The Catholic University of America

Q&A with CUA President John Garvey

Shortly before the public announcement of his appointment as president of Catholic University, John Garvey answered some questions posed by the CUA public affairs staff. Below are excerpts from that exchange.


  John Garvey
  CUA's new President John Garvey

What do you know about Catholic University?

Among the 245 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, The Catholic University of America is the national university of the Catholic Church, founded and sponsored by the bishops of the country with the approval of the Holy See. It began, in 1889, as a university on the European model of graduate education, dedicated to the advancement of knowledge through research. Catholic University was among the 14 institutions offering instruction for the doctorate that formed the Association of American Universities in 1900. A few years later it added undergraduate programs – a component of its mission that has grown increasingly important in recent years.

I think there is a unique and important role in American higher education for institutions like Catholic University – schools that consider the issues of modern life from an intellectual tradition that is open to many ways of knowing. In my one-time role as president of the Association of American Law Schools, I spoke of the need for institutional pluralism in higher education. Catholic University is the most wonderful example of that phenomenon.

Why did you seek its presidency?

For more than a decade, I have been the dean of Boston College Law School, an institution I have loved and been honored to serve. I can think of no other job I would have left BC for. But I have been committed for much of my life to advancing the cause of Catholic higher education, and there is no better place to do that than at The Catholic University of America. I hope during my term as president to continue the work Fr. O’Connell has done to build the quality of its academic programs, both graduate and undergraduate, and the endowment necessary to support them.

What is your proudest achievement as dean of BC's law school?

Hiring 20 superb new faculty, constructing an Alumni Association and Board of Overseers, rebuilding the administrative infrastructure, launching the Law School’s first-ever capital campaign, and confirming an institutional sense of Jesuit, Catholic identity.

What do you think you will be able to “transfer” from your experience there to CUA?

One of the fun things about being the dean of a law school – particularly one the quality of Boston College – is that it has in its DNA all the parts of a larger university: faculty and students, admissions, career services, library, alumni, development, budget and endowment, physical plant, and IT. And one who is fortunate, as I have been, to be dean for more than a decade gets well acquainted with the personnel and programs of the larger university. I hope these experiences will stand me in good stead as I undertake the larger job of leading Catholic University.

Have you still continued to teach constitutional law to first year students at BC?

Each year I teach a first-year Constitutional Law class to 90 students. In 2008-09 I also taught a course on the financial crisis to students from the law school and MBA students from the business school. In 2009-2010 I taught a spring seminar on law and religion.

Outgoing President Bishop David O’Connell cites the strengthening of the Catholic identity of the university as his most significant accomplishment. Could you speak to the issue of Catholic identity, what it means to you, how you will preserve and strengthen it?

Yes. The Catholic identity of the University is the principal attraction it holds for me. I think the Catholic intellectual tradition is the Church’s great gift to higher education. In my own thinking about legal issues I often find that my ideas and principles derive from that tradition – ideas about the forms and limits of criminal punishment, the welcome we owe to immigrant populations, the need for adequate health care, the value of nascent and senescent human life, our attitude toward developing nations. And you can say much the same about the other fields (not just law) that are the concern of any great modern university – architecture and music, literature and the arts, history and science. The tradition is of course evident to everyone in the University’s ecclesiastical faculties – Theology, Philosophy, and Canon Law.

How do you see your role as president of The Catholic University of America differing from your predecessor because you are a layman?

I am sure there will be differences, though not in the intensity of our commitment to the Catholic mission of the University. People in American society are naturally accustomed to hearing priests and religious talk about the role of faith in their lives. It is not so common for lay people to open their hearts in this way, though this is something that varies a lot by geographic region, ethnic subculture, religious affiliation, and economic stratum. My wife and I both feel that our faith is near the center of our lives. It may serve a good purpose if we can share that commitment with Catholic’s students, as we have with our own family.

Can you speak to the issue of your experience being focused on the law and law schools, and how you will relate to the rest of the university?

One of the things I love about the law as an academic pursuit is that it such a wonderful area for intellectual arbitrage. Lawyers steal and adapt ideas from the fields of economics, scriptural hermeneutics, literature, finance, philosophy, political science, and (in the recent growth of intellectual property) biology, chemistry, and computer science. I myself benefited greatly from my friendship with Patricia Smith, who once was chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Kentucky. She would listen to my questions about free will, or action theory, and recommend books for me to read. Most of us lawyers are amateurs at these fields we cannibalize. This experience does, though give us an acquaintance with much of the work of a university. And remember that an ‘amateur’ is someone who is a lover of some object or pursuit.

Conversely, do you see yourself focusing special attention on the Columbus School of Law because of your background in that area?

It is the part of the campus I am most familiar with. That is probably a good reason to give them some room to operate. I noticed as a parent of young soccer players that the coach’s child always got the most attention and the worst treatment.