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Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

Faculty Convocation Spring 2008

March 11, 2008
Gaston Hall
Georgetown University

We gather together today, as we do every spring, to remind ourselves of what enables Georgetown to be the University we care about so deeply. In the end, if you examine what truly makes universities special – as important as they are – it is not the buildings, or the books and journals, or the size of the endowment. These are all very important, and I think you all know how hard we are all working to strengthen these dimensions of Georgetown.

We are in both the largest period of capital expansion in our history – more than $800 million in this decade – and the largest fund raising effort in our history. And we will seek to be as
competitive as anyone in our country on the key metrics for universities.

But if such metrics as endowment size and physical plant could explain university excellence, then it is hard to imagine what could account for the standing of Georgetown.

We are the university we are today because of the women and men who choose to make their lives here…who choose to commit themselves to making this university everything it can possibly be. Women and men who both seek to fulfill not only their own promise, but the promise of those around them—and the promise of this university. We seek to be a community where everyone—faculty member, student, administrator—can do their very best work…can become what only they can be.

This kind of work is best understood as moral work. In this kind of work, the sharing of a text by a member of our faculty with a student is not just an act of disseminating knowledge. It is understood as, potentially, an act of metanoia—of transformation. This Greek term is based upon two words, meta (beyond) and nous (mind or spirit) – it means something like “to go beyond the mind that you have.” To put it another way, we are encouraged to “change” our “way of knowing,” our “way of perceiving,” our way of “grasping reality,” our “perspective,” our “way of seeing.” (Robert Barron, And Now I See, p. 4)

This kind of work—this moral work—is at the heart of what we are as a University. And the heart of this University is what we honor today. Each spring we gather—in gratitude—to those who have made a life here, who by virtue of the longevity of their commitment to this community, enable us to sustain a tradition of which we are heirs…and for which we are stewards. Each spring we honor those who have served for twenty-years—our Vicennial Medalists. And each spring for the past four years, I have invited one among us to offer reflections on a life lived here in the Academy. In a few moments, I will introduce Professor Joan Holmer—who will be completing her service to Georgetown this spring after thirty-five extraordinary years—to deliver today’s “Life of Learning” lecture.

Today, we also invite to join us in this annual celebration of commitment to our university community, those women and men whose generosity sustains the spirit and mission of Georgetown. The 1789 Society is comprised of the most generous philanthropic supporters of Georgetown. We have never been supported in the way that we are today, and we could think of no better way to express our appreciation than to invite you here this afternoon to this—our deeply intimate and personal way of expressing appreciation for what matters most in this community.

This is an important moment in the life of our university community. We are wrestling many new challenges that will shape the future of the Academy in this new century.

We are addressing the changing dynamics in the sciences, especially the life sciences. These are impacting both our economic model for our mission and—with the decoding of the human genome—what can best be understood as a “paradigm shift” in the way we think about the applications of basic science research for the care of individuals. Additionally, we are addressing the importance of science in advancing the sustainability of our environment.

We are also addressing the increasing significance that religion plays in the relations between peoples and nations. Religion had been pushed outside the realm of our approaches to such relations since the Treaty of Westphalia. But we do not live in a time—and our children will not live in a century—where this will any longer be the case.

We are addressing the role and responsibility that a university plays in responding to the most significant challenges of our time, and how we engage in the public arena with the best that a university can contribute.

And we are addressing the challenge of globalization—what I believe is the truly defining challenge for our university community. If the defining challenge for the last generation was to evolve from a regional university into what we are today—a truly national research university—than I believe the challenge for this generation is to become a global university.

We have discussed this on many previous occasions, but since the last time we were together in October, consider the following:

We opened our first liaison office in China, at Fudan University, in a ceremony lead by our Provost Jim O’Donnell.

  • We launched a partnership with Universia, a network of 985 universities in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America— comprising 10 million students, and 800,000 faculty. Under the leadership of one of our Vicennialists, Ricardo Ernst, we launched an on-line, academic journal, Globalization, Competitiveness, and Governance, as our contribution to this network.
  • We launched a new Global Executive MBA, under the leadership of Dean George Daly, with Esade, one of the leading business schools in Europe.
  • Our colleagues at the Medical Center opened a partnership with East China Normal University.
  • We hosted a visiting delegation of health care leaders from India, exploring how together we can make a difference in improving the conditions of health care for the poor.
  • Our Law Center, under the leadership of Dean Alex Aleinikoff, has completed plans for the opening in London this fall a “Transnational Legal Studies Center”--which will be a partnership with ten law schools from around the world.
  • Under the leadership of Tom Banchoff, we developed and released a first annual report at the World Economic Forum in Davos on the state of relations between Islam and the West.
  • And on February 19th, we signed an agreement to become an academic partner with the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the government agency in China responsible for relations with religion.

There is no road map for becoming a global university. But I have great confidence that when our best people are doing their best work, informed by the best ideas, we are advancing the strategic priorities of this University.

Undoubtedly, this is an important moment in the life of our university community, and it is good that we take this time to acknowledge what is most important about our lives together here. This is a community that has long provided a context for “metanoia,” for transformation, but the conditions that enable this to be possible can never be taken for granted. At the deepest level, it is a trust in each other and a respect for one another.

This trust, this respect, is strengthened and sustained by the commitment we make to one another…and to the animating spirit…and the underlying values that have characterized this community throughout our history. This spirit and these values are embodied in the lives of those we honor today. This spirit and these values are captured in the character, the style, the way of proceeding that defines Georgetown.

I have just mentioned some of our work in China—so perhaps it’s fitting that we hold this event today. According to Chinese tradition, it was on this day in the year 105 that an official of the Han Imperial Court, an inventor – Tsai Lin – first produced paper. As an aside, with a six year old now in Cub Scouts, our kitchen has become something like a laboratory, and JT and I recently made paper. The DeGioia family can attest that this was no small achievement!!!

As researchers and scholars–regardless of our field or discipline–paper is the “common currency” of our realm. Even in this age of technology, it remains the most important of our mediums of exchange for literature, for language, for words.

We sustain this community and we strengthen this community by the way in we exchange words…by how we respect and cherish words…by how we deploy words.

The current Archbishop of Canterbury–Rowan Williams–speaks to the power of words in his work, Silence and Honey Cakes. In the book, Archbishop Williams tells the story of an early Christian desert father, Macarius, who lived in a very isolated monastery. One day, as he was dismissing his brothers from communal prayer, he said to them, “Flee brethren, flee!” Looking outside the window, a puzzled older monk asked him, ‘Where could we flee that is further than this desert?’ Macarius just slowly put his finger to his lips and said, ‘Flee that.’”

Macarius understood that no matter how physically remote we may be…no matter how unimportant we may seem…no matter how ineffectual our actions may appear—there is always the damage that can be done by words…

…Words employed in self-justification; to obscure the truth; to engage in “power games;” to advance prejudice; to promote hate; or to perpetuate—as the Archbishop has noted—“the lies we tell ourselves and each other about humanity.” To put it another way—words used as weapons…words used to wound.

No wonder that Antonine de Saint-Exupery wrote that, “Language is the source of misunderstanding.” And no wonder that when God wanted to put an end to global cooperation and community—to universal humanity—at the Tower of Babel, he sent no plague or trial—he simply confused the language of the world’s people.

If—as Shakespeare’s contemporary—Ben Jonson argued, that words, language—how we speak—may be the moral barometer of how we think…then nothing may be as important as what we say on our journey to a civil society—a society where the innate dignity—the humanity—of every individual is recognized and respected.

The creation of a civil society is also in the spirit of St. Ignatius—who challenged us all to engage in the world to make it a better place…

…It is a spirit that still animates and motivates all that we do here at Georgetown…

…And it is a spirit that requires us to ask a question of ourselves: How can the academy—those of us here at Georgetown—best employ the force and power of language—of communication—of words—to help promote such a society?

I believe that there are three things we can and must do.

First, we must always ensure the civility of campus debate and discussion. Incivility has no place in the halls of the Academy. But, as a university steeped in the Catholic and Jesuit heritage of caring for and about each other, we can never tolerate an atmosphere—which a Carnegie Foundation Report from 1990 found on all too many college campuses—where “words are not used as the key to understanding but as weapons of assault.”

This idea is very much inherent in our university’s long-standing “Speech and Expression Policy.” In the Preamble, Fr. James Walsh states that “a university is many things, but central to its being is [open] discourse, discussion, debate…to forbid or limit discourse contradicts everything the university stands for.” This is very much in keeping with the Jesuit spirit of inquiry…and the vision of our founder, Archbishop John Carroll, who advocated “giving free circulation to fair argument.”

But, as the policy clearly outlines, the rights of free speech and expression do not include—among other things—any activity, remarks or discourse that are offensive on matters of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. This, too, is in keeping with our Catholic and Jesuit heritage.

The second thing that we can do is to foster interreligious and interfaith dialogue that would be very difficult in other places. We have this opportunity because of our wealth of resources. These include a pluralistic campus ministry; the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs; the Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding; our Program for Jewish Civilization; our doctoral program in religious pluralism and theology; and our distinguished lecture series on interreligious dialogue. We must recognize that to be able to engage in the level of discourse that is possible here—that these resources make possible—is a very rare opportunity in our world today.

Third and finally, we at Georgetown must respond to the challenges of globalization with one of our greatest strengths—our Catholic and Jesuit tradition and history of advancing both intercultural and interfaith understanding.

Specifically, as we engage in the world, we must do so with a humility that is derived from a long involvement in this work. We must be animated by the example of Matteo Ricci—one of the first Jesuits to travel to China—who demonstrated the style of engagement we must emulate. Ricci knew that he had to learn—as well as lecture. When he appeared at court, he did so in the dress and language of a learned Chinese scholar. With his fellow Jesuits, he introduced Western science and arts to China, while undertaking significant intercultural and philosophical dialogue with Chinese officials. He respected the local culture and customs, language and learning, of the people he encountered. And he developed a sense of solidarity with those he encountered. Ricci set an example of someone who could do great things…by also doing good.

No one has embodied everything that is good and great about Georgetown more than the woman we have asked to deliver this year’s Life of Learning Address.

For 35 years, Joan Holmer has taught, mentored, and inspired her students with her wisdom and wit. She has shared with them her love of English Renaissance literature—both its philosophy and its language. And she has helped countless young women and men to better understand the power and force of words.

Dr. Holmer received a BA in English and a BS in secondary education from the University of Minnesota in 1968. She then completed both her Masters in English, in 1971…and her Ph.D., in 1973, from Princeton University. It was in the fall of that year that she joined us at Georgetown.

Her teaching and research interests include Renaissance literature; Shakespeare; Spenser; Marlowe; Nashe; Milton; biblical illusion; honor codes; gender roles; moral philosophy; intellectual, cultural, and religious history—and dueling.

Additionally, Dr. Holmer’s publications include The Merchant of Venice: Choice, Hazard and Consequences, and numerous articles on Shakespeare—particularly focusing on Romeo and Juliet, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet. She has also published essays on William Browne, Robert Herrick, and John Milton.

For 35 years, Joan has not only enhanced her field of study and enriched the academic experience of her students—she has shared the joy, delight, and excitement of teaching, learning, inquiry, and discovery with all of us. She is the perfect person to present today’s “Life of Learning” lecture.

And as Joan contemplates a well earned retirement, I hope she will always think of Georgetown as home…that she will visit us often…and that she will remember how proud we are to have her as a member of our family. It is now my pleasure to introduce today’s “Life of Learning” lecturer, Dr. Joan Holmer…

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