Remarks at Open Meeting on LGBTQ Student Resources
October 24, 2007
Good evening everyone. Our purpose in coming together this evening follows on a recent letter that I sent to all of the members of our community, in which I stated that, here at Georgetown, we will not tolerate homophobia or any other form of discrimination. It is never acceptable for students, faculty, or staff to walk in fear because of any aspect of their identity.
In recent weeks, I have twice invited in student leaders in response to two reported homophobic assaults. As you know, they have requested to me that we mobilize the community to provide greater support to LGBTQ students. They encouraged me to offer my thoughts regarding these incidents and, more broadly, the general climate within which LGBTQ students pursue a Georgetown education. In this meeting, I will provide a deeper response beyond what I expressed in my letter to the community.
The format we will use this evening is one that I developed in conversation with the students. I will speak for approximately 20 minutes, offering my thoughts on the importance of supporting LGBTQ students, the resources we bring to this work as a Catholic and Jesuit university, the specific suggestions that the students have made, and the approach that I would like us to take to make sustained progress over the course of the next six weeks and then for the longer term. Then we will have Q and A, which will include questions from members of our community who will join me on stage and then we will take questions from the floor. We will end tonight’s forum at 7:30.
How do I approach the questions that arise from the concerns that have emerged in our community? I respond from within my own lived experience. Three dimensions of my experience are relevant in framing my responses: First, my work as an educator; second, my responsibilities as an administrator at a Catholic and Jesuit university; and third, my core identity as a parent. This is the reality from which I engage the questions and issues, tensions and opportunities that so many of us have been wrestling with these past weeks.
As an educator, I know that you are here to develop your minds and your hearts, your talents, your character — your full selves. You are here to pursue an education. To realize the promise of this opportunity, you need, at a minimum, a peaceful and safe environment. The kind of work that is involved in pursuing your studies requires a stable and coherent environment that is predictable and consistent. To do the kind of difficult, demanding work of personal formation, you need a sense of security. We all need that. When that security is absent, or when we are in doubt about the environment in which we are living, it is difficult to do the very best work of which we are capable.
As an administrator, it is my role and responsibility to ensure that the conditions for success are present. As an administrator of a University with a 218-year commitment to a Catholic and Jesuit identity, I need to ask myself two questions as I undertake these responsibilities. What are the resources that the Catholic moral tradition brings to the core work of providing an educational environment in which every individual can flourish? Which ways of working towards this goal are most appropriate and authentic to our Catholic and Jesuit identity, and which are not?
These are complex questions. They bring to the surface areas of uncertainty or disagreement among members of a community. As an administrator I ask myself, how can we be most authentically a university, and most authentically Catholic and Jesuit, as we work to sustain and strengthen this community in all of its complexity? In these matters before us this evening, I rely heavily on the pastoral message of the U.S. Catholic Bishops entitled, Always Our Children. I believe this document captures the very best of the religious tradition that has served as the foundation of this community since our founding at the birth of the republic itself.
Finally, as a parent, I ask myself questions in a deeply personal way. If I were to learn that my son, or some other member of my family, were to be affected by decisions for which I have responsibility, would I feel good about these decisions? Can I square the approaches I take as an educator and an administrator with my own moral commitments as a parent? What parent would not want all of the support that can be provided to enhance the capacity of their sons or daughters to realize their potential? If my son lived in this community, how would I hope this community would respond to his needs? Would I want to know that everything possible was being done to protect him from the threat of verbal or physical assault, and the feelings of insecurity that result?
I bring these three dimensions of my identity to the questions which we are here to discuss tonight. How do we respond to legitimate requests for a more supportive environment? We can continue to do this in a somewhat informal manner that builds on somewhat unpredictable and ad hoc efforts and activities of members of our community. Or we can move forward in a more organized way, through more formal and institutional structures and processes.
In this case, it is time for the latter. This evening I would like to propose that our community work together on a more comprehensive initiative to strengthen Georgetown’s approach to addressing the needs of LGBTQ students.
I recognize that there are also issues of concern particular to faculty, to staff and to graduate students. I speak for the senior leadership on all three campuses when I say that we are also open to taking steps to respond to these needs. In the coming days you will receive a letter from Provost O’Donnell outlining mechanisms for bringing forward issues that are particular to faculty, staff and graduate students.
Tonight I want to focus on undergraduates. Let me articulate a few of the principles that should inform our work: I would like us to begin a process for a sustained, community-wide discussion about the needs of students. I would like us to develop new ideas for meeting these needs in ways that are in alignment with our identity. The four ideas brought to me by the students — all workable — should be a platform for our efforts, but not the ceiling. I would like us to get to work right away, with an action agenda that produces immediate ideas that can be implemented for the Spring 2008 and Fall 2008 semesters. And it will be important that members of the LGBTQ community, especially our students, be full participants in shaping how we work and what we implement.
This initiative will report directly to me and to Provost Jim O’Donnell. Yesterday I asked two members of the senior administration known for their commitment to students and their influence on campus to coordinate this effort — Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity Rosemary Kilkenny, and Vice President for Public Affairs and Strategic Development, and Assistant Professor of English, Dan Porterfield. I would like to thank Rosemary and Dan publicly and note for the record that they both accepted this request with a great deal of enthusiasm.
To describe the key features of our initiative, I would like to begin with the recommendations provided to me by the four students with whom I have met. I would like to thank those students — and many others who have given your time and care to these issues. Yours has been a generous and principled response, motivated by a desire to create a stronger and more inclusive community, and driven by the conviction that we can and must do more to support LGBTQ students. I would like to express my gratitude to you. I also would like to acknowledge the work of LGBTQ Resource Coordinator Bill McCoy and faculty members who have been sounding boards for the students.
Broadly speaking, the students communicated to me their ideas for improvement in four areas:
* — The University’s formal reporting of incidents of bias and hate;
* — The allocation of resources currently organized under the position of the part-time LGBTQ resource coordinator;
* — The use of educational programs to promote the inclusion of, and respect for, the LGBTQ community;
* — and the need for a more visible and effective LGBTQ working group.
Each of these suggestions is reasonable, and, in principle, I accept them. We can and must improve upon our services for LGBTQ students. Let me be clear: The question before us is not “if,” but “how.”
With that as background, I would like Rosemary and Dan to organize our initiative by creating three broadly representative working groups to address the first three areas raised by the students — Reporting, Resources, and Education. The role of these groups will be to bring recommendations to Provost O’Donnell and me that we can implement in Spring 2008 and Fall 2008. Let me say a bit about each one.
The Working Group on Reporting will develop a plan to strengthen and make more transparent our processes for notifying the community when an incident of intolerance has been reported. Quite frankly, our current mechanisms are not working well enough. We need a more effective system — more timely, more consistent, more transparent, and more responsive to the University community’s legitimate need for information and reassurance that unacceptable incidents are being taken seriously.
I want to acknowledge that there are complex considerations in these matters. These include student privacy and confidentiality, federal disclosure guidelines, our need to be able to obtain accurate information about incidents before reporting them, and the rights of the accused to the presumption of innocence.
We will ask the group to identify expeditiously options for improving the public notification of acts of intolerance. That means we need to take a look at all of our current notification protocols, including the DPS Public Safety Alerts, the Bias Reporting System, and other ways we communicate with the campus community. As a part of our changes in this area, we will need to develop a clear statement of when, how, and why the University makes public notifications, and who makes these decisions.
The second Working Group on Resources will evaluate the nature and level of staff support for coordinating LGBTQ community resources. Let me say at the outset that we can and will expand the resources currently available to our students.
I have been asked if I would be open to Georgetown’s moving from the current part-time Resource Coordinator role to a fulltime position in an LGBTQ Center. The answer is yes. These are important issues. We need more resources for students.
In order to do this work, we will need to pay close attention to the nature of the work that will be done. At a Catholic and Jesuit university, a University administrator or Center cannot advocate for policies or practices that are counter to Catholic teaching. All work must be consistent with, and authentic to, our identity as a Catholic and Jesuit university. Part of my responsibility as an administrator, and ours as inheritors of this University, is to ensure that nothing can compromise the integrity of our mission and identity.
At the same time, at the heart of the Catholic tradition we find resources that profoundly support our work for LGBTQ students. I am referring, for example, to the Catholic insistence on the dignity and worth of each and every individual, the emphasis on social justice and multicultural understanding, and the Gospel call that we engage all of our sisters and brothers in a spirit of love. The character of our heritage supports the call to deepen the services and support we provide to LGBTQ students. Indeed, to bring some clarity to the term “advocacy,” at a Catholic and Jesuit university we most certainly can “advocate” for LGBTQ students. We can and must advocate for respect, inclusion, understanding, safety, mentoring, dignity, growth and equal opportunity. We can and must advocate for freedom from prejudice, exclusion, discrimination, and homophobia.
This is extremely important work. In the various roles I have held at Georgetown over the years, I have taught, mentored, and worked with many LGBTQ students. I know that for all students, college is a period of extraordinary importance in the formation of direction, character and identity — and that is certainly true for LGBTQ students. We need to provide more support for these students as they experience the growth and transitions and questioning of these years. Carefully defined, a center can be a vital part of that support.
And so, we will establish a Working Group on Resources to address these vital issues. While I will ask Rosemary and Dan work with this community to determine the structure of this group, I believe that the participation of Vice President of Student Affairs Todd Olson and Vice President for Mission and Ministry Phil Boroughs will be crucial to this effort, and I have asked them to serve.
The third Working Group on Education will evaluate the use of educational programs to promote inclusion of, and respect for, the LGBTQ community. I will ask the group to identify steps that we can implement both within the current academic year and over a longer time horizon. In particular, I will ask the group to evaluate options for education programs in our residence halls, academic workshops, and existing programs such as Pluralism in Action, which occurs during New Student Orientation. It should be possible to draw upon, and strengthen, the roles of existing resources, such as the Diversity Action Council and diversity-oriented student groups like YLEAD.
As I mentioned, the final recommendation of the students is to strengthen, and make more visible, our existing Working Group on LGBTQ issues. This is an excellent suggestion, and I am pleased to accept it. After the three groups I have discussed have completed their work, we will enhance the charge and membership of the permanent Working Group, which will be a crucial vehicle for sustaining our commitment to the LGBTQ community over the long term.
These four steps respond directly to the suggestions of students and, indeed, take their recommendations as our starting point. I would like to articulate two additional areas of work.
The first concerns public safety. Vice President of University Safety Rocky DelMonaco has already increased the number of DPS officers on weekend foot patrol. This week he indicated to me that he will work in the following ways to identify and address safety issues of particular concern for the LGBTQ community.
First, he will ask his Student Safety Advisory Board — a standing student committee that advises the Vice President on security issues — to conduct focus groups with LGBTQ students, and he will invite LGBTQ students to join the Board.
He will reach out to peer institutions to see if they have developed approaches tailored specifically to the needs of the LGBTQ community that we should adopt here.
And he will enhance our partnership with MPD’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit — inviting leaders to hold a public forum on campus this semester and to assist us with our training of DPS officers.
A second additional area is the identification of other ways we might support LGBTQ students. Once Ms. Kilkenny and Dr. Porterfield have started the Working Groups on Reporting, Resources, and Education, I have asked them to reach out to the University community to identify other steps we can take to improve the climate and resources for LGBTQ students. These areas may range from Campus Ministry to the Career Center to Athletics to CAPS to our engagement with our alumni. I want to be sure that we are being creative and exploring other practical steps that will make a difference for our students. It is possible that some of the opportunities they identify could form the early agenda of the new Working Group on LGBTQ Issues.
In closing, let me describe what I hope we will experience in the days ahead. Beginning tomorrow, Rosemary and Dan will reach out to leaders in the student and faculty communities to develop a process for forming the Working Groups. I have asked them to ensure that they are composed of diverse, engaged members of the community. It is especially important that our Working Groups include members who have substantial knowledge of and commitment to the LGBTQ community, and members who appreciate the context and resources of our Catholic and Jesuit identity. The groups also need to be creative, open to dialogue, practical, results-oriented, and ready to work quickly. That is the way they will establish authenticity and legitimacy. Jim O’Donnell and I are prepared to receive recommendations from the Working Groups at any point during the semester, and we certainly expect to have received actionable items from all three groups within one month of when they start working.
I hope that the commitments that I have made and the process that I have proposed send an unmistakable signal across the University about the importance with which I regard these matters. I am grateful to you for your attendance here this evening. Thank you.