‘Homegrown’ Talent Jack DeGioia Takes Georgetown University to the Next Level
It is one of the givens in the litany of American bedrock beliefs that many people dream of and aspire to be president. That anyone can become president is one of the most enduring of those beliefs.
John J. “Jack” DeGioia, when he was a mass-once-a-day high school kid in Orange, Conn., probably did not grow up dreaming of becoming president. But that’s what he is.
The 57-year-old DeGioia has been president of Georgetown University since 2001, and it’s probably a much better job than being President of the United States, given Barack Obama’s recent approval ratings and the difficulty he’s had getting things done.
DeGioia’s rise to the presidency of the nation’s oldest Catholic institution of higher learning was unprecedented when he became the first layman – the first non-priest and married man – to lead Georgetown, founded in 1789 by Jesuits while their order was banned by the pope. Although the event echoed some Jesuit and Vatican views of increasing lay participation in Catholic Church administrative roles, this seemed at the time a highly improbable result.
Nevertheless, given the nature of DeGioia’s life and career at Georgetown, it appears almost inevitable, or, as one Jesuit among the decision-makers said, “providential.”
Just listening to and watching DeGioia in the president’s office on the second floor of Healy Hall is to get a sense why this man was practically born to the job.
Smart, intellectual, pragmatic, a teacher and a data person, with 13 years of presidential experience providing the wind at his back, he can bring weight and a presence into any discussion, be it policy-centered, plan-oriented or theological.
He appears most at home with architectural schematics for yet another university physical expansion, real or in the planning stages; theological or historical discussions on Jesuit thinking and philosophy in general; presentations of economic impact studies; or the numbers behind outreach and opening up more availability of assistance and scholarships to students who are worthy and needful.
If you want to sum up DeGioia in one word, pick the first one that comes to mind. It just might be simply that he is a genuine, authentic enthusiast.
Dealing with two questioners from The Georgetowner, he is mindful, like a theater-in-the-round actor, of responding in both directions. His arms and hands fly out frequently. His really white, white shirt seems to be on fire with white, and – especially when he talks about the special nature of the university, and his place and history in it – his voice rises to the level of a man talking about his most cherished possessions and beliefs.
“When I got here in 1975, I was a freshman like all the rest,” he said. “I had help, but this is the place where I wanted to be and where I think I belonged. In my first year, I was a hall monitor in a dorm, and you got a pretty good sense of student life that way. Father [Timothy] Healy was president, and he was a man who had been tasked into making Georgetown a presence in the United States, and I think he did that.”
DeGioia was an English major. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy and still teaches a course in philosophy. One of his influences was the great philosophy professor Wilfrid Desan. “I went to him and asked him for advice,” DeGioia recalled. “He said, ‘Learn how to write.’ ” Not bad advice for living in academia, where writing – papers, theses, books, speeches – is like inhaling.
A student athlete, DeGioia started a chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and planned a first meeting. “I put up signs everywhere,” he said. “One person showed up. Guess who?”
It was coach John Thompson, who was in the early stages of turning Georgetown basketball into a national power, resulting in three Final Four appearances and an NCAA national title. That first appearance – in which the Hoyas lost a heartbreaker – captivated not only the university but the city, and changed perceptions of the role of the university in relationship to the city. In 1984, the Hoyas won it all.
Of Thompson, DeGioia said, “He has the soundest moral foundation. … You can knock that bell from every angle and it comes up true.”
Meanwhile, DeGioia, in addition to teaching, was busy. He became an assistant to President Healy and then dean of student affairs. After Healy’s retirement, he was tapped by President Leo O’Donovan, S.J., to deal with the financial problems of Georgetown’s teaching and operating hospital. By all accounts, he handled them deftly, preserving the teaching aspects while leading the transfer of operations to MedStar.
“I think I’ve been very lucky in terms of the people I’ve come in contact with here,” DeGioia said. “Every time I was tasked with something new and different, I was given the opportunity to learn more, and I took them, going to Wharton Business School, taking management courses and so on. My education never stopped.”
In 2001, when he was a senior vice president, O’Donovan was retiring. “I was advised to put in for the job,” DeGioia said. “People suggested that I interview but I never thought it was anything serious. There had never been a lay president before, and I thought people were being polite.”
The board of directors hired DeGioia, which was a “complete surprise and a complete life changer.” And a challenge.
Yet in many ways, DeGioia had already acquired the skill sets required of a modern university president, especially this one.
One quote that was prevalent at the time was, “Nobody knew more about the university except God.” Certainly, he had been involved with all aspects of the university: its physical plant, relations with the student body and community, its philosophical and religious base and its educational needs, plus the plans for outreach and expansion. Still, it was a steep rise for the young man from a middle class background in Connecticut. He and his wife, Theresa Miller DeGioia, have a young son. Both are Georgetown alumni. At the time of his selection, one observer quipped that the university had “lost a priest but gained a father.”
Georgetown University is the oldest university in Washington. It is probably the university with the highest national and international profile in the city.
“We’re part of a rich academic community in this city,” DeGioia said. “We are all involved in responding to the growth of the city, and in managing our own growth and resources.”
Georgetown University’s relationship with the Georgetown neighborhood is a study in ironic, sometimes difficult symbiosis. There are always town-gown issues in a community with a university. Here, the relationship has been an up-and-down one. The village – which has not always been the prosperous, wealthy community that it’s perceived to be – has derived a good deal of its tony reputation from proximity to the university as well as the presence of movers and shakers, from presidents-to-be to ambassadors and cabinet holders, often Georgetown graduates.
“It’s the greatest campus in the greatest neighborhood in the City of Washington,” DeGioia said. Yet, the growth of the university, with students living off campus and numerous construction projects, have sometimes incited opposition and anger in parts of the community.
That’s a problem DeGioia has addressed directly during the course of two different campus master plans and through a recent “peace treaty” with Georgetown residents and business groups. Its Georgetown Community Partnership is considered a model of cooperation.
Conversely, the village and city have given certain benefits to the university. DeGioia happily noted, “We can compete better on many levels nationally by saying we’re in Washington.”
Under DeGioia, the university’s vision has gone outside itself. It has expanded with locations in the city – a new downtown campus on Massachusetts Avenue, for instance – and in the world. The number of student dormitory beds has grown to 5,000-plus from 1,500. It also created a highly regarded arts center and an ambitious performance program to go with it. The university’s School of Foreign Service has a campus in Qatar.
“If we’re going to be global, it’s important that we be the strongest possible university right here in Washington,” DeGioia said.
And, now, there’s a Jesuit pope. Pope Francis is the first-ever pontiff from the Society of Jesus.
“It certainly has had an impact,” DeGioia said. “There are renewed conversations about the Jesuit spirit and philosophy and the Vatican on campus.”
DeGioia has taken a few hits. Allowing outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Katherine Sibelius to speak on campus drew fire from church officials. His spirited, eloquent defense of Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke after she was attacked by conservative pit bull Rush Limbaugh generally drew praise.
“Every day, when I walk around the campus, I know I have the best job in the world for me,” said DeGioia, a happy-to-be-up-in-the-morning enthusiast, who will soon become the university’s longest-serving president.
“This place, this community of faith and knowledge, of students and priests. This place is special to me in ways you can’t imagine. I still love to teach. We’re expanding areas of cooperation. We’re making it possible to have more and more deserving people come here.”
You listen to him talk, the face expressive, the hands moving, and you see him as a leader, a people person, reaching out, into the world.
The other president should be so lucky to feel this good.