Remarks by President John J. DeGioia
October 11, 2001
Every day, Georgetown students fan out across the city of Washington, giving life to the words of our mission: “commitment to justice and the common good.”
In courtrooms and classrooms, in neighborhoods where hope is a scarce commodity, Georgetown students are reaching across divides of experience and opportunity to share their ideals and idealism, as well as their energy.
Georgetown law students assist the victims of discrimination, adult and juvenile criminal defendants, civil rights and environmental groups through the nation’s best and largest clinical program.
The Georgetown Kids Mobile clinics, operated by our world-renowned Medical Center, roll through the streets of Wards 2, 6, 7 and 8, bringing health care to hundreds of District children.
Children at the Perry School Community Center rely on Georgetown volunteers for help with schoolwork. Four nights a week, more than 100 of our students tutor children in the Sursum Corda housing community, a program that began more than 30 years ago. Through D.C. Reads, 150 Georgetown work-study students tutor youngsters in local schools and agencies.
Hundreds of Georgetown students work one-on-one with recent immigrants and others in Adams-Morgan, Mt. Pleasant, and Chinatown as part of the D.C. Schools Project. Over its 17-year history, more than 4,000 District youngsters have participated in this award-winning program. In the After School Kids Program, known as ASK, Georgetown mentors work through the D.C. Superior Court to help juvenile offenders get back on track.
And a third group of local students at Ron H. Brown Middle School in Northeast is now enrolled in the six-year Schiff Scholars program. Like the two classes before them, they’ll receive a wide range of academic and other services in a program led brilliantly by its founding director, Tom Bullock. With years of support and encouragement, they’ll have the opportunity to fulfill dreams of their own college education.
These are but a handful of Georgetown programs of volunteerism and service that reach far beyond this hilltop. Some 1400 Georgetown students are attacking critical social problems like illiteracy, discrimination, substandard housing, and poverty through more than 100 community service initiatives and 23 student-run service organizations. These young people are touching other lives in meaningful ways, and their own education is far richer for the experience.
But it’s not only students who are working actively to improve the lives of others. Faculty prepare these students and encourage them, guide their experience and give it educational context, and often volunteer alongside them with shared dedication and zeal.
Many of those who breathe life into the mission of this University are gathered here, and it is you, and your vision and commitment that we celebrate today. I wish to express my deep appreciation to each of you, knowing that your greatest satisfaction comes from the deep sense of meaning that arises from this work.
You embody the Jesuit value of “men and women for others.” And you inherit a legacy of service with roots deep in the soul of this Catholic and Jesuit institution. That is why – in this week marking a transition in University leadership — I consider it crucial to highlight your achievements and look to the future of Georgetown’s commitment to service and social justice.
Mayor Williams, we are very grateful for your attendance today and for the vision you have articulated for improving opportunities and services for all District residents. The synergy of the partnership between Georgetown and the District will continue to challenge us to meet the most important needs in our city.
And, Mr. Mayor, I hope you’ll indulge an unreconstructed teacher while I make a brief historical detour.
I think it is important at this moment, as we take pride in our work for justice, to look deeply at the tradition in which these Georgetown endeavors occur. Because it is a rich tradition, a Jesuit tradition, and if we follow its arc, it may open a new vista for us in the months and years ahead.
For nearly 400 years, the Society of Jesus excelled at its educational and intellectual apostolate. At one point in this period, they operated the most extensive educational system in the world.
Then, in the 1970s, a new awareness took hold. In a series of electrifying essays and speeches, the Jesuit’s Superior General, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, challenged his order to repudiate both socio-economic conditions and the sinful structures that sustained lives of abject poverty.
Fr. Arrupe stated, “There is an apparent charity that is a mere cloak for injustice, when people are given, apart from the law and as if by benevolence, what is their due in justice…”
In 1975, under Fr. Arrupe’s leadership, the Thirty-second General Congregation acknowledged that the Society “was being invited by the Spirit of God to set out on a new direction. The overriding purpose of the Society of Jesus, namely, ‘the service of faith,’ must also include ‘the promotion of justice.'”
“Men and women for others” became a new inspiration for Jesuits, and the Georgetown University community was quick to respond to the new set of ideas that this challenge engendered. Students organized themselves into a group known as the Community Action Coalition and developed programs to help immigrants, the homeless, juvenile offenders, people with mental retardation, and the poor.
In support of the student efforts, the University hired staff, bought vans, invested in programs, sought grants, and, in short, built a structure to sustain this remarkable new dedication to the goals of justice.
Our faculty developed creative ideas such as the Service-Learning Credit, which for 20 years now has allowed students to earn an extra credit for linking service work to a course in which they are enrolled. Faculty members designed new courses like “Towards a Theology of Social Action” and “Community Conflict Resolution” in Sociology. With Brown and Stanford, we became founding members of Campus Compact, a coalition of colleges and universities committed to service and justice.
As our commitment to justice matured, we came to realize that the research of faculty like Wally Mlyniec, Sam Marullo, Phyllis Magrab, Gwen Mikell, Peter Edelman, Jim Slevin and many others was another manifestation of the University’s true justice commitment.
A notable example is English professor Patricia O’Connor, whose 16 years of teaching and working in medium and maximum security prisons led to her book, Speaking of Crime: Narratives of Prisoners. She introduced students and others, including Jim Slevin, Dan Porterfield and myself, to a subculture of society that no one else considered worthy of compassion or study.
On all three campuses, we developed research in other ways. In just one recent example, our PURS program–Teaching and Partners in Urban Research and Service-Learning is bringing together social science faculty with community leaders in order to identify research topics targeted to community needs.
And just last year we went still further. In creating the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service last January, and recruiting Kathleen Maas Weigert to lead it, and in gaining our first million-dollar gift for the Center, we have moved to the next level of institutional commitment and engagement as we grapple with the concept of justice.
But make no mistake, with the word “justice,” we have inherited from Fr. Arrupe a difficult term. Entire libraries can be devoted to its definition, and we in this room may hold very different concepts, each trailing nuance and subtext.
So there is a history of justice at Georgetown, a narrative and a tradition into which your work falls. It is a living history emanating from the words of a Jesuit prophet and made real by 25 years of work done here before us.
So what does this mean for we who recommit ourselves today? What mark will we make? What change will we bring? How will we re-imagine and re-direct Georgetown’s journey for justice?
These are questions for each of us to embrace, in our ideas and our idealism, in our words and our deeds. Let me offer some encouragement, maybe a springboard, in the form of four forms of excellence to which I believe we must aspire.
First, I hope you’ll always have the confidence to be critically minded about the work you are doing. We all need the freedom to ask, is our work helping? Are we focusing on the right problems? Do we need access to more expertise? We have to ask such questions. The work of justice by this university requires your intelligence and energy, for sure, but also an ethos of continuous improvement.
For example, you’re a mentor in youth enrichment program, and your teenage students are showing up, dutifully, doing more or less exactly what you ask them to do. They’re cooperating, so everything’s ok, right?
Well, maybe not.
I think some teenagers tend to push us away precisely when we are having an effect, when we are disrupting their worldview. When they’re behaving like angels, doing exactly as we say, that may mean they’re riding out their time. So maybe your program needs to push the students more to manufacture the creative tension that accompanies boundary-breaking work.
That happens when you bring a critical consciousness to your work, a restlessness, a hunger for excellence. Whether it’s tutoring or legal assistance or health screening or economic empowerment, if the services you provide aren’t first-rate, then you need to take responsibility for enhancing them — because quality is the promise we make to our partners in the community.
That brings me to challenge number 2, and it’s succinct: Multiply yourselves. We need more students, more faculty, and more staff who think and work as you do. We need more courses on social justice themes. We need the Lecture Fund to invite more social justice leaders to campus.
We need campus ministry to enrich our discourse with more discussions on the faith/action nexus. Maybe we need a student publication dedicated to justice themes. Perhaps we need more alumni teaming up with students out in the city. Or maybe we need more human rights leaders invited to classes to share their stories.
I’m certain of this. We have the capacity to engage more members of our community in this mission — especially if you show them that our work is rich, important, passionate, eye-opening, intense, fun, cool… you pick the word. The point is that it grabs us.
And that leads to my third point, and so let me say it three times. Engage the city. Engage the city. Engage the city. We’ve played a strong role here for many years, but we cannot live in the past. This is a multicultural city at the epicenter of an ever-expanding American search for justice. All of us can benefit so much from the richness of communities beyond our gates.
As a university, we need to know much better Washington, D.C.’s citizens and its neighborhoods and its schools. We need to understand much better the aspirations of the city, the obstacles to progress, the strategies employed by families and communities to live lives of their choosing. As a university, we need to place ourselves on the cutting edge of change, to be a part of this city’s historic quest for racial, social, economic, and political justice. In the city, we need to earn the privilege of being regarded not just as a good citizen, but also as an essential resource, one of the essential resources, a vital thoroughfare in the dozens of interlocked networks that make a city more than the sum of its parts.
That is part of the moral calling Fr. Arrupe issued to us in the 1970’s: to deeply engage the world in which we live, to open ourselves to others, to reach out in solidarity to our neighbors in need, and to know ourselves and our God through that radical openness to others. Don’t let anybody tell you that our city is a laboratory for our learning. It is not. Our city is our community, our home, the place where we can be more fully the university we are called to be.
I used the word calling. Your calling. My calling. Our calling. Georgetown’s calling to heed the words of a prophet and live ever more deeply the questions of justice’s meaning and ours.
To me, the quality of our response is crucial to Georgetown’s identity and its excellence. And in a university context, responding to the call means searching, questioning, integrating, and re-examining. Sometimes I call this “living the question.” What can justice mean at Georgetown? We know we can live this question in our philosophy classes. Can we live it in Biochemistry? In English? In Contracts?
The great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins turned the noun into a verb when he wrote, “the just man justices.” As a Catholic and Jesuit university, how do we justice? How can we justice?
I suggest that with your minds and your work and your research, you have the power to make this theme even more integral to our conversation, throughout the university, our curriculum, and our programs. We’re not always going to agree on our course in the pursuit of justice, but if we allow space for reflection, if we continue a dialogue that allows all voices to be heard, we stand a better chance of living our commitments to justice, not just in individual decisions but in the very fabric of our experience–in what we study, who we learn from, and how we chose to spend our time.
And so those are four standards of excellence I submit to you. Critically evaluate the work that you do. Multiply yourselves. Engage the city. Live the question of justice.
As the leaders of service and social justice at this University, you have proven again and again that your minds and hearts are made for this work. Thank you very much.