Reflections on the Responsibilities of the University in this Critical Moment

Dear Members of our Georgetown University Community:

It is an honor to welcome everyone back for the start of this new academic year.  I wish to begin in gratitude to all those who enabled an incredible opening of the semester—from our student volunteers who welcomed all of our new students to our colleagues who provided deep care in all of the logistics associated with move-in days.  With classes now underway, I share with all of you the excitement of launching a new year.  We begin, as we do every year, immersed in the launch of new courses, experiments, research projects, internships, and co- and extra-curricular programs.  There is a continuity to our work, and to our identity.

On a number of occasions, I have shared descriptions of four elements that characterize the identity of Georgetown University: (1) we are regarded as among the leading universities in our nation which brings the expectations we have of ourselves for academic excellence; (2) we were founded in the same year as our nation, in what became our nation’s capital, and we engage the institutions that are here to do the work of our government; (3) since our founding we have had an international reach—our first course catalogs were printed in three languages, and over the years we have become increasingly global in our mission; and (4) we were the first Catholic university established in the nation and our Jesuit heritage has provided a moral and spiritual foundation for our work as a university.  

No single aspect is distinctive to Georgetown, but when taken together, the integration of these elements provides an identity that differentiates Georgetown from other universities.  These four elements provide the context through which we frame our work together.

Each year we seek to strengthen each dimension of our identity.  This year, our students, across our schools, are the most extraordinary we have ever welcomed into our community.  Equally, our faculty is exceptional.  Our faculty is the source of the quality of our students, and this degree of quality is mutually reinforcing: the very best students seek to study with the best faculty, and when you have the best students, the best faculty seek to be in the classroom with them.

In other ways, from building new facilities, to extending our mission to other parts of the world, the establishment of Institutes and Centers, to deepening our understanding of both our opportunities and responsibilities, we continue to strengthen and integrate the four elements.  This year we celebrate the centennial of the School of Foreign Service, a school that continues to enable us to respond to the changing place of the United States in the world, and we have embraced the development of our newest school, the McCourt School of Public Policy. 

But in what is perhaps an unprecedented moment, across these elements, we face threats to our common work together.  The context in which we do our work destabilizes; forces external to our community, to the elements that comprise it, produce uncertainty and disruption.  How are we to respond?

I wish to offer reflections on one such set of forces—the horrific revelations that have emerged in recent weeks regarding members of the Roman Catholic clergy who perpetrated or enabled sexual abuse of the most vulnerable—and how we can proceed, together. 

The discovery, in part through the efforts of the Attorney General and Grand Jury in Pennsylvania, of the depth and breadth of complicity over the last seventy years, has revealed an abject failure to protect the most vulnerable among us.  This systematic failure demands accountability on the part of the Church and discernment in our Georgetown community about our appropriate response.

In early July, I joined colleagues of Jesuit colleges and universities from throughout the world for a conference in Spain.  In a speech delivered in Loyola, the home of St. Ignatius, the Superior General of the Jesuits, Arturo Sosa, S.J., described two challenges given eighteen months earlier, in January 2017, by the delegates of the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, to those working in Jesuit institutions.  Fr. Sosa began: “The first one lies in overcoming the geographic and social boundaries within which universities operate [calling us] to reach out to the marginalized…”  This is a challenge that we would recognize and is consistent with a responsibility we have embraced over the past half-century, beginning with the prophetic witness of former Superior General, Pedro Arrupe, S.J., and continuing under the leadership of his successors, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach S.J., Adolfo Nicolás S.J., and now Fr. Sosa.  In Fr. Arrupe’s words: “We must help each other to … 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.” Our programs in Global Health, Global Human Development, and our Center for Social Justice, Research, Teaching & Service are three examples of our efforts to respond to this challenge.

And then Fr. Sosa turned to a second challenge, again, identified by the delegates of the 36th General Congregation:

The second challenge…[invites] us to promote a culture of safeguarding vulnerable people.  This may be the most complex mandate given by the 36th General Congregation…Causing a cultural change to the extent necessary to create a safe and healthy environment is a long-term endeavor that requires careful discernment and profound reflection on the best that we can do….

In presenting this challenge, of promoting “a culture of safeguarding vulnerable people,” Fr. Sosa identifies another challenge and responsibility for Jesuit universities, a responsibility for “causing a cultural change,” a responsibility for social transformation.

The most vulnerable among us must be protected.  They deserve the very best work we are capable of providing.  We have an immediate and urgent need to engage in the work of “cultural change”—to create a context in which the most vulnerable among us will be safe and protected, to create a context in which the abuse of power can be identified and eliminated.

We bring to this responsibility the strength of an academic community, a community that has been forged over the course of more than two centuries.  We bring to this challenge of “cultural change” the resources of a university shaped by four elements: academic excellence, our presence in this nation’s capital, our global reach, and our Catholic and Jesuit heritage.  We respond best to the forces of disruption by deepening our commitment to our work.  We must accept the responsibility for which we are prepared and capable: to embrace the work of integrating the four elements of our identity in the service of social transformation.

Last Tuesday, at our Mass of the Holy Spirit, in reflections I offered at the conclusion of the service, I closed with these words:

This is a moment when we know that more is required of us.  As a community, let us proceed together, let us discern together, engaging in this work of transformation, working for a “cultural change” that will ensure the safety and protection of all our people. 

We have begun, across the University, to lay the foundation for the dialogue, reflection, and action that will contribute to a deep and authentic transformation.  Now, as we move forward into this new academic year, let us prove worthy of this responsibility.


John J. DeGioia