Situated in Washington, D.C., Georgetown University, founded in 1789, is the oldest Catholic institution of higher education in the United States. Its story is one of a traditional European collegium transplanted into a new republic on American soil, shaping and being powerfully shaped by its new environment.
Founding. On March 30, 1787, John carroll (1735–1815), who was shortly to become the first Catholic bishop of the United States, issued a broadside entitled "Proposals for establishing an Academy at George-Town, Patowmack-River, Maryland." Carroll had entered the Society of Jesus in 1753 and was ordained a priest in 1761. When Pope Clement XIV suppressed the order in 1773, Carroll emerged as the leader of the former Jesuits in the Maryland area who banded together to continue their apostolic work.
Carroll's "modest academy" at the beginning followed the traditional plan of studies in Jesuit schools, the Ratio Studiorum, a five-or six-year program intended for boys from the ages of ten to sixteen. It was designed to take students who had learned the "first Elements of Letters" and provide them with a classical humanities education, fitting them for entrance into a university.
The staff was largely composed of former Jesuits, though four Sulpicians, exiles of the French Revolution, were crucial to the survival of the school in the early years. Carroll appointed one of them, William Louis dubourg, to serve as president from 1796 to 1798. In 1805, after a partial restoration of the Society of Jesus, Jesuits assumed the direction of the school. Through the good offices of its first student, William gaston, who became a representative from North Carolina, the school was chartered by an act of Congress in 1815.
Carroll had no intention of restricting admission to Catholics. In keeping with the religious liberty guaranteed to all Christians in 1776 in the Maryland Constitution, he wished his school to be "open to students of every religious profession."
Though Carroll's 1787 "Proposals" failed in their purpose of raising funds for the academy, 69 students were enrolled for 1791 and 1792, the first year of its operation. Enrollments gradually increased over the years so that through its first hundred years they averaged about 145 students, most of whom were in the preparatory division. The college division conferred its first bachelor's degree in 1817 and awarded an average of seven A.B. degrees each year throughout the nineteenth century.
In 1806, Georgetown College acquired a theology faculty, which was set up to teach Jesuit seminarians. The theology faculty remained at Georgetown until 1869 when the seminary was relocated to Woodstock, Maryland.
In 1849, four Washington physicians wrote a letter to James Ryder, the president of Georgetown College, indicating their intention to establish a medical school and requesting that its degrees be conferred in virtue of Georgetown's charter. Since the physicians agreed to pay all the expenses of the venture, Ryder graciously acceded to their request.
By mid-century, the training of lawyers was beginning to shift from private apprenticeships in law offices to programs in an academic setting. In 1865, Columbian College, now George Washington University, established the first law school in Washington, prudently scheduling all its classes in the late afternoon and early evening to make it possible for federal workers to attend. Five years later, Georgetown inaugurated its own law school in the same "sunset" style.
Second Founding. When Patrick F. Healy became prefect of studies in 1868, he increased substantially the role of sciences and mathematics in the curriculum, while raising standards in the study of Latin and Greek. As president (1873–82), this son of a white planter in Georgia, Michael Healy, and his wife, Mary Eliza, a former slave, boldly moved to the task of turning Georgetown into a university on the model that emerged in the United States in the post-bellum period. In 1877, he undertook the construction of a massive building that would proclaim his ambition to make Georgetown a center of higher education in the nation's capital. Healy, however, experienced great difficulty in finding donors for the project and, though much of the building was in use in 1881, areas like the library and the assembly hall were not completed until the end of the century. Subsequently named Healy Hall, it remains a monument to the man referred to as the "second founder" of the school and provides the architectural signature of the main campus.
New ventures followed with a certain regularity. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was formally inaugurated in 1893. The Dental School was added in 1901 and the School of Nursing was established in 1903. After World War One, Edmund A. Walsh began the School of Foreign Service to prepare people not only for diplomatic service but also for international business careers. This initiative led to the development of the School of Languages and Linguistics (1949) and the School of Business Administration (1950).
Tradition in Transition. The Second Vatican Council (1962–65), together with the social and political upheavals in the 1960s, set in motion a dramatic series of changes at Georgetown as the university sought to discern "the signs of the times."
The impact of the council was felt immediately in the Theology Department, which until 1966 was staffed almost entirely by Jesuits with seminary training in Catholic theology. The department responded to the call for ecumenical openness and dialogue by hiring men and women with university training in the world's major religious traditions. This resulted in a major revision of the department's course offerings, enabling all students to choose from a wide variety of elective courses.
At the same time, the office of campus ministry carried one step further John Carroll's desire that the school be open to students "of every religious profession" by bringing to campus clergy and pastoral counselors to meet the needs of a religiously diverse student body.
The School of Foreign Service made a notable contribution to interreligious dialogue by founding in 1993 with the blessing of Pope John Paul II the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, which is at present the only academic institution in the United States dedicated to exploring the cultural, historical, political, and theological interactions of Christianity and Islam.
The college, which had from its founding been all male, welcomed the first women students in 1969, and in a short while became fully co-educational. A policy of open recruitment brought increasing numbers of women into the faculty and into positions in the administration previously held only by men (provost, executive vice president and dean of the Law Center, dean of the College, treasurer, general counsel).
Prominent during this period of growth was the figure of Timothy S. Healy, president from 1976 to 1989, who embarked on an ambitious plan of construction, greatly increased minority enrollments, and provided much of the incentive for Georgetown to strive for excellence in its graduate programs, giving rise to the saying that the "second Healy was Georgetown's third founder." It was during his tenure that Georgetown became the only Catholic member of the Consortium on the Financing of Higher Education, a group of 31 major private American universities, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Chicago.
The relatively rapid rise of the university's profile in the last third of the twentieth century was sustained by alumni support that would have gladdened the hearts of John Carroll and Patrick Healy, through great growth in annual giving and in a series of successful fund-raising campaigns. Of great significance was the change in the composition of the board of directors. What had been a board composed entirely of Georgetown Jesuits, serving under a president who was also their religious superior, who in turn reported to the provincial superior in Baltimore and the general superior in Rome, became in 1969 an autonomous external board composed of 40 to 50 men and women, including 10 or 12 Jesuits not from Georgetown, who accepted responsibility for carrying out the unfolding purposes of the university.
When in 2000 the university needed to recruit a new president, it conducted an open search, inviting applications from all qualified candidates, specifying that each "should understand and be committed to the Catholic and Jesuit tradition of higher education." In February of 2001, the board appointed John J. DeGioia to be the first lay president of Georgetown.
Mission Statement. In September of 2000 the board of directors approved a new mission statement in which Georgetown is described as "a Catholic and Jesuit, student-centered research university … founded on the principle that serious and sustained discourse among people of different faiths, cultures, and beliefs promotes intellectual, ethical, and spiritual understanding." The university is committed to justice and the common good as well as to providing education in the Jesuit tradition, "for the glory of God and the well-being of humankind." The changes that have taken place in John Carroll's "modest academy" could not have been foreseen, but he might recognize in this mission statement the same end he proposed for his school in a letter he wrote in 1787: "to diffuse knowledge, promote virtue & serve Religion."
Bibliography: j. m. daley, Georgetown University: Origin and Early Years (Washington 1957). j. t. durkin, Georgetown University: The Middle Years, 1840–1900 (Washington 1963). j. d.g. shea, Memorial of the First Centenary of Georgetown College, D.C., Comprising a History of Georgetown University (New York 1891). w. c. mcfadden, ed., Georgetown at Two Hundred (Washington 1990). r. e. curran, The Bicentennial History of Georgetown University: From Academy to University, 1789–1889, v. 1 (Washington 1993), v. 2 (forthcoming).
[w. c. mcfadden]