Faith and Justice? Timothy Healy and Leo O’Donovan’s Struggles to Balance Piety and Dialogue
By Maddy Forbess And Meghan Decourcey
September 23, 2018
“Faith and Justice” hangs from the banners of Healy Hall, urging students and faculty on to serve their community while staying true to their religious convictions.
Although Jesuits hold the two values as complementary, recent Georgetown University Presidents Timothy Healy and Leo O’Donovan have confronted several instances where the Catholic Church and progressive segments of the student body have pulled the university in competing directions.
The responses of Healy and O’Donovan to these contentious situations reflect distinct leadership styles that continue to define Georgetown today.
Timothy S. Healy, S.J., led Georgetown as president from 1976 to 1989. During his presidency, admissions doubled and the university endowment increased from $38 million to almost $228 million. However, his loyalty to the doctrine of the Catholic Church occasionally rankled the more progressive elements of the student body.
In his early years as president, Healy took a conservative stance against the student-led radio station WGTB. The radio station embraced the spirit of the ’70s punk rock movement, promoted anti-Vietnam War rallies and advertised its support for contraception, according to Washington City Paper. WGTB drew the negative attention of Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1975, who accused the station as being a platform for communist propaganda.
“There is little will to oppose communism in America anymore, [and] the voice of third-world communism is pervasive in academia. WGTB … broadcasts what seems to be propaganda for the third world,” Agnew told The New York Times Magazine.”
In 1979, fed up with WGTB’s sex and drug innuendos and the punk rock played on the station, Healy sold the radio frequency to the University of the District of Columbia for a single dollar.
Healy’s no-tolerance approach to radical radio was not his only conservative decision on student issues. His administration also refused to officially recognize LGBTQ student groups such as the Gay Rights Coalition of the Georgetown University Law Center and the Gay People of Georgetown University.
In 1980, these student groups sued the university on grounds of unequal treatment based on their gender and sexual orientation. They claimed that Healy’s administration was discriminating against LGBTQ students because their clubs were denied official recognition and access to services and facilities afforded to other student groups.
The final 1987 appeals ruling was a compromise: Although Georgetown need not grant the gay student groups with “official recognition” because of its Catholic heritage, the university must provide the same access to resources such as a mailbox and the ability to apply for university funding.
Healy’s decision garnered mixed reactions. Alumni praised Healy for his settlement, while students chastised him for his failure to give the groups official recognition.
Despite the backlash he received, Healy, a Catholic Democrat, sought to reconcile his religious beliefs with his commitment to fostering the growth of all students. Robert Pitofsky, professor of law and executive vice president for law center affairs and dean of the Georgetown University Law Center from 1983 to 1989, described the balancing act Healy performed between the church and his students.
“His goal was to reconcile the competing values of religious freedom and civil liberties in a way that allowed both sides to come away without humiliation and with their principles intact,” Pitofksy wrote. “In the end, the gay rights litigation was settled, against the advice of many of his advisors, in a way that respected both Catholic values and human rights.”
Despite his reticence to officially recognize LGBTQ student groups, Healy worked in other ways to make Georgetown more diverse. Mary Scully, university liaison for federal relations, has worked for Georgetown in various capacities for more than 30 years, bearing witness to the administrations of Healy, O’Donovan and current University President John J. DeGioia. She noted how Healy increased Georgetown’s national prestige, making it known as top-tier university for students from all backgrounds.
“Healy made Georgetown a recognizable name nationally, you didn’t have to just be Roman-Catholic or of a certain East Coast background to know about it,” Scully said in an interview with The Hoya. “Healy really elevated key components of the university’s identity. There was a great commitment to scholarships, diversity, inclusion.”
Healy’s dedication to “pluralism” compelled his advancement of diversity, both for Georgetown students and the District’s greater community.
He promoted student-led programs to aid low-income D.C. public schools like the D.C. Schools Project. His close relationships with D.C. councilmembers and administrative pragmatism situated Georgetown as not only a prestigious religious institution but as a renowned university of higher learning, according to Scully.
Scully highlighted Healy’s vision of Georgetown as an accessible part of D.C. rather than a lone fortress.
“Having Jesuits on staff who [developed the] institutional citizenship identity of the university [made Georgetown] not just a stone wall, private, exclusive, elite hilltop separate from the city, but really quite integrated as a resource for Washington, D.C.,” Scully said.
Above all, Healy strove to make Georgetown more inclusive while remaining in accordance with Catholic tradition. Pitofsky described Healy as a complex figure, whose pragmatism was underlaid by religiosity.
“He encompassed within himself and his spirit the most amazing contradictions,” Pitofsky wrote in an “In Memoriam” article in the Georgetown Law Journal, Issue 81. “He was a man of religion who loved the earthly and the practical.”
Committed to Dialogue
While O’Donovan faced the same challenges surrounding faith and justice as his predecessor, the newer president confronted them with a different attitude.
Following Healy’s resignation from Georgetown to become president of the New York Public Library in 1989, the university named Leo O’Donovan, S.J., as his successor.
Early in his presidency, O’Donovan became entangled in a dispute with the Vatican over abortion rights groups on campus.
In 1991, GU Choice, a pro-abortions rights student group, applied for access to university benefits. The group was granted approval by then-Dean of Student Affairs DeGioia. Both DeGioia and O’Donovan approved the decision on the grounds of free speech.
Opposition quickly arose from students, Catholic officials and alumni. In fall 1991, a group of 1500 Georgetown alumni and students, including Cardinal James Hickey of D.C., brought forward a petition asking for a canon lawsuit against the university in hopes that the Vatican would revoke the university’s Catholic status.
The threat of action by the Vatican was enough to pressure O’Donovan to take GU Choice’s benefits away, 14 months after it was first recognized.
O’Donovan’s original intention in recognizing GU Choice was to have conversations among students and faculty about these issues. The effects from the debate over GU Choice are still present on campus: The group evolved into H*yas for Choice, a pro-reproductive rights group that remains unrecognized by the university.
When asked to revisit the topic in a 2015 interview with The Hoya, O’Donovan expressed his desire for open dialogue on tricky moral issues like abortion.
“In a university situation I would always favor enabling a conversation in the company of wise faculty and wise moral and religious guides, rather than forcing that discussion underground,” O’Donovan said.
The push for discussion and a variety of viewpoints was a defining aspect of O’Donovan’s tenure. In 1993, O’Donovan created the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, which is known today as the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. The center attempts to improve relations between the West and the Muslim world.
O’Donovan has been vocal about the need for cross-religious dialogue, expressing his commitment to communication and kinship.
“We have many, many brothers and sisters we have who hold the Islamic faith,” O’Donovan said. “They are indeed our brothers and sisters — and I’m very proud of the fact that we have real strength at Georgetown and building strengths in Islamic studies and the Arabic language.”
Six years later in 1999, Georgetown would become the first U.S. university to hire a full-time Muslim chaplain, Imam Yahya Hendi. O’Donovan was committed to recognizing different religions and promoting interfaith dialogue.
Like Healy, O’Donovan led a massive growth in the university’s endowment, which rose from $240 million to over $740 million by the end of his presidency in 2001. Though O’Donovan retired later that year, his legacy lives on, even if most students are familiar with him as the namesake for the only dining hall on Georgetown’s campus, which opened in 2003.
Different Styles, Same Priorities
The two presidents each left their own indelible mark on Georgetown with their distinct personalities and presences.
“[Healy] had a presence of gravitas, a certain weightiness to his presence,” Scully said. “Which strongly contrasted to Father O’Donovan who is someone who is very outgoing, easy to smile, direct eye contact, very engaging with whoever’s in the room.”
As a prestigious Catholic university and an important political force, the most contentious issues past Georgetown presidents have navigated concern the interaction between the conservative Catholic Church and the often more progressive student body. Healy struggled with pressure surrounding the relationship of LGBTQ students, the university, and the church, while O’Donovan’s openness to debate about abortion rights and contraception landed him in hot water with the Vatican.
Despite their differences in temperament and varied approaches to the relationship between faith and justice, the two presidents’ legacies are defined above all by their loyalty to Jesuit ethics and devotion to Georgetown students.
“They’re very different,” Scully said. “They just upheld the standards of Jesuit higher-level education and the quality of education our students received.”