Student Town Hall Meeting on Satire, Diversity and Intellectual Excellence

ICC Auditorium
Georgetown University
April 20, 2009

There has been considerable discussion over the past three weeks in our community following the annual April Fool’s Day issue of The Hoya.  This follows upon nearly a year of exceptional work launched by our Student Association and carried out by the Student Commission for Unity.  It is perhaps the conjoining of these events that provides some of the context for the reaction to the recent efforts at satire.  As proud as I was of the work of the Student Commission for Unity, I have been equally proud of the community’s work over the past three weeks. 

On April 3rd, I met with student leaders and committed to holding a Town Hall meeting and offering some reflections.  

I am very pleased to be with all of you today and will speak for approximately fifteen minutes.  I wish to share my thoughts on the significance of the issues at stake for our work here at Georgetown and outline the nature of our response.  Then we will open up a conversation.

I imagine for some, there is a sense of surprise that the April 1st issue of The Hoya could spark such a response in our community.  After all, it is an annual tradition that our longest standing student newspaper devotes this issue to a satiric lampooning of virtually anything of moment in our community.  Do we lack a sense of humor?  Are we being too sensitive?  The answer of course is “No.”  I’d like to open my reflections by describing important work that we hope takes place during the course of your years here.  Work that perhaps can best occur in the context of a university community.  Let me explain.

There is much that we hope takes place during your years here.  First, we hope to introduce you to the best that has been thought and written, core knowledge that can be a foundation and catalyst for a lifetime of continuing intellectual growth.  We wish to engage you in the world of ideas, to enable you to have an affective experience of what gaining important new knowledge feels like.  We do this by placing you in our classrooms and laboratories with the very best teachers and scholars.  We seek to provide a curriculum that offers you a wide-ranging exposure to different methodologies and disciplines and forms of expertise.  We want you to experience the intellectual give and take of rubbing mind-on-mind with faculty and fellow students. And we intend for you to be exposed to the intellect, imagination and habits of mind of leading scholars who have shaped their fields and some part of the world with their ideas.  This is the fundamental teaching and learning work of a university.

Second, we wish to provide you with opportunities to forge your character.  In the classroom, through extracurricular programs, on our playing fields, in our residence halls, through our retreat programs and opportunities for worship, in service to the greater community of Washington, DC, and beyond, we seek to provide a range of ways for you to identify and articulate your own deepest values and commitments.  We ask you to live with some tough questions.  Questions like: 

•    What do I want to stand for in my life?
•    What are my responsibilities to my family, to my community, to my church,  my mosque, my synagogue…to my country and to the world community?
•    What are the obligations of citizenship and what does it mean to be a global citizen?

These are questions of values, and through these questions, by living these questions, we come to identify what matters most to us, what is the foundation upon which we build our lives.

As you engage in the work of shaping your minds and forging your character, there also are two practical skills that we hope all students can develop here.

We use lots of different metaphors to capture what is at stake in the first skill.  We talk about “crossing borders” and “building bridges.”  In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster wrote: “Only connect…Only connect, the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.”  Our world is in desperate need of women and men who can overcome their own self-interest, their own limitations, their own provincial perspectives, and develop the skills to bring people together, despite their differences, despite the obstacles and blocks—women and men who can overcome the hardships and difficulties and build bridges of understanding across borderlands of difference.

It is an idea that is captured in the motto of Georgetown.  There it is right on the shield that we walk around when we step onto the steps of Healy, the two Latin words, Utraque Unum, or “Both into One.”  This is who we are.  We are to be a place that seeks to build these bridges.

And, we are living in a time in which sustaining civil public discourse can be a difficult goal to achieve.  Is the state of our public discourse that much worse today than in earlier periods?  I doubt it, but perhaps the ubiquity of the means of transmitting ideas—the power of our current technologies for communication—exacerbate the challenges for sustaining a civil public discourse. How problematic is it, given the state of incivility and coarseness, for you to accept the responsibility for this first skill: to become “bridge builders?”

This work requires a degree of intimacy, a deep trust in the place and in the relationships that are involved in connecting, in crossing borders, in building bridges.  None of us would share our deepest fears and anxieties, none of us would risk the potential for embarrassment and humiliation of expressing our deepest beliefs and convictions, in an environment that does not respect the significance of our expression.  We are even less so when we are in an environment that is hostile.  We need a foundation of trust if we are to engage in this work.

Now, with just a little reflection you will no doubt know immediately what I am talking about.  You don’t reveal your deepest thoughts to just anyone. 

You reserve such sharing to those with whom you have build a shared context of respect.  You reserve such sharing to those whom you love and love you in return.  For me, such sharing takes place in the deepest and most profound ways in the context of my marriage.  My wife and I, together, over many years have built a relationship that enables us to take risks in the kinds of issues we can share with one another.  I can take bolder risks in settings where I can talk issues through. where I know I can trust that the other person truly cares about me.

This connects to a second skill: building community.  We believe that the work of a university best takes place in the context of a community.  Communities are dynamic and organic.  They can only be built and sustained by those who accept responsibility for the community. It is the quality and strength of a community that provides the foundation for trust that makes the risk-taking of building bridges and crossing borders even possible.

Building community is very difficult work.  In any setting, it is difficult.  Every context poses unique challenges to building community.  People don’t agree on goals, or means.  In the context of a university it is constrained by the fact that you are here for four years, and there is lots of exploring and testing, trying on different aspects of one’s subjectivity, exploring in ever deeper ways the contours of one’s self.  A university community provides a unique and privileged place to explore one’s identity.  Such exploring requires a community of trust, but I do want to mention here that it is this same exploring can serve to challenge such a community.  For example, a bedrock of a university community is a commitment to the free exchange of ideas.  Our Policy on Speech and Expression recognizes this bedrock principle. 

It is a precondition of the intellectual freedom at the heart of the academic enterprise.  And sometimes, ironically, the permissible exercise of one’s speech can have outcomes that undermine the trust upon which our community is built.  That is one of the tensions we and all universities—and our democracy as a whole—must live together.  

In the end, the work of connecting is the work of creating intimacy.  What are the conditions that need to be in place such that we can enter into the depths of intimacy?  We all need communities of trust.  We are trying to do something very special here.  In the tradition upon which this university is built, we seek to prepare you for lives of active citizenship.  We want you to be connectors, to be bridge builders.  We want you to embody our motto, Utraque Unum.  We want you to connect with one another and integrate your total Georgetown experience in a way that forever serves as a touchstone for you.

 To achieve this, we need a community in which you can trust, so that here, you can take the risks of intimacy.

What makes this a challenging moment for us is that so many of the articles in the paper ruptured the trust so many faculty, staff and students work so hard to build so that we can all achieve our potential.  This is not really a question of whether something is or isn’t funny.  It is a question of what is appropriate and respectful in a community that seeks to give everyone the security, support and trust from which to take the risk of the deepest possible growth. When a student spends a considerable part of his or her junior and senior year working to make this a better place, the commitment to do this work is based on a belief that there is a shared understanding of the value of that work.

We expect more of this community.  There is extraordinary talent here, and extraordinary resources assembled to help cultivate that talent.  There is not a day in which the decisions and actions, the thoughtful or imaginative or selfless contribution—of a member of our community, doesn’t move me.  It is what has sustained my engagement here at Georgetown for more than three decades.  When we are at our best, it can be breathtaking.  We are capable of insight and understanding.  We are capable of building bridges, of crossing borders, of connecting.

And like any community, we are not always at our best.  When you come to believe you are in a place you can trust and then a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary is defaced … twice.  When you see obnoxious, intolerant graffiti scrawled on a wall. 

This past Thursday, I stood with several hundred people—many of whom are alumni of Georgetown—on the corner of 37th Street and Madison Avenue for the naming of that intersection, Jan Karski Corner, in honor of a former Georgetown professor whose heroism is known the world over.  As a member of the Polish Underground, Jan Karski snuck into the Warsaw Ghetto and witnessed the atrocities.  He was able to escape and come to the United States to meet with our leadership during the heart of the Second World War. 

Do those who defaced our own memorial to Jan Karski, just a few weeks ago, know of his heroism, know that he spent four decades following the war—after earning his Ph.D. from here—teaching generations of Georgetown students the realities of Nazism and Soviet totalitarianism? 

When these kinds of inexcusable incidents occur, we begin to question the trust that is needed to take the risks of intimacy. 

We pull back, and when we do, there is no way we can fulfill our promise.  You can’t fulfill your promise and I can’t fulfill mine.

This is what is at stake in a moment like this.  We have faced moments like this before.  It is important that, in many different ways, in our own voices and often together, members of the University community have taken the opportunity to stand up and challenge offensive and intolerant behavior.  That is a necessary if very painful first step.  How we build on such work in the coming months will indicate the strength of our commitment to this common work of fulfilling our promise.

Over the past year, and particularly over the past three weeks, I have been deeply impressed with the response. 

First, over the past year, the Student Commission on Unity has performed an extraordinary service in the work of community building.  I wish to extend my gratitude to the co-chairs, Brian Kesten and Brian Cook, for their inspired leadership of this effort.  I had the chance to meet with Brian and Brian in the days following the release of the Report.  We are all fortunate in this moment of such importance for our community; we have this Report to serve as an inspiration for our response. 

Second, during the last ten days, students, faculty and senior leaders have worked together to put in place a set of concrete new resources that will enable us to take strong steps, together, to live our diversity and build the trust that makes breakthrough possible.  I wish to outline these developments now and hear your own thoughts and questions regarding these steps. 

Joining me here this evening is our Provost Jim O’Donnell, whose responsibilities include oversight of the undergraduate and graduate programs here on the Main Campus.  Also here is our Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity Rosemary Kilkenny.  I have asked Ms. Kilkenny and Dr. O’Donnell to co-lead an initiative to develop specific, actionable ideas for how Georgetown can best foster respect for diversity and inclusiveness, build trust within the community, and enhance the ability of students from varied backgrounds to interact well and learn from one another.  

We have begun organizing three working groups that will focus on key areas of concern for undergraduates that were identified by the Student Commission for Unity: academics, student life, and undergraduate student recruitment and admissions. 

Each working group will be composed of students, faculty and staff.  We will finish the composition of the working groups and charge them before the end of the semester.  My expectation is that each working group will make progress during the summer months and then finalize recommendations early next semester and deliver them to me by early Fall. 

The first working group will focus on academics and will look at questions of how we can best and most appropriately facilitate crosscultural learning, dialogue and understanding in the classroom and through the curriculum.  In addition to his overall role of coordinating this work, Dr. O’Donnell will appoint two faculty to serve as co-chairs of this working group.  This is an especially good time for this work, because Provost O’Donnell has been leading a curriculum renewal project that is now ripe for engagement of this issue.  I am pleased that he has invited members of the Student Commission on Unity to two faculty discussions held in the past week on the curriculum.  I would like to thank the students who are or will be involved in this work on academic life, which requires a deep engagement with our faculty and a readiness to learn about the origins and goals of Georgetown’s curriculum, and the ways that peer universities have approached similar kinds of questions.

The working group on student recruitment and admissions will look at two overarching questions.  First, how do we make sure that, whatever one’s background, all high school students considering Georgetown understand that we seek students who will contribute to, learn from, and always respect our multicultural community?  And second, while we have a deeper pool of African-American and Latino candidates, and we offer admission to a larger cohort of these applicants than most of our peers, our yield percentages for students from those communities are lower than our yield overall for entering students.   What can we do to improve on this outcome?  This group will be co-chaired by Dean of Admissions Charlie Deacon and Senior Vice President for Strategic Development Daniel Porterfield and has begun holding its planning meetings.  In addition to students, other members will include Associate Dean of Students Dennis Williams and Dean of Financial Aid Pat McWade. 

The third working group will look at student life—especially our co-curricular approaches to preparing students to live and interact in a multicultural community.  The working group will identify improvements that we can make in New Student Orientation, Residence Life programming, and leadership development and mentoring for student clubs, among other topics.  Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson will be one of the co-chairs of this working group, which has made early progress in identifying action items for the start of the school year. 

As I mentioned earlier, we will finalize these working groups before the end of the semester.  There will be numerous of opportunities for students to serve on them and in leadership roles.  The Student Commission for Unity has identified a number of students who would like to take part, and I will ask both Dr. Olson and GUSA leaders Calen Angert and Jason Kluger to identify students as well.  I envision the three working groups presenting their recommendations both to me and to the larger community in a forum such as this one in the fall.  A number of members of the working groups, who have already committed to serving, are here tonight, and if you would like to make specifics suggestions about ideas that might be explored, those thoughts are most welcome this evening. 

As many of you have heard me speak on other occasions, this is also an important moment for the university in another way. We are in the quiet phases of our next fundraising campaign. We have established as our highest priority, our commitment to financial aid. Any effort to strengthen our success in sustaining the diversity of students will require success in this effort.

These are a set of steps, and they are a start. An important start. But the task of building a community of trust that provides a framework for the work of connecting … this is the on-going work of a university community. It requires our sustained commitment. It demands our imaginative engagement as we seek for new approaches and new styles of proceeding. We are trying to do some very important and difficult work here. We need to acknowledge that. And we need to get on with the work.

I hope what I’ve been able to do is give you a little bit of a framework for how significant I believe this moment is; the context in which it fits into the overarching mission, purpose, and identity of this institution; and some concrete ways in which we’re attempting to respond now to ensure an ever stronger context as we move now, at the end of this semester, into the summer in the anticipation of a new academic year.

I want to thank all of you for being here. I know we’re in the home stretch of this academic season and I’m very happy that we had this opportunity to be together. And now what I’d like to do is open this up to all of you, and I’d be happy to take your questions or your comments on any issues of the day. So thank you very much.