faculty in residence at the Rome campus. I think I’ll teach a course on “Comparative Law.” And I think I’ll also teach the virtues, of course, that I usually teach to freshmen in our Honors Program. So yeah, we’re trying to learn Italian. 

De Melo: Well, I’ll say bocca al lupo, which they say as “good luck” in Italian. I’m so grateful for this conversation. And I know there’ll be many more throughout this year as we talk about what you’re continuing to do and what your legacy has been. President Garvey, thank you for being with us.

Garvey:  Thank you for inviting me. It’s so nice to talk with you; and, Joan, it’s always nice to talk with you. Thank you again.

Dr. John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, discusses religious freedom at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 16, 2013.

Catholic University’s John Garvey (Sept. 25)

Catholic University of America’s president has announced he is stepping down at the end of the school year. John Garvey’s time at the university has widely been recognized as a period of strengthening Catholic identity and shoring up the academic offerings in the Catholic intellectual and cultural tradition. His work has paid off: student retention has increased and fundraising goals have been topped at record levels. President John Garvey joins us today to tell his story about not only about building up a university but about falling in love with Catholic U.