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Dawn Scheirer and Bree Hocking burst onto the front page of the Washington Post’s Style section in the spring of 1997. According to the story, the two Georgetown University sophomores had waked up to the evil realities of the women’s movementor at least the women’s movement as manifested by the school’s pastel-painted Women’s Center. The duo had founded an organization called the Women’s Guild and penned The Guide: A Little Beige Book for Today’s Miss G, a pamphlet blasting campus feminist propaganda.
In media terms, the story was irresistible. The tale of a couple of young students taking on the academic establishment was a classic underdog story, with young women Davids facing Goliath. By the time the mythmaking was done, Scheirer and Hocking, young conservatives, had emerged as real grass-roots radicals; the feminists above them, meanwhile, were ideologues dictating from safe, tenured perches.
It was a nice, tidy media package. It just didn’t happen to be true. Rather than Scheirer and Hockingor any other studentthe brains and muscle behind the putatively women-run organization was a man named Manuel Miranda, Georgetown class of 1982.
For months before the Guild’s founding, the conservative lawyer from D.C.’s White & Case law firm had worked the campus, looking for women to create the anti-feminist society he says he thought Georgetown needed. When he found them, he wrote their constitution. And though their membership barely exceeded a dozen, the well-connected Miranda introduced them to the friends they needed to establish conservative bona fides.
“I was a little surprised when he asked me to go to lunch,” says Sarah Rathke, who was then a junior. “He asked me if I was familiar with the Steward Society [an all-male service society], and if I would be interested in starting a comparable society for girls, a ‘Women’s Guild.’…I got the impression that the organization would be his creation, and I would be a puppet.” A couple days later, she says, Miranda called her and read her the constitution. Rathke soon opted out of the prospective organization.
And when Scheirer and Hocking eventually took the lead, it turned out that their most helpful campus recruiting didn’t involve pulling fellow students into the club. At a conference on conservative women, they met representatives of the Independent Women’s Forum, the organization that wound up funding their publication, sending out their press releases, and handling their media appearances. According to Rathke, the conference was organized by Miranda.
Miranda admits writing the group’s initial constitution and says that he believed Georgetown had suffered for lack of a group like the Women’s Guild. He describes himself as nothing more than a concerned alumnus who wanted to help fulfill a Georgetown need. He says his loyalties are to “God first, the Church second, and the university third.” But this was no isolated intervention, and this is no typical alumnus. As a decade of activismduring which Miranda has been involved with numerous legal and ecclesiastical actions on behalf of conservative Georgetown causesshows, Miranda goes above and beyond the call of all three loyalties.
Georgetown University could never have been called Berkeley East. Throughout the ’60s, its drug of choice was beer, and rather than churning out anti-establishment Abbie Hoffman types, the school instead produced young Bill Clintons. Then and now, politics on either extreme haven’t much appealed to the student body, most members of which are determinedly clean-cut, pre-professional, and middle-of-the-road.
Georgetown’s vanilla reputation makes the school’s intense media pressure of the past several years all the more surprising. Georgetown has seen a string of hot-button social issuesfrom Hocking and Scheirer’s pamphlet to a fight over the sale of condoms at the Catholic campus’ storesswell beyond its Healy Gates and grab national attention. The conflicts have tended to have two things in common: They have typified the growing divide between the liberal and conservative elements of the Catholic Church. And Miranda has been involved in nearly all of them.
In 1991, as legal counsel for the Ignatian Society, a group of conservative Catholic alumni, Miranda appealed to the Vatican to force Georgetown to “de-fund” GU Choice, a pro-choice campus group. When funds were cut off, campus officials denied church pressure. But in a Washington Times article chronicling GU Choice’s demise, Miranda had no doubts. He pointed to a petition of nearly 1,500 signatures delivered to Pope John Paul II. “Our understanding,” insisted Miranda, “was that there was an unquestionable direction from Rome.”
A few years later, in 1995, Miranda popped up as a critic of Georgetown’s English department. The department had proposed broadening its requirements to include classes on writers other than simply dead white men. According to Miranda, he set up a lunch meeting between two campus activists who were already fighting against the proposed curriculum and representatives of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a national group opposed to liberalized curricula. “Thanks to [the council], it went national,” says Miranda. Miranda says he thought on-campus protest rallies and a letter-writing campaign would have a “chilling effect on other departments that were thinking of making similar changes.”
And in 1997, after the president of Georgetown’s student assembly vetoed a motion urging the school to install crucifixes in every classroom, Miranda’s interest was piqued once more. According to three former student assembly members, as well as accounts by Georgetown Voice reporter Kathleen Miller, Miranda put a small group of interested students in touch with people who helped hook them up with national press coverage, including a segment on ABC’s World News Tonight. Students involved also said that Miranda paid the $80 fee to secure their access to a press-release wire.
Miranda says that people should focus on the controversies themselves, not his involvement in them. But while the off-campus world may be drawn to the former, within Georgetown’s cramped confines, speculation inevitably turns to the latter.
Georgetown liberals paint Miranda as some sort of conservative godfather, seeing his fingerprints on the administration’s every conservative action. “Manny has a well-documented ability to blow in and out of campus politics,” says Dan Leistikow, a 1998 graduate and student assembly vice president at the time of the crucifix controversy. “In the whole crucifix debate, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Manny was pulling strings and pushing buttons.”
But Marcus Ellison, who as a Georgetown senior was active in the crucifix campaign, says that what campus lefties see as meddling is nothing more than a devoted alumnus acting out of concern for his school. “Manny really cares,” says Ellison. “He works really hard for what he knows is right. He is an inspiration to a lot of people.”
For his part, Mirandawho has also taken sides in such theologically neutral debates as a battle over the future of Georgetown’s dental schooladmits offering “advice and financial assistance” to certain on-campus groups, but denies being the deus ex machina of Georgetown’s conservative scene. “I offer support and advice to those students who are working to preserve Georgetown’s Catholic identity,” he says.
Miranda came to Georgetown in the fall of 1978 from the working-class Astoria neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. He quickly became a campus leader and was eventually elected to the presidency of Alpha Phi Omega, a service fraternity that counts President Clinton among its illustrious alumni.
At some point in his undergraduate career, Miranda played a role in the emergence of the Stewards. The secretive group has long been a source of campus controversy: Members say only that its recruits are sophomore males with “unusual leadership ability.” Defenders of the Stewards insist it is a private club and shouldn’t face the open-admissions rules applied to university-sponsored groups. But critics view that stance as a thin cover for good old-fashioned elitism. Either way, most Stewards eventually become heads of prominent campus groups. Citing the group’s secrecy, numerous Stewards refused to speak on the record, but several members say Miranda has been a leader of the group.
His days in the Stewards marked some of Miranda’s earliest experiences fighting for his version of tradition at Georgetown. He quickly got a taste for it. In the heated debates of the Philodemic Society, a campus debating organization, Miranda became used to defending his ideasand his vision for Georgetown.
Miranda graduated in 1982but he didn’t stay away long. In the early ’90s, he represented the Georgetown University Alumni Association in a lawsuit challenging Georgetown’s right to assume control of an alumni donation fund formerly controlled by the association. Not long afterward, his efforts led to congressional hearings on Georgetown’s decision to phase out the dental school. As an off-campus gadfly, Mirandawho had in the meantime graduated from Cardozo Law School and become a lawyer at White & Casewas off and running.
Face to face, Miranda is casual, sincere, and self-assured, with the quiet confidence of a highly successful man. He has an eerie habit of dropping unsettling hints into casual conversation, not so much being interviewed as interviewing himself. Sitting down with me (I’m both a student and a staff writer for the Georgetown Hoya), he reveals knowledge about my academic history, housing situation, and even my recent classroom discussions before I have a chance to ask my own questions.
It’s not hard to see why Miranda has friends in abundance. He is unequivocally empathetic, beaming and conveying a sense of bustling efficiency. In another time and place, he might have been a jovial town burgher. The major alumni networks, Catholic organizations, and campus groups are all strewn with self-described Friends of Manny. “I think it’s important to work with those students who are working for freedom of thought on campus,” Miranda says. You can often find Miranda and his crew at the Tombs, a student hangout decorated with collegiate rowing paraphernalia.
Most campus friends of Manny refuse to speak publicly about Mirandapartly because many of them are members of the Stewards, and partly because Miranda himself is eager to downplay his public role. But off the record, many celebrate Miranda. “Manny is a role model to those of us who are active and want to work for the betterment of Georgetown,” says one Steward.
In fact, it’s almost as if Miranda never left Georgetown. He is more aware of events at Georgetown than many students, quoting writers from on-campus publications and professors from freshman classes. Almost nothing that happens at Georgetown escapes him: He regularly visits campus and makes frequent appearances at Philodemic Society debates. He sends e-mails to a select group of students, offering suggestions and opinions, and dashes off letters to the editors of campus publications.
A recent example shows just how closely Miranda is watching a campus where the average student is now nearly two decades his junior. On Feb. 12, student Jeff DeMartino published a school newspaper column critical of an updated version of Hocking and Scheirer’s Guide. Shortly afterward, an e-mail sent by Miranda to students and subsequently obtained by DeMartino lambasted the column and said, “I hope someone considers a disinterested response, however short.”
“They’re all interconnected,” says DeMartino. “There’s a very huge, very defensive network.”
Georgetown’s campus culture wars made it to the Post again last month. The subject this time was a recently released set of guidelines from American bishops on the enforcement of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the pope’s 1990 policy statement on the future of Catholic higher education.
The guidelines seem to callin some interpretationsfor quotas for Catholic faculty, restructured course offerings, and restrictions on the presentation of speakers who differ with the church. Sure enough, the issue brought Miranda back to campus once again, giving a speech to Georgetown undergraduates about the effects of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Miranda said that the Catholic Church cannot “bend over backwards” for those who might feel excluded by some of the new guidelines, especially religious minorities. At Georgetown, that means Protestants, Jews, and Muslims.
“There comes a point at which you compromise your identity,” said Miranda to the crowd of about a dozen intensely interested students. “And I think this university is reaching that point.”
Making a speech was a fairly bold move for Miranda, who ordinarily likes to work in the background and confront issues via student surrogates. But since recently being named president of the Cardinal Newman Society, the nation’s largest organization of Catholic laity, Miranda has raised his profileand his ambitionsa bit. “I think the hope is that I will be able to do nationwide what I’ve been able to accomplish at Georgetown,” Miranda says.CP