John J DiGioia – Georgetown University President Remembers Dr. Alatis

Georgetown University Remembrances – April 27th, 2015

John J. DeGioia, President

Jim Alatis came to Georgetown in 1966, and served our University Community for nearly a half century.  He came first as Associate Dean, in our School of Languages and Linguistics, and became Dean in 1973, a position held for 21 years. Throughout these years he was immersed in the way of life of our Community. Jim and Penny brought a love for the work, the mission, the purpose of this place. Throughout their years, their very presence here made all of us better – they truly brought out the best in every one of us. Many of you here today shared these years with Jim. Each of you contributed to what took place here, during the course of all of those years.

It’s hard to describe the significance of that period of time.  As I said, Jim arrived in 1966, and it is hard to describe the significance of that period of time in the University’s history, and Jim’s contribution to the University that we would become.  In the mid-1960s we began a journey as a university community, first led by Father Gerry Campbell, that set the trajectory that all of us here today have experienced. It’s important to remember that it was in these years that our Faculty Senate was established, the first laymen were appointed to our Board of Directors, a model statement of Rights and Freedoms for students were drafted, the decision to admit women into the College was approved, undergraduate admissions began recruiting nationally, the Committee on Rank and Tenure was established. Faculty were able to secure retirement benefits through TIAA-CREF.  A separate incorporation of the university from the Jesuit community placed a Board of Directors as responsible for our university.

Perhaps most important, Father Campbell joined Father Theodore Hessburg and 24 other Catholic universities, their leaders, in drafting a statement of the very idea of a Catholic university. That meeting took place in Land o’ Lakes, Wisconsin, and the document that emerged from that conference is best known in reference to the location. And Father Campbell tried to describe what the importance of that document was, in the first year after Jim arrived, in 1967, and he said this in the Fall Faculty Convocation:

“Any university must have a full measure of freedom to pursue its work as an institution, devoted to the search for and the embrace of Truth, wherever this is found. This characteristic of the university, or one might say precondition of the university, has always been necessary, but universities are, I think, uniquely aware of the need for such freedom in our present circumstances. The responsible exercise of freedom should be presumed in a university. This tradition has been honored and preserved at Georgetown.”

It was in this context that Jim arrived at Georgetown, and brought his passion and imagination to the work of enabling us to become the university that we were meant to be.  His focus of course, was on the teaching of languages grounded in an understanding of linguistics. He interpreted for us what it would mean for Georgetown to be a leader, if not THE leader, in languages and linguistics, in the Academy. His love of language — LOVE is not a strong enough word — PASSION is not strong enough to capture the depth of commitment Jim brought to our SLL.  Jim brought a sense of urgency.

For Georgetown to realize our whole promise as a university, we needed to be truly extraordinary in languages and linguistics. Our emergence as a leading American research university, was supported by the evolution of the Georgetown University Roundtable. While founded in 1949, the Roundtable took on ever-greater significance under Jim’s leadership, most notably, in developing the Field of Sociolinguistics, first with Roger Shuy and Ralph Fasold, later with Deborah Tannen and Deborah Schifrin, Georgetown became synonymous with Sociolinguistics.

Other important roles: as leader in the teaching of English to speakers of other languages, Jim was a founder and Executive Director of TESOL. Nearly 30 years ago, TESOL named its Service award in honor of Jim. To his dedication to less-commonly-taught languages, I remember vividly in the days following 9-11, Jim was in to see me, to stress the importance of languages in our nation’s response.

But this was nothing new for Jim—this commitment characterized his entire career.  In 1978, he served on a seminal taskforce for the Association of the Departments of Foreign Languages that shaped the very logic for our understanding of the importance of teaching these languages. In 2000, in honor of another pioneer in support of less-commonly-taught languages, Jim was the first recipient of the A. Ronald Wharton award presented to an individual whose career has been distinguished by selfless service and worthy contributions to the fostering of less-commonly-taught language initiatives. The languages had no greater champion than Jim.

This university has had no greater citizen than Jim. Throughout their years, Jim and Penny were ubiquitous, helping to provide the glue that held our entire community together.  We are all the beneficiaries that for nearly a half century, THIS was the place that Jim shared his life. Penny, we can never express our gratitude for the gift that YOU shared with us, the gift of Jim, and of your OWN lifelong engagement with our community. And to you and to William, Stephen and Anthony, you have our profound appreciation, and all of our love, and our deepest sympathies.

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