Georgetown College Dean Chester Gillis embraces a student at the 2016 Commencement ceremony. Gillis leaves the deanship at the end of this fiscal year and will return to his position as a member of the theology faculty. (Photo by Melissa Nyman/Georgetown College)
April 28, 2017 — It’s been a week of honors for Georgetown College Dean Chester Gillis.
Last weekend, the outgoing dean traveled to John Carroll Weekend 2017 in Austin, Texas, to receive the Patrick Healy Award — an honor bestowed annually on a non-alumnus member of the university community who exemplifies Georgetown’s mission. On Wednesday, University President John J. DeGioia delivered a speech honoring Gillis in a beautiful Dahlgren Quadrangle ceremony, filled with colleagues and friends from across the university. He's even had an award named after him: The College Academic Council has just established the Chester Gillis Award, which will honor students who exemplify the value of a liberal arts education in the Jesuit tradition.
Gillis has been an exemplary leader for the College since taking possession of the Dean’s Office in 2008. But the celebrations held this week honor much more than a nine-year deanship — they honor a man who has spent decades living out the values that Georgetown espouses and brightening the lives of all he encountered on the Hilltop.
When Chester Gillis (P’08,’12) arrived at Georgetown in 1988, it wouldn’t have been hard to predict he would become a distinguished academic. He had studied philosophy and religious studies at Belgium’s Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, earned a Ph.D. in theology at the University of Chicago, and taught philosophy of religion to graduate students at Drew University.
Though unfamiliar with Georgetown prior to his hiring, the newest theology professor was a quick study. Before long, he was playing a central role in welcoming others to the university community. Terrence Reynolds, former chair of the Theology Department, counts Gillis as one of the first friends he made here.
“He helped me get acclimated to the university, and we often got together after work for long, friendly talks,” Reynolds said. “We shared a number of theological and philosophical interests, and we just enjoyed talking to each other.”
Gillis rose through the ranks of the Theology Department over the next decade, and was eventually named its Chair in 2001. Along the way, he developed a reputation as a tough but brilliant professor who took a genuine interest in students’ success.
“He was a challenging professor, but a great one,” Senior Associate Dean Thom Chiarolonzio said. “When students I advised had difficulties in his class, he was always thorough in responding to them, trying to help them, and figuring out what was the best solution for them.”
Blessed with a skill for balancing teaching, research, and management, Gillis published three books and scores of articles in his time as a theology professor, all while maintaining an excellent reputation among students and taking on leadership roles in academia.
Frequently consulted by the media on religious matters regarding the Catholic Church and the Papacy, he has appeared on numerous television news programs. He was the initial holder of the Amaturo Chair in Catholic Studies, and a founding director of the Program on the Church and Interreligious Dialogue. He followed up his theology Chair term with two years directing Georgetown’s doctorate program in liberal studies.
When former College Dean Jane McAuliffe accepted the presidency of Bryn Mawr University in early 2008, the hardworking Gillis was tapped to serve as interim dean.
The “interim” modifier always introduces a degree of uncertainty to any title, but Gillis did not let it deter him from approaching the job with purpose. He impressed the advising deans and office staff from day one. When the university conducted a year-long national search for the next dean, the permanent answer soon became clear — and not just because the sharply dressed Gillis came straight out of “college dean” central casting.
“I was thrilled when he was named dean,” Chiarolonzio said. “Chet is a huge defender of the liberal arts, and when universities shift priorities and move in different directions, he’s always been one to make sure the liberal arts have a voice.”
The first few years of his deanship brought significant challenges. The 2008-2009 financial crisis hit the college from multiple angles: Donor funding became scarcer, and cautious prospective students shied away from the traditional liberal arts disciplines the College encourages. Gillis heard the latter concern so many times that he developed a trademark quip in response.
“I know exactly how you feel,” he says to the prospective student (or parent, or donor) skeptical of a Liberal Arts major. “There weren’t any theology companies hiring when I graduated!”
Even as he brushed off skepticism of his beloved liberal arts with public levity, Gillis guided the College through turbulent times with a sober and steady hand. Soon, he moved from careful stewardship to active growth of the College’s academic programs. During Gillis’ tenure, the College instituted minors in business, film and media studies, creative writing, statistics, education, inquiry and justice, biological physics, statistics, Korean, Persian, Turkish and our newest minor in disability studies; as well as a department of African American studies and a major in justice and peace studies. This year the College’s acceptance rate continued to set a record low for any Georgetown undergraduate school, and the incoming first-year profile is the most impressive it has ever been.
Beyond academics, he proved to be a very successful fundraiser and “friend-raiser” for the College and for the university. In the recently completed For Generations to Come: The Campaign for Georgetown, the College raised $167 million toward the campaign’s four pillars: to attract the best faculty and students, and to ensure academic excellence, quality student life and transformative opportunities.
He greatly enhanced the role of the College Board of Advisors to become an activist as well as an advisory group, expanding its membership to include a diverse spectrum of parents, alumni, and parent/alumni members. He led the Board’s campaign to create the María and Alberto de la Cruz Art Gallery, opening next year in the Walsh building.
Gillis’ sum of tangible academic and fundraising accomplishments is clearly impressive. But as anyone who knows him will readily attest, describing his career only in these discrete terms still sells him vastly short.
In her toast at the President’s Reception on Wednesday, Senior Associate Dean Sue Lorenson emphasized that Gillis has always been a man of and for the students — making it only appropriate, she felt, to recount students’ thoughts on their outgoing dean.
“Dean Gillis not only actively seeks, but seriously considers student opinion,” read an account from College Academic Council President Casey Nolan (C’17). “He has been our champion and our role model time and time again.”
Chiarolonzio noted that these listening skills had a real impact on policy.
“He’s established minors based on student input,” Chiarolonzio said. “He’s put in a lot of academic programs that benefit students within the larger context of the College’s Liberal Arts degree — and we wouldn’t have that if he weren’t around encouraging it.”
Former students confirm that this image isn’t a recent phenomenon, nor is it restricted to students who frequented Academic Council meetings. Richard Frohlichstein (C’11) met Gillis when the dean spotted he and some friends shoveling sidewalks after the infamous Snowpocalypse of 2010. He invited them into his home for hot chocolate, and the two have stayed in touch even after Frohlichstein graduated and enrolled in Yale Law School.
“He has the capacity to make connection with students at an individual level,” Frohlichstein said. “He remained a source of advice and a strong connection to Georgetown for me, and for a lot of other students.”
Gillis and his wife Marie hosted groups of young alumni in their townhouse, often making an effort to connect former students who had things in common but didn’t know each other.
“I made friends in the alumni community through Dean Gillis,” Frohlichstein said. “He knew what we were interested in, and he’d always look to connect us.”
Of course, it’s impossible to discuss Gillis’ famous gatherings without mentioning his wife, Dr. Marie Varley Gillis. Nicknamed “Mrs. Dean” by Frohlichstein and affectionately referred to as the “Dolley Madison of 36th Street” by the dean himself, Marie served as an engaging, gracious host and partner, frequently growing as close with members of the College community as her husband did.
And while students are regular guests at the Gillis household — in addition to small, informal gatherings, the dean regularly invites the College student body for dinner, hosting the first 20 or so to respond — the Gillises’ hospitality doesn’t stop there. A near-constant rotating cast of faculty, staff, donors, and friends call on their 36th street home for dinners and drinks, always to a warm welcome and a full table.
“Marie and Chet have really opened up their home to everyone,” Chiarolonzio said.
Gillis finishes out his term as dean at the end of the fiscal year 2017. Among all the awards ceremonies and receptions are some sadder occasions (his final student dinners, GAAP weekends, and Commencement ceremonies) and happier ones (his last Georgetown Day in an office adjacent to Copley Lawn). It’s the end of a deanship that was marked, more than anything, by a willingness to treat those around him — student, alumnus, faculty, or staff — as family.
“As you might not expect for an office of our size, our boss has been with us every step of the way,” Lorenson said. “Cheering us, comforting us, always encouraging us to take all the time we need to celebrate or grieve or heal or grow, always finding a way to make it work, always ensuring us that, well, families look out for each other.”
While he won’t be making calls from the dean’s desk anymore, Gillis is not finished with the Hilltop. He has a year of sabbatical (with a book to write, another to update, and articles to publish), but he plans to return to the classroom afterwards.
To be sure, time with his beloved wife, his research and writing, his favorite golf clubs, and an occasional cocktail will replace some of the time spent in meetings, travel, and university dinners. But any who think he’ll cease to be a force for good in the Georgetown community — well, they simply don’t understand Chester Gillis.
— Patrick Curran