- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2000

University community should reassess values

It might have been an ordinary sunny day on the Georgetown University campus, with students walking to and from class, dressed beautifully and enjoying the weather. Everything about the scene was reminiscent of an idyllic admissions booklet cover photo except, of course, for the local TV reporters and photographers on campus to investigate a recent string of disturbing campus incidents.

It's a scene symbolic of the division I now see at my school. Ostensibly Georgetown is a beautiful campus full of attractive, intelligent and privileged people. Below the surface, the school is something different, one riven with internal conflict and sudden self-doubt.

So far this academic year, this fabled campus has twice seen a menorah desecrated, not to mention several instances of racist and homophobic graffiti. It has most recently witnessed the death of a student, reportedly following an alcohol-fueled altercation. Destructive and unethical behavior has become an institution on Georgetown's campus, whether or not anyone acknowledges it. Fights are commonplace, and drunkenness winked at. It's a campus where almost all social life revolves around the keg and students are hospitalized each year as a result.

In response to the most recent incidents, the university administration has canceled the spring block party, and there is talk of holding more social events without alcohol. More informally, there has been a barrage of e-mails, town hall meetings and rallies involving the administration, faculty and students. Every attempt to explore the causes and results of these acts of violence has involved some sort of exhortation for the Georgetown "community" to unite, presumably in the face of these challenges to our values. Through it all, campus leaders insist: "Say what you want of Georgetown," they repeat, "you have to admit it is truly a community."

Given Georgetown's manageable size, it is natural to assume the existence of a Georgetown community. But one wonders what manner of community it is. Even the most adamant protector of hate speech would agree the current campus climate is far from ideal. The young man who desecrated the menorah this winter was a Georgetown student, not some outsider trying to crash our perfect university home. Was he not privy to our wonderful community values? Or could he in some way have been a product of them?

Most would agree that any community is best defined by its shared values. Georgetown should be no exception, and the ubiquitous "Jesuit ideal" is never far from anyone's lips when characterizing this university. According to this bit of pedagogical philosophy, Georgetown's highest calling is the education of the whole person, the end result being a campus of "men and women for others." To this end, volunteerism and athletics are actively promoted, and in the academic arena, each student is required to take two courses each in English, theology and philosophy, including ethics.

Nevertheless, it takes more than an ethics class to teach a young person what is ethical, and it takes more than a pair of semesters of theology to carry out a Catholic school's religious calling. A few years ago, students battled to have outward signs of Georgetown's Catholicism displayed in classrooms. Now crucifixes are on the walls, but the moral and spiritual atmosphere on campus is going from bad to worse. Looking around at incidents of hate and violence, it is clear that the myriad superficial efforts extended by the university are failing to fill a moral vacuum. At present, faith in mere gestures is tragically misplaced.

However, more than simply changing the social schedule, this university must start asking itself more deep and difficult questions. What has changed about university culture that has culminated in the violence of 1999-2000? What kind of students is Georgetown attracting and recruiting? If this is indeed a campus and a community, what exactly are the values at its core and what is the university leadership doing to promote those values?

Nothing will change in this or any supposed community until each and every one of its members accepts some responsibility. This includes administration, faculty and students all the factions that, thus far, have spent their energy pointing fingers at each other.

Crises afford the chance for communities to look inward and reassess their values and objectives. Such an assessment, in the case of Georgetown University, is long overdue.

Sloane Starke is a senior in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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