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Georgetown’s choice prompts questions

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The appointment of John J. “Jack” DeGioia, a layman, to head Georgetown University, flagship of U.S. Jesuit higher education, has raised some far-reaching questions about the future of Catholic higher education and exacerbated fears that the Jesuit mission is being diminished as the 21st century unfolds.

The choice of DeGioia to succeed Jesuit Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan as Georgetown’s 48th president, beginning July 1, raises those concerns not only because DeGioia is not a Jesuit priest, but also because the 44-year-old Georgetown alumnus has made a name for himself in the area of university administration, not academics.

DeGioia is the first permanent appointment in modern times of a non-Jesuit to head a Jesuit university.

While almost no one doubts DeGioia’s qualifications to lead the 12,400-student university that is recognized by many as the most prestigious among the 28 U.S.-based Jesuit colleges and universities, some see danger in departing from the tradition of appointing presidents from among the order’s highly regarded, tenured academics. To outsiders, DeGioia, 44, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, is an unknown quantity. However, he is recognized on the Washington campus as a top administrator, manager and fundraiser.

Jesuit Fr. Brian McDermott, rector of Georgetown’s Jesuit community, said DeGioia is “a true intellectual” and said he’s the right person for the job -- a job that includes overseeing an ambitious $1 billion fundraising drive.

“I wouldn’t want to see him characterized as a manager/administrator, and not also adding that he’s a man of profound intellectuality,” McDermott said. DeGioia “got noticed for certain skills in his mid-20s and went on the administrative track. We have some large issues. We have a prestigious university that needs to develop its financial infrastructure -- just needs to do that and needs to reposition the medical center after the sale of the hospital. And I think he’s well-positioned to do that.”

While he may be a master manager, DeGioia, faces a more formidable challenge in maintaining the school’s 212-year-old Catholic identity, a growing problem for colleges and universities across the country as the number of priests and nuns declines.

Monika K. Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said that although the number of lay presidents at Catholic colleges and universities has risen sharply in the past 10 years, “I think many people were startled that it happened at Georgetown.”

“However, I think they made a very sensible decision. They needed somebody with considerable administrative experience and skill, and they decided they needed that more than having a Jesuit as the visible head of the operation,” she said. “In one sense he is very competent. Personally he’s very deep into Ignatian spirituality. In another sense he’s got a hard row to hoe because he isn’t, so to speak, publicly certified the way a professed Jesuit is.”

Jesuit Fr. Joseph O’Hare, president at New York’s Fordham University, said not everyone is happy to see a layman at the helm at Georgetown. O’Hare said DeGioia’s appointment will provide additional fodder for those who fear Georgetown has been going in the wrong direction.

In an interview with NCR at the Jesuit curia in Rome, O’Hare said, “These last few days in Rome, in private conversations, that fear has been confirmed. One prominent Catholic intellectual told me that this confirms the slippage away from Catholic tradition and intellectual life at Jesuit institutions. Georgetown has already been under siege to some extent, and some thought this appointment would have been a chance to reverse tracks. I’m not one of those who believe there was a need to reverse tracks, but if you thought that way, this appointment could be further evidence of problems.” Controversies have disrupted campus life in recent years over such issues as placement of crucifixes in classrooms and formation of a student pro-choice group.

McDermott, the Georgetown rector, said some people might think things are heading in the wrong direction, “but that didn’t start now. They want some kind of past that can’t be retrieved. It probably never was the way they imagined it either. I went to Georgetown in the ’50s when it was a much simpler place, but it gets romanticized, that past, as well.”

Still, O’Hare said he is puzzled by the way the 10-month Georgetown search was conducted. “There are qualified Jesuits in the United States,” he said. “It’s not the case that there were no Jesuits available. There are sitting presidents at other institutions as well as other senior people who could have been excellent selections. I can assure you that my successor at Fordham will be a Jesuit, unless the moon and the stars take on a different alignment.

“It would be a mistake,” he said, “to think that Georgetown is the first in a series of dominoes, that now we aren’t going to be able to find Jesuits at other places.”

DeGioia said he’ll seek a lot of help in the effort to maintain the school’s Catholic Jesuit identity. “I’m a layperson, and I’m going to have to appropriate from my experiences as a member of this community those aspects of leadership that are most appropriate for a layperson,” he said. “I intend to reach out to the religious leaders of our community and work closely with them. The members of the Society of Jesus have educated me. They’ve shared with me their spiritual inheritance, but I’m going to have to develop my own leadership approach as a layperson to ensure the Jesuit and Catholic identity of Georgetown. I intend to do everything in my power to sustain and enrich and deepen this heritage, but it will require a different style than if I were a Jesuit.”

McDermott said the role Jesuits play at Georgetown is overstated. Since 1968, the largely lay board of directors has had “full authority over the university,” McDermott said. “The Society of Jesus does not have that authority over Georgetown now and it hasn’t since 1968.”

For example, just 35 Jesuits hold academic appointments out of a faculty of more than 1,300. The number of Jesuit faculty has never been greater than 100, he said.

Declining religious vocations will likely translate into the declining influence of religious congregations at both Catholic high schools and colleges, said Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, editor-in-chief of America, a Jesuit publication.

DeGioia’s appointment is “clearly an indication that the bench is getting thin,” Reese said. There’s a reduced number “of Jesuits who have the training, the ability and the desire to become college presidents. And I think this appointment is simply the beginning. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 10 years, half the Jesuit colleges and universities in the states have lay presidents. We’ve already seen this happen in our high schools where we have large numbers of lay principals and/or lay presidents.”

DeGioia, who said he was invited to add his name to the presidential search, knows he has detractors, but he said he’s ready to prove to them he can do the job.

“Every institution has to wrestle with the question of fit,” he said, “what set of skills, talents and experiences best match the current set of challenges and problems and issues that a university is confronting. Here at Georgetown I think there was a judgment that I provided a good fit for the set of issues this institution currently faces.

“I understand that people have different kinds of expectations in a president. My hope is my performance will be able to establish that I truly can lead this university. I’ve been a part of this community for 26 years. I’ve held a variety of different roles. I’ve had four different administrative positions. I teach. I’m teaching now, and I’ve been in the classroom for some years now.”

Jesuit Fr. Charles L. Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, said Jesuit collaboration with the laity is nothing new, and the appointment of DeGioia is simply an extension of that spirit of cooperation.

“Collaboration with the laity goes back to the earliest days of Ignatius,” Currie said. “[Ignatius] was very comfortable working with the laity in collaborative projects. This is not something foreign, and certainly partnership with the laity and lay leadership is what has made Jesuit colleges and universities as successful as they are today. So, this should not be seen as some kind of revolutionary thing. It’s a natural development of the lay leadership and true partnership.”

Currie noted that non-Jesuits led Georgetown for a period in the late 1700s and early 1800s during a period when Jesuits were suppressed by the Vatican.

A more recent case is the University of Detroit Mercy, where Dominican Sr. Maureen Fay is president. She was appointed to that post after the Jesuit University of Detroit merged with Mercy College, setting it apart from the other Jesuit schools.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan, who teaches in Georgetown’s Law Center, said it’s important to note that the Catholic University of America went to consecutive lay presidents and returned to a priest president, something that could happen at Georgetown. “It’s not inevitable that this is the end of Jesuit influence at Georgetown,” he said.

DeGioia, whose wife Theresa is expecting their first child in June, is also, of course, the first married president of Georgetown. “For the first time in 200 years Georgetown is going to have a first lady,” Drinan said.

John L. Allen Jr. interviewed Jesuit Fr. Joseph O’Hare in Rome for this article.

National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2001