Brave Thinkers 2012 November 2012

John DeGioia

President, Georgetown University

When DeGioia became the first head of an American Jesuit university trained in academia rather than in a seminary, he represented—depending on who you asked—either Georgetown’s twin religious and scholastic traditions or the Catholic Church’s slipping hold on its affiliated schools.

Eleven years into DeGioia’s tenure, the question arose anew when he leapt to the defense of Sandra Fluke, a law student branded a “slut” and a “prostitute” by Rush Limbaugh after she testified before Congress in support of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that health-care plans—including those of religiously affiliated institutions like Georgetown—provide free contraception. DeGioia urged respect for discourse—and bothered some fellow Catholics by seeming to defend a message contradicting the Church’s stance.

The controversy might have ended there, but DeGioia stoked it again with the announcement that Kathleen Sebelius—the secretary of health and human services, and the overseer of the contraception mandate—would speak on campus. Members of the Church and even some faculty criticized the invitation. But DeGioia held fast to his decision, again casting his school as a sentinel for the free exchange of ideas—and reminding us why an institution like Georgetown exists in the first place. “That there was real conflict here,” he told me, “just captures the sense of the complexity that universities are uniquely qualified, uniquely capable, of embracing and engaging.”

See all our 2012 Brave Thinkers.

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Sarah Yager is an Atlantic associate editor.

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