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Opinion John Garvey improved Catholic University — and Washington

The Catholic University inaugurates John Garvey in 2011 as its 15th president at the Basilica of the National Shrine. (Dayna Smith for the Washington Post)
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Tim Busch, a member of the board of visitors at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America and an emeritus board member, is co-founder of the Napa Institute and chief executive of Pacific Hospitality Group.

D.C. owes John Garvey a deep debt of gratitude. He has stood on principle, strengthened the city and shaped our nation and world to a profound extent. Garvey retired as president of the Catholic University of America on June 30.

Garvey steered the nation’s most prominent religious university since 2011. Established with approval from the pope in the 1880s, the Northeast Washington school has educated generations of Catholics, including thousands of priests and future bishops and tens of thousands of lay leaders from all walks of life. The university confronted many challenges in the rapidly shifting 21st century, yet, under Garvey’s guidance, it has held fast to its mission and moral code. And D.C. benefited every step of the way.

At the time of Garvey’s appointment, CUA, as the university is normally called, was grappling with the damage of the Great Recession. Like most schools, the financial crisis of the late 2000s hit the school hard, threatening its ability to offer students aid and address the needs of its community. Garvey aimed to put CUA on a firmer footing. Over 11 years, he raised a stunning $430 million while more than doubling the school’s endowment.

That funding has helped pay tuition for tens of thousands of students, huge numbers of whom come from D.C., Maryland and Virginia. It has also sparked a transformation in the Brookland neighborhood surrounding the school. A struggling area going back decades, Brookland has seen a massive surge of investment and construction in recent years. What started at the edge of the university has radiated outward, creating one of the most exciting and dynamic parts of the city. Brookland is now a destination, with CUA its anchor.

The neighborhood’s transformation reflects the school’s. Garvey prioritized new and improved educational programs, the better to help students succeed and contribute to society. That includes a cutting-edge nursing school building, with $40 million for construction and another $40 million for scholarships, as well as the creation of a new business school. (I and several others provided the initial funding.) With the public angry at corporate America for short-term profiteering and immoral business practices, Garvey set out to train a new generation of business leaders to serve their communities and a higher purpose. Notably, the business school now connects students with small and medium enterprises across D.C.

As society broadly became less religious, Garvey made the Catholic University of America even more attuned to faith. In one of his first moves as president, he reinstituted single-sex dorms. Though the move generated criticism beyond the campus, morality and common sense supported it. Garvey explained that his decision would diminish a culture of binge-drinking and hookups, both of which are at odds with Catholic teaching. Parents in particular rejoiced at the decision, and as the president wrote in The Post, it would “foster … a greater sense of mutual respect between men and women on campus.”

Under Garvey, CUA led the legal charge against the Obama administration’s contraception mandate on the grounds that it would force the school to cover medications and treatments at odds with Catholic teaching. A constitutional lawyer by training, he defended what he called the school’s “constitutional right to practice its religion without government interference.” When the Supreme Court took up the issue, he urged it to respect America’s first and most fundamental freedom and praised the justices when they did exactly that.

These actions weren’t always popular in Washington. Yet John Garvey never backed down from what he and his institution believed. Such courage enriched this city. It promoted intellectual and religious diversity, creating a space in D.C. where people of orthodox belief could gather and grow. It also promoted a culture of respect. Though Garvey stood firm on matters of right and wrong, he never stood on a soap box. Instead, he extended the hand of friendship to those who disagreed, while collaborating with them on other issues, including immigration.

Garvey announced last fall that he would retire. His successor, Peter Kilpatrick, has the tough task of following someone who did so much for so many in so little as a decade. He may not be the president most people think of when it comes to our nation’s capital, but Garvey should be remembered as a president who made Washington proud.

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