More from the Voice‘s interview with Dean Chester Gillis
This week, the Voice sat down to talk with Chester Gillis, who was named Dean of the College at the end of last year. We included a portion of the interview in today’s paper, but here’s the full transcript!
The Voice: How you are adjusting to this new job as Dean of the College? Do you find it particularly challenging or interesting?
Chester Gillis: Well in terms of adjusting, fortunately I had a year as interim dean to get the lay of the land. It was just a very good introduction to the position; it was very helpful. So in some ways this year, I’m doing some things for the second time, like last year, but also now I can implement a vision for the next five years. Are there challenges? There are a range of challenges. There are always a range challenges with this job. One is simply attending to multiple constituencies: the students, of course, the faculty, the alumni, the donors and the multiple stakeholders in the University from outside so it’s a very large constituency, very large, so any waverings tend to come from that, just like today. It’s just the reality.
That said, I have a superb staff here in the office, who are very knowledgeable, very experienced, and very helpful to make everything work so the leadership does the execution is happy on may levels and that makes everything possible. It’s as simple as that.
The Voice: I’ve spoken to a few students who are very excited about the proposed creation of a business minor in the college. I was wondering if you had any plans in the future for more of these cross-disciplinary majors?
Gillis: Specific ones, there are none at present. We’ll have to see how this one goes we’re working hard on it to make it happen.
The Voice: Do you have any idea of what the time frame would be?
Gillis: I don’t want to be held to saying next year. I would love to see it next year. I’d love to take my time do it right and do it quickly, but it requires a lot of coordination with the business school and the college and the provost’s office, so it’s not something you can simply fashion overnight.
We can’t even say, “Oh, we’ll just duplicate the program we already have.” But I think once it’s done it will have a long shelf time, and if it’s successful, then it can be a model for other kinds of programs between schools. But this is a good start and it’s an important start. We haven’t done it before, so it sets benchmark, and that’s another reason we want to do it well and do it carefully so it is successful. If it doesn’t benefit our students, if it’s not well-designed, it’s not good. If it is well-designed and it benefits students, then I’m in favor, and it could serve as a model.
The Voice: You invited a number of students to your house for a meal last month. I was wondering how that meal went and what you took away from it?
Gillis: It was actually terrific. My wife’s name is Marie, and it’s one of our favorite things to do is be with students. We’ve had a few dinners and we’ll have more. The first one was reserved for first-year students only … The purpose of dinners is for student to get to know me, and my wife as well, and so we get to know them. It’s a terrific opportunity and then I talk to each of them to find out his or her research interests and the trajectory that got them where they are.
These dinners stem from idea is especially for college students when many are undecided about their majors. This can help give you some ideas, and also for those who are doing liberal arts and things, they can say oh I can see, “Oh, I can see where this would get me,” the path that others are traveling to get to where they are. It’s very helpful and reassuring and sometimes there’s uncertainty in the paths of scholars to how they got where they were.
And this is not an invitation to dinner with a professor, by any means, it’s invitation to reflect on life and say where am I in my chosen career and what are the possibilities for me and expand those possibilities. The problem with some college students is they think very narrowly and they enter college in a preprofessional mode, thinking they have to do this to get this job, that’s really not what it’s about, you should do something you’re passionate about and with a Georgetown degree you’re going to be successful, so you don’t have to worry about some of that.
The Voice: What types of long-term changes would you like to make and you see in the future for students in the College?
Gillis: That’s a broad question.
The Voice: Maybe you could elaborate on your long-term vision.
Gillis: My long term vision is kind of a balance between attending to students in a personal way as we have initially done in the college and at all the schools at Georgetown, and at the same time increasing the research profile of the university and the scholarly work coming out both for students as well as the faculty, and that’s a balance that has to be done very carefully. I mean, I think clearly we need to be a first-rate research university and travel in the circles that are the highest quality in that regard. But we have to do that without leaving behind our signature elements of an undergraduate education, which are largely tied to Jesuit principles, cura personalis and so forth.
So when students come to Georgetown they have professors in the classrooms and the classes are a reasonable size and they are considered central to who we are at Georgetown and the mission of Georgetown. And that something I have to work toward and work with other people in the universities and our administrators, but to strike that balance, to say we need an enhancement of research profile, clearly, without leaving behind the kind of personal character of the education you receive at Georgetown.
The Voice: Is it a challenge in terms of resources or manpower?
Gillis: It’s a challenge in vision in that if we go one direction, we do it exclusively and I don’t want to leave the date that we came with. In part it’s also resources, there’s always the balance between ambition and vision, which I think is very healthy, and having the resources to support that.
So another aspect I’m working on is the sciences, particularly the execution of the science building. It is my number one priority. My number one priority is all students, and I’m not just saying that, but among the priorities of things we have to do curiccularly and institutionally, the science center is essential. We have very good scientists, we have good science students who are engaged in undergraduate research, for which I’m quite grateful, and which differentiates us from a number of institutions, not all, but many.
But our facilities are sub-par, [that] would be putting it mildly. We just have to have better facilities for our faculty and our students, for the first-rate research they’re producing, and so my hope is by next year they’ll be shoveling that ground out there and we’ll have a new science center, which will improve the morale of the faculty and also our ability to draw students who are looking at other competitive universities with much better facilities. And this is not to denigrate our science instruction, we’re very very well so we’re if doing so much with so little. Hopefully we can do even more with proper resources.
The Voice: What are your thoughts on the consistent condemnation of Georgetown by conservative groups such as the Cardinal Newman Society, most recently for the honorary doctorate give to John Sweeney? More broadly, how do you think Georgetown balances its Catholic identity with being a premiere research university (not that those are necessarily in contrast with one another)?
Gillis: And they shouldn’t be in contrast. I see us as a robust, Catholic institution engaged with the world and not always exclusively on our terms. Sometimes the questions that are posed are posed by [non-Catholics], by the academy and by the world. If we’re not engaged in those and informing those questions and answering them from a Catholic perspective, in terms of Catholic values, history, tradition, then we’re not doing our job as a University.
I do not want [a breed of Catholicism] that says “You’re only Catholic if…” and so we’re so narrowly defined maybe very few people would fit that moniker. I think Catholicism is more expansive than that. It doesn’t mean that it’s relativist by any means. But when [groups] criticize people like the head of the AFL-CIO who even in his speech when he accepted his doctorate spoke about how motivated he was by the Catholic principle of social justice, Catholic social teachings, because they informed what he had done with his work. And that work is supported very much by the Church, in a sense. Not directly because it’s another institution, but it’s informed by the Church saying there must be justice for workers. That’s been the position of the Church for well over a century.
For a body to criticize him on one element of how the unions work, it may have some legitimacy, but unless this absolute purity about catholic doctrine in every regard, it’s pretty hard to find someone or some institution that doesn’t have any differences with the church in some regard, that’s simply the way it is. and so these watchdog groups are probably not going to be happy with us. They have a list of the top 20 universities that are authentically Catholic. It’s a list on which we are not counted … If you look at those universities, are they of the top tier intellectually? Often they are simply not. Do they sacrifice something of their intellectual character as a university to fit these criteria? Perhaps they have. We’re not looking to do that.
The Voice: I’ve spoken to few of students who were quite fond of you as a professor. I was wondering you have any ambitions to returning to the classroom?
Gillis: I have an ambition to return to the classroom. Whether or not it becomes a reality is another question. My reason for not doing so right now is I can’t guarantee I won’t miss classes and I don’t think it’s fair to sign up for a class and have the professor miss a range of the classes.