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Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

2011 Spring Faculty Convocation

Gaston Hall
Georgetown University
March 1, 2011

Thank you very much,[Provost] Jim [O'Donnell]. Good afternoon.   It’s a privilege for me to be here with you today on this very special occasion. Every Spring semester, we have the opportunity to honor members of our faculty and alumni communities for the depth of their commitment to Georgetown. Each person represents the very best of our values, ideals and aspirations. 

As many of you know, our Spring Convocation over the past several years has given us the chance to reflect on the personal stories of leading members of our faculty, as they have delivered very memorable and meaningful “Life of Learning Lectures.” This year, we are fortunate to be able to hear the stories of not one, but four, of our colleagues, who have been chosen as the inaugural holders of the McDevitt Chairs. 

I am grateful to them for taking the time earlier this year to be interviewed for the video presentation we will watch later on in the program, which narrates their experiences. This is a different take on a “Life of Learning,” but, as we have seen with our earlier Vicennials video, a very powerful one. I also will have the opportunity to speak about the extraordinary contribution of Robert and Catherine McDevitt, for whom the Chairs are named, later on in these remarks.

But first, I wish to say a few words about this place—the community that Robert, Catherine, our Vicennial Medalists, our 1789 Society members, this place that each one of us here—has made our home.   I attended my first Faculty Convocation in 1983. With one every fall, and another each spring—I think I have now been to more than 50—we’ve explored our university’s commitment to excellence and to a set of reflections in the context in which our work takes place. 

This active commitment, this deep understanding of this place, has been animated by each of you, in your thoughtful scholarship, innovative teaching, and engagement in preparing our students to be women and men for others. This work is timeless – but it is also responsive to the most pressing issues of our age. 

Now a full decade into the 21st century, the Academy has undergone some significant changes and none less significant than the “places” where learning occurs. 

Since our founding, we’ve been committed, as a university, to be a “place of truth,” where our students can explore their deepest beliefs and realize their highest potential. We fulfill this responsibility by engaging in the most rigorous scholarship and research. We describe this pursuit as “disinterested,” meaning we are prepared to follow the truth wherever it leads us.   And we are committed to sharing what we find in our teaching and in our writing…These are pursuits and commitments that our Vicennial medalists and McDevitt Chairs know well. 

But the context for higher education has changed in the past 30 years. As a world community, we have begun to understand the forces of globalization and the impact of new technologies. These forces are reshaping our economies, our policies, the way we work, the meaning of work, the nature of job creation and economic development.   And they are challenging universities around the world to consider a new set of responsibilities, one that incorporates the significant changes we are experiencing today.

In this context, how do we remain true to our core values…to the essence of what happens on this Hilltop…that has distinguished Georgetown now for 222 years, while we evolve to embrace the new roles and responsibilities necessitated by these forces of globalization? What are the resources we have to most effectively address these changes?

I wish to share three brief reflections, inspired by the presence of the Vicennial medalists, the presence of the newest members of the 1789 Society, the presence of our inaugural McDevitt chairholders, and by this occasion, this moment each Spring when we come together, take this time, and remind ourselves of that which holds us together as a community.

First, whenever we gather in this space, this glorious hall that has provided the venue for some of the most important events for more than a century, it is hard not to acknowledge our debt to a tradition of learning that has characterized our university since our founding in 1789. We are heirs to a tradition that has its roots in Paris and Rome of the sixteenth century—a tradition that animated the development of what is perhaps, the greatest system of education the world has ever seen. A tradition that provides a framework through which we seek to achieve goods that are deeply held and deeply valued, goods that provide our lives with meaning.  It is by our participation in the practices and customs that constitute a tradition that we can realize these goods, establish this meaning. 

There is an enduring quality to a tradition. We honor today in both our Vicennialists and in the members of our 1789 Society, an enduring commitment to the tradition that we share by our membership in this community. Traditions are not abstractions. They are not static and frozen in time. They are embodied. Traditions come alive in the women and men who live and work and study here. It is through the work in which we are engaged, it is by the choices we make, the stands that we take, the commitments we accept, that we extend and advance this tradition. Traditions provide us with a “way of life.” And our tradition, deeply grounded in the experience of St. Ignatius Loyola, interpreted anew on the soil of an emerging republic by John Carroll, is imagined and re-imagined in our classrooms and laboratories, libraries and studios, year-in-year-out, by those, like whom we honor today.

Second, and closely connected to the first: While a tradition provides an enduring framework to orient our lives here together, we must recognize the need to be adaptive to the demands of an ever-changing world. Since the 16th century, the Jesuit way of education has been tested and refined across the globe. When St. Ignatius founded Roman College in 1551, he brought with him a mindset that his model could help make that university the best of its time.1 It’s this tradition that we have inherited and refined for Georgetown—both adaptive and committed to excellence.

The origin of this idea is captured in the words right above me. Ad majorem de gloriam—the motto of the Jesuits. That second word, majorem, provides us with the origin of the idea of the “magis”—the “more.” In our tradition we are always asked to look for the “more.” What more can we do? What more can we be? What more should we expect of ourselves and of one another? 

How can we respond to the challenges that define our time? How do we adapt to the changes that are required of us as we seek to engage in an ever evolving world?

In the 21st century context, one issue that has required an adaptation is our very understanding of the nature of “place” for the university. This has meant we now educate on a campus halfway around the world. We have increased our international collaborations and have become ever more global in scope. 

The most significant forces to which we are responding to day are those of globalization. For too long, globalization has been defined in economic and financial, in market terms. We need to understand these forces. Our universities will need to respond to these forces and will need to adapt as we come to terms with these forces. But we need to expand our understanding of the very idea of globalization. 

We need to do so from the characteristic spirit, the ethos of the Academy. The other words on the wall behind me, “inque hominum salutem”—for the salvation of humanity—capture this spirit. We need to adapt. But we need to do so while expanding our understanding of the very forces that are having such an incalculable impact on our lives and work. We need to bring the very best of our tradition and the very best of ourselves to this work of responding and adapting to the forces of globalization.

Third, this spirit—of seeking the betterment of humankind—has always been present for me—it is always alive, when we gather together like this. It is a spirit present in those who have made twenty-year commitments to this community; it is a spirit present in those whose generosity enable us to be the university we aspire to be. It is a spirit that is much in need in our world today. It is a spirit that has always defined for me, what it means to be Georgetown… 

I have learned much about this spirit from my long friendship with the man who will offer our Benediction later in our ceremony, Father James Walsh.

From Jim I have learned that this is a fundamental aspect of our tradition. It is captured in the words of St. Ignatius himself. In what he calls, the “Presupposition,” Ignatius writes: “…it should be presupposed that [we] would be more eagerly disposed to interpret another’s…opinion or expression in a benevolent way, rather than condemning it.”  In this spirit we must always be asking ourselves: are we bringing out the very best in one another? Are we giving the other the benefit of the doubt? Are giving the best possible interpretation of one with whom we may disagree?

St. Augustine put it this way: “Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth. Let us seek it together as something which is known to neither of us. For then only may we seek it, lovingly and tranquilly, if there be no bold presumption that it is already discovered and possessed.”

An enduring tradition, an adaptive capacity, a generosity of spirit: these are the qualities of our community that we celebrate today.  This is a spirit I’ve always felt, every year when we gather together in this very special place.

These are qualities that characterized the life of and contribution of the late Robert McDevitt (C’40) and his wife, Catherine. I wish to take a moment, now, to share with you a little about Robert and Catherine. 

Robert graduated from Georgetown in 1940, from the College. For most of his life, he owned and operated the McDevitt Brothers Funeral Home, a family business started by his grandfather. Catherine and Robert were extraordinarily humble people, devout Catholics, living a quiet and modest life in Binghamton, New York. Robert’s mother, Mary, was one of the first employees of the company that became IBM. Robert had explained that his mother borrowed $125 dollars to purchase her first shares of stock. Those very first shares were still in the McDevitt family when Robert passed away nearly a century later. At the time of his death, Robert McDevitt was the largest shareholder of IBM stock. Many members of our community, over many years – we visited with the McDevitts in Binghamton, but I can say truly, we never imagined the extent of his generosity, nor the depth of his love for Georgetown.

Mr. McDevitt directed that a portion of his estate establish a fund here at Georgetown to endow faculty positions with particular emphasis on disciplines that reflect his deep Catholic faith and his long-standing interest in science and technology. We were honored to accept this gift, which at the time was the largest in university history. 

The depth of his love for his alma mater came to life once again last summer, when the executors of the McDevitt Estate visited campus, with a desire to see firsthand the places on the Hilltop that Robert so cherished. As we toured different locations – White-Gravenor, Healy Hall, Dahlgren Chapel, and finally, Robert’s dorm room on the first floor of Copley – our guests were increasingly moved…as were we. They recognized these special landmarks from Robert’s stories and recollections … and now had a way of envisioning him in the places he loved.  

In these moments, we not only see, but feel, the significant impact of this community… and the depth of gratitude we all hold for each and every individual – and especially the members of our faculty – who bestow it with decades and centuries of meaning.

In our careful selection of the inaugural McDevitt chairs, we hoped to capture not only the aspects of Robert and Catherine’s request, but also the character and dignity with which they lived their lives. The four individuals we selected, I am confident, will serve and lead in the spirit of Robert and Catherine. 

We have prepared a short video introducing each of these new chairs, celebrating their scholarship and looking forward to the contributions that they will make as the inaugural chairholders of the McDevitt Chairs. Let’s start the video.

[Video plays]

I’d now like to invite our McDevitt Chair holders – Mark Murphy, Ophir Frieder, Jim Freerick and Milton Regan – to join me at the front of the stage to be recognized.


1.  McMahon, Fr. Michael.  "The Jesuit Model of Education."  Edocere: A Resource for Catholic Education.

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