President John J. DeGioia Inaugural Address

DAR Constitution Hall
Washington, DC
October 13, 2001

Good afternoon, and thank you. It is a profound honor to accept this responsibility today as the 48th president of Georgetown University. I welcome and appreciate the missioning articulated by Fr. Stormes and the support in that mission offered by the Jesuit community. It is a responsibility for mission shared with our Board of Directors. In his charge, Fr Stormes raises the question of the ‘proper Ignatian character’ of this University. This afternoon, I would like to share with you my thoughts on that character.

For 26 years this university has been my home. I have been shaped by the tradition of this community, a tradition animated by the spirit of Saint Ignatius. I have been acculturated into the values of the Academy, with a respect for the practice of teaching and the practice of scholarship. I have been given a vocation, a calling to one’s life’s work, an idea that lies at the heart of all true academic communities, where people commit not just to the place and its work but to the ideals on which the university is sustained. I am indebted to many. Three I wish to call attention to this afternoon. One is someone who is not with us, the late Timothy S. Healy, the 46th president of Georgetown for whom I served from 1982 to 1989, and two men who are here today, Father Gerard J. Campbell, the 44th president of Georgetown and Father Leo J. O’Donovan, a man I served throughout his twelve years as Georgetown’s 47th president. These men provided extraordinary leadership in developing the tradition that sustains us today.

We live our vocations within the context of history.

Today, all of us feel that the trajectory of history, and with it American higher education, changed deeply on September 11th. In this moment the unique Georgetown mission and our own personal vocations matter critically. International, diverse, Catholic and Jesuit, situated at the crossroads of democracy, Georgetown has invaluable resources to offer a world struggling with crises both urgent and profound.

I have never been more proud to be a member of the Georgetown University community than in these past four weeks as we experienced first shock, then fear, then horror at the murders of more than two dozen members of our community or their family members. In this time of deep mourning, whether you are a student or a staff member, a professor or a parent, an alumnus or a religious leader, you have been a force for good. We all have been participants in a community that is giving consolation and support to one another and to the world beyond our campus gates.

It isn’t just the religious services and the counseling and the academic symposia and the interfaith vigils, and the countless acts of “cura personalis” that are making the difference; it’s the larger organizing premise of our Catholic and Jesuit identity, revealed in an unforced expression of who we are.

What’s special about Georgetown gives people solace in their grief and consolation in their rage. It’s the sense that, at Georgetown, tending to each other’s full needs occurs naturally.

With that comes a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of community. In the midst of a tragedy, those are sensibilities powerful beyond words.

The question before us– now and always– is how we live our mission and identity. I believe that framing this question is one of the deepest and most important exercises we could ever undertake. Because when we frame this question we are really asking ourselves, what is the nature of this tradition of learning, faith and freedom that we willingly and knowingly place ourselves within?

I believe there are three sets of questions capturing three different elements of our identity, of our tradition.

First, how do we pursue the work of the Academy, what Jacques Barzun once called “the House of Intellect”? What does it mean to pursue the work of the Academy today?

Second, how do we respond to the enduring idea of Jesuit Father Erich Przywara, who understood that at a Jesuit university we live “on the border line where the Church meets the world and the world meets the Church….” He knew that it is the function of a Jesuit university “to interpret the Church to the world and the world to the Church.” Georgetown has come to embody this responsibility, corporately, as a university. What does such a response look like today?

Third, how do we respond to the historic calls of Jesuit Superior Generals Father Pedro Arrupe and Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, to orient ourselves and our work to the moral imperative of justice?

These are defining questions, questions that capture three dimensions within which our achievements and priorities must be judged. Each question is profoundly complex and carries within it powerful tensions and strains and points of conflict. These are the questions that we live, questions that are central to our power as a community and the moral and vocational commitments we make to it. A few words about each.

What is the role of the House of Intellect today?

There are a set of tensions that characterize all great universities: arts and sciences, research and teaching, national and international. These tensions are powerfully present in our aspirations and our strategic choices, certainly in how we use our time and resources.

Like all great American universities, we also live another set of tensions as we seek to fulfill our role. Enlightenment universities were established with the idea that there is a unity of knowledge, and truth is there for human discovery. The last 30 years of higher education has brought the development of multiple methodologies, schools of thought, and specialties, each with their own assumptions and inclinations. The university’s role is now to provide a home to a great multiplicity of what are sometimes called “interpretive communities.” We are a community of communities.

Take, for example, the question of human rights. Everybody in a university community engages in “rights talk” but from vastly different belief systems and starting points. Perhaps you emphasize social and economic rights, and I focus on civil and political rights.

Perhaps, you think rights must be protected in one part of the world, I feel the imperative lies someplace else. Or perhaps you think rights are culturally determined, and I think they’re universal. And, even as you and I are debating human rights, they are being debated differently in other areas of the university. The departments will debate. Students will debate. Students and faculty will debate each other. Everybody will debate with the administration. We will debate the meanings of the words with which we debate. These debates do not end. This is the essential nature of a university.

There is another sense in which deep tensions define our foundation as a House of Intellect. The modern university was born in 19th century Germany. At that time, the university played an instrumental role in bolstering the German nation. In our country, in the decade after World War II, higher education played a similar role. With the G.I. Bill, investments in Big Science, and efforts on the cultural front to capture and celebrate America’s cultural history, higher education helped create and sustain the new idea of America as a global super-power. You might say, that, in this respect, higher education was about creating, building, culture.

But just behind that trend came the deep conviction within the Academy that higher education must also critique culture. Faculty in every discipline understood their roles as questioning, challenging, and criticizing inadequate frameworks and received wisdom about our culture.

Critiquing culture meant asking powerful questions about American interests abroad, civil liberties, civil rights, and forces sustaining racism, sexism, and poverty. It meant challenging the notion of American exceptionalism and finding power and beauty and meaning in previously neglected bodies of American literature and thought.

So we have dual drives at work– to create culture, and to critique culture– and those drives bring us inevitably into states of tension and conflict. Our function as a university community is to sustain an environment in which both of these things happen. The unique role of the university in our society is to sustain these two responsibilities, in conflict, in tension. If we seem at odds with ourselves at times, it is by intention. And make no mistake, it is critically important that we do.

The second dimension for Georgetown concerns our religious identity. As a Catholic and Jesuit University, we heed the Church’s call to powerfully engage the world, human culture, the environment, all ways of knowing. This creates a second set of questions and dynamic tensions that we seek, that we relish, here in the shared presence of the Academy and the Church. These are captured in “the Catholic ‘and'” the relationship between “faith and reason,” “nature and grace,” “reason and revelation,” “natural and the supernatural.” These are not idle abstractions for a university that seeks an integration between University and Church. How do we accept this responsibility?

Jesuit Universities have a unique resource. In the words of the last General Congregation: “…The core of all true religion consists in its capacity to lead people to an authentic and deeper spiritual experience….” For Georgetown, shaped and sustained by the Society of Jesus, at our core is a “spirituality.” Now if ever there was an idea that collides with Georgetown’s Enlightenment tradition, it is this idea of a spiritual reality, the presence of the “Spirit.” After all, the Enlightenment project that informed and shaped the modern Academy places its bets on rational, disinterested, objective inquiry, driven by empirical analysis, capable of producing theories that will enable us to predict and explain the phenomenon of life.

Present for our community is an uncommon resource. I believe at the deepest level of reality of our tradition is a spirituality with a deep resonance with the mission of a university. A fundamental animating dimension of the university is to push against and push through the blocks to understanding; the blocks to knowing; blocks to freedom; blocks to human flourishing. In the classroom or in scholarship our work seeks to break down blocks. The spirituality at the heart of our tradition also seeks to break down blocks.

The spirituality employs a vocabulary that can be in tension with that of the Academy. Yet I believe the deepest aspect of our tradition is captured in this spirituality. At the heart of Ignatius’s vision is that there is something more than what can be captured through our rational inquiry. There is mystery in everything we touch.

For anyone with a vocation in education or for that matter for all of us, there are moments when you can feel your grasp of some aspect of reality with a sense of deep truth, where you feel it in your bones, where you surprise yourself by your next action or your next thought. Moments when everything makes sense; the pieces all fit together. Your efforts to grasp a complex piece of reality have paid off. You know the feeling may not last long. But the feeling is so powerful, so moving, that it enables you to summon the discipline and courage to come back the next day. Moments when you feel a sense of peace and serenity, of wholeness – that feeling you have when you look into the eyes of a loved one and know, just know, that it is right. Or that moments, when after years of believing in a particular strategy for research, against all odds, you begin to see links, you see the pieces fitting together. It is a bit of a mystery.

Different disciplines, religions, traditions have different names for such moments. In the Ignatian tradition, these are considered moments of grace. They emerge out of a sustained and humble engagement with the deepest possible reality. The spirituality of Ignatius acknowledges the difficulty we find in such engagement. Our natural condition lies in escaping such engagement. But it is only with such sustained engagement that we can ever hope to work through the blocks to understanding.

In our efforts to sustain a journey in which we seek a deeper grasp of our reality; as we attempt to work through our blocks to a deeper grasp, the insight of St. Ignatius is that there is mystery to our human reality and the doorway through which we can explore the mystery is love. The heart of the spirituality is an engagement with love. It comes alive as we try to understand the implications of the command articulated by Jesus to love – to love one another, to love one’s neighbor, to love one’s enemies. The greatest mystery is to grapple with this command. Love those who treat you badly? Love those who have treated a loved one badly? Love the alcoholic who has all but destroyed the life of someone you love? Love the person whose inability to cope with a neurosis has left lives harmed in its wake.

It is in this most difficult and challenging engagement with this impossible command that we come to understand blocks within ourselves – blocks to living this command, blocks that also keep us from other forms of knowing. An engagement which is a model for the engagement we seek to bring to every other dimension of our lives.

Three words – grace, mystery, love – at the heart of the tradition of our community. Words that are in tension with the vocabulary of an Enlightenment Academy. But words that resonate deeply with the mission of the Academy.

If from our Ignatian and Enlightenment traditions we inherit a longstanding set of questions, Georgetown has been living the third dimension more recently, during the course of the past 25 years. In the 1960s, Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe was acutely aware of the grave social injustices in our world. Having been expelled by the Republican government in Spain, having lived in Hiroshima in 1945, painfully aware of the oppressive regimes in Latin America– and the failure of some in the Church to come to terms with those injustices.

In 1973, Fr. Arrupe laid the groundwork for a deeper challenge. In a speech entitled “Men for Others,” he called on educators to undertake rigorous self-evaluation and “above all make sure that in the future the education imparted in Jesuit schools will be equal to the demands of justice in the world.” Since then, the appropriate ways to respond to this call has been a lived question confronting all 28 American Jesuit colleges and universities and others around the world. It is a radical new challenge and a great one.

Hopkins wrote that “the just man justices.” But what does it mean to say that the just university justices?

At Georgetown, for 25 years we have carefully built the quality and sophistication of our community service programs while seeking to stand out as a partner with the city. That is part of the answer.

We have encouraged faculty to teach courses and conduct research in areas that impact the question of justice, and that is part of the answer.

We have sought to educate a diverse student body and built a need-blind full-need financial aid program to knock down barriers to educational opportunity. That is part of the answer.

But I believe we are called to engage the question of justice more deeply and with a greater sense of urgency. 46% of the people on this planet live on less than $2 per day. 33% of women and girls in the world have been beaten or sexually assaulted. 145 million children between ages of 6 and11 are not in school.

For Georgetown, the service of justice means engaging these harsh realities head on, knowing that the questions they raise about our priorities or our wealth as a country and as a community will sometimes make us uncomfortable. But, to link back to my second question, when we live the justice question in our seminars and our campus activities and our alumni outreach, we will be deeply engaged in the Catholic work of creating a new culture, and we will be opening new vistas of importance for Georgetown that today we can barely imagine.

I have talked about three organizing questions for Georgetown. Other universities have their own. I believe ours are uniquely rich, compelling, and difficult. The questions central to us carry powerful tensions and elude fixed, final, definitive answers. Our work is messy. Our business lies in disorder and conflict. But make no mistake, our responsibility is to preserve the tensions not to finesse them away.

Denial is always an option, but when we deny these tensions we deny our reality, we deny our strength, and we deny our destiny to be a great university. Paradoxical as this may sound, we are most authentic when these tensions are most alive. Living our questions means living with debate, with miscommunication, with false starts, with provisional answers, and with tension. Creative tension. We seek the point of tension– the shadowland where one finds a dozen shades of gray– where conflict occurs, with the hope that in that very conflict we will get closer and closer to a deeper understanding of reality, a deeper grasp of truth.

For this university, to keep alive these tensions, we must protect the very tradition that provides us with our framework for proceeding. The practices, the virtues, the goods and the goals we seek must be cared for and nurtured. Traditions are fragile. They are organic. They are never fixed, but constantly evolving. They provide us with the background that can help us find meaning in our thoughts and actions. And our tradition forms the basis of a community that needs to sustain multiple tensions, multiple interpretive communities, the diversity that characterizes an academic community.

And living these questions relates very definitely to the fundamental challenge we face of forming young men and women to accept responsibility for their privileged places in the world. In an imaginative exercise I did with the first-year students just a few weeks ago, I said that if we were to take the entire world– all 6 billion people and represent them proportionally in an auditorium this size– only one person would represent the percentage of the world’s population who has access to an education at a top American university.

With this opportunity comes responsibility. In the words of Father Kolvenbach: “The real measure of our Jesuit universities lies in who our students become.”

At the heart of our tradition is a call to engagement. To engage reality at the deepest levels of our being. This is not the time for ironic detachment. Our tradition calls us to Engage. And engage deeply with the tensions and conflicts, the questions and challenges I have presented.

As an academy– as a House of Intellect– we live the tensions of sustaining and supporting culture, critiquing culture, nourishing multiple cultures– and sustaining a community.

As a Catholic and Jesuit university– as a House of Faith– we live the tensions to be authentically Jesuit, authentically Catholic, to provide an authentic context for the meeting of the Church and the culture, while sustaining the virtues and practices of the Academy.

And as a community of citizens, global citizens– as a House of Justice– our fundamental challenge is to break through the blocks to fulfilling our obligations as human beings, to one another.

Georgetown has a great mission, a bold destiny. And it matters that we do this. For 26 years, I have seen the growing strength of this great institution. In recent weeks, I have seen the beating heart of this extraordinary community. This is the work for Georgetown. And by living these questions, we become the University we are meant to be.

Thank you.