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The Georgetown Institute for Racial Justice

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I’ve written earlier about the university-wide effort to launch the Georgetown Institute for Racial Justice. The Institute will be a research and outreach organization. It will be a multi-disciplinary home for scholars at Georgetown and visitors from outside. It will be a coalition of research programs with different foci. Key foci would include racial injustice through research on inequalities (e.g., health, education, income, employment, housing, family, environment), diasporas, migrations, and the search for justice through research on social structures (e.g., legal, governmental, education systems, medicine, policy, voting, etc.). It will connect to the scores of scholars at Georgetown whose own scholarship relates to the social, economic, and health consequences of racial differences. It will use, whenever possible, the Washington community as a partner in its work and through those partnerships solidify the University as a good citizen of the city.

We are passing a threshold in the development of the Institute this semester. Last year the university requested proposals from units throughout the institution – proposals for new senior faculty members who would be jointly appointed in the Institute and in an existing academic unit.

We received a large number of proposals, each of them meritorious in its own way. A university faculty committee reviewed the proposals, evaluated them, discussed what combinations offered the best launch for the Institute, and selected four proposals. The four proposals are spread over all three campuses of Georgetown, the Law Center, the Medical Center, and the Main Campus:

School of Nursing and Health Studies, Department of Health Systems Administration
Growing attention to social determinants of health, stemming from and poor health conditions in communities of color, has produced a call to action for the health care sector. A joint hire between the department and Institute would strategically position the university to be an academic trailblazer and thought leader in promoting health equity – particularly by applying a racial justice lens to how health care is organized, delivered, and perceived. The NHS Department of Health Systems Administration will seek a thought leader in promoting health equity.

Georgetown College, Department of Performing Arts and the Department of African American Studies
It is crucial to keep the very public role of the humanities and the arts at the heart of our work on transformative social justice, as an acknowledgement of the long history of African American engagement with arts as activism. The Institute should take advantage of the large and influential set of arts organizations within DC to help fulfill its mission. A joint hire between those departments and the Institute will support the work of artists exposing structures that perpetual racial hierarchies and using their art to cultivate solutions to pressing social problems.

McCourt School of Public Policy
From public classrooms, to courtrooms, to voting booths, institutions meant to upheld the American ideals of “free and equal” continue to be manipulated and corrupted. As such, research at the cross-section of public policy and racial injustice is vital. This open joint search between the McCourt School and the Institute will bring to Georgetown a prominent scholar in public policy, economics, political science, sociology, public health, law or urban planning who produces impactful research on public policy and racial justice. 

Georgetown Law Center
Too often, we are reminded that the actions of the US justice system — from law enforcement, prosecution, trial outcomes, and incarceration – tend to vary by the race of the person experiencing the system. The importance of the issue demands that the Institute mount activities in this domain. The Institute should promote wider understand of the mechanisms which promote the persistence of racial inequities in the justice system at all stages of its processes. A joint search between the Law Center and the Institute will enhance and solidify the law school’s contributions to the problem of racism and the criminal justice system.

In a real way, these four appointments represent the founding generation of the Institute for Racial Justice faculty. They will shape the initial years of the organization as it grows its prominence in the world. Fifty years from now, after the Georgetown Institute for Racial Justice is an acknowledged leader in thought leadership regarding racial justice, they and their colleagues will be recognized as the founders of the Institute. We are very excited to be launching these efforts.

A Year Since the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission

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This week we’ll recognize the fact that one year has passed since the report of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission delivered its report to Congress and the Executive branch. The Commission was created by a bipartisan group in Congress, led by Paul Ryan in the House and Patty Murray in the Senate. The goal of the Commission was to give guidance to the country on whether decisions about government regulations, laws, and programs, could be more effectively made using data already existing in government agencies.

The commission consisted of a mix of experts in program evaluation and economic analysis of program performance and scholars well-versed in privacy issues.

A value widely shared among commission members was that data collected on individuals should be used to promote the common good – especially to evaluate the services provided to the public by government agencies. This required some innovation in thinking about two attributes of data – protection of the privacy of those described by the data and access to the data for statistical uses. Statistical uses aggregate individual data to describe groups of individuals. As such, statistical uses of data are inherently uninterested in the attributes of any individual.

The innovation in the commission’s work was the finding that privacy protections now in existence for many government data bases could be improved. Computer science has provided a whole set of tools that protect data from unwanted access — cryptographic techniques, secure multi-party computing, differential privacy, and combinations of those tools. Many data sets now held by Federal agencies do not use such tools for data protection.

Many of these tools can be used in environments that permit access to data for statistical purposes. In short, both privacy protections and access can be simultaneously increased. Of the two attributes – privacy protection and access – the commission asserted that public trust in evidence-based policymaking must place privacy first. Given such innovative privacy protections, then the public can reap and appreciate the benefits of new statistical uses of data to inform the public debate about program and regulatory effectiveness.

To achieve this pair of changes affecting both privacy protections and access to data for statistical purposes, the commission proposed a National Secure Data Service (NSDS). The Service would build upon existing Federal staff knowledgeable in using the above tools to blend multiple data sources together in ways to offer the country radically improved analytic capabilities. The Service would have the authority to access administrative data for statistical uses only. The statistical uses would permit Federal agencies and qualified external researchers to merge together data sets temporarily for evaluative purposes. The Service would explicitly not become a data warehouse, which, in the opinion of the commission, would become a target for hacking and other unwanted intrusion. Further, radical transparency will be given to the work of the Service. At any moment, the public could know what data sets are being used, for what purpose, and the results of the analysis would be publically available. Higher standards of privacy protection, along with greater transparency, would yield, in the opinion of the commissions, greater public trust.

Within days of the report’s delivery, a House bill implementing some of the Commission’s was passed. Passage of a companion bill in the Senate (S2046) has not yet been achieved.

The Commission’s collective recommendations attempt to correct a weakness in our country’s ability to use already-assembled data to inform public policy. Most other developed nations are enjoying these benefits.

I continue to hope that key tenets of the commission’s recommendations will be implemented. The country would be better served and better protected.

Trust in Institutions

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I’ve commented before on the US public’s loss of trust in major institutions. Declining trust is not just a US phenomenon, but it is nonetheless troubling to those of us working within institutions.

Reflecting on these trends led me to speculate about the mechanisms for trust building. Of course, there are many social science theories that touch on the development of trust. Sociologists and psychologists note the prevalence of reciprocation norms. These norms prompt a person who has received an act of kindness/assistance/gifts from another to perform a commensurate act at some later point toward that person. The reciprocation both builds and sustains trust over time between actors within a society. Others argue that as the wealth of societies increase, the perceived benefits of institutions decline because of the belief that they are not as fundamentally necessary to the everyday welfare of individuals.

What features of an institution might sustain trust?

First, the “trust” bestowed by a person seems to require an expected benefit to that person. Some of the theories of customer satisfaction have noted that merely meeting a customer’s expectations does not in itself generate satisfaction. For example, if I believe an airline will not serve me well (that is my expectation) and it does not, the experience does not make me satisfied. Instead, satisfaction, and perhaps trust, comes from believing that the organization will makes me happy, will serve my needs, and then experience it effectively doing so.

Second, trust seems easier for institutions whose clients agree on goals among themselves. At a very basic level, organizations whose mission is focused on a specific public, whose expectations and needs can be identified, seem at an advantage to trust-building. With an alignment between goals of individuals and goals of institutions, the trust likely seems higher. Homogeneity of goals among an institution’s stakeholders facilitates meeting those goals. As institutions mature, and stakeholders increase in numbers, managing homogeneity of stakeholder viewpoints is challenging. When an institution’s stakeholders do not agree on what the institution should do, trust is threatened.

Third, institutions with singular goals seem to have an advantage. If the goals of an institution are unambiguous (both to the public and those within the organization) the correspondence between stakeholders and institution is likely to be better. One wonders whether some of our institutions have seen a gradually widening of the scope of their missions over time (witness the demands that schools perform some activities that were formerly the role of families). Institutions with wide, vaguely-stated goals seem open to unmet expectations and, thereby, a loss of trust.

Fourth, trust requires time. Vivid in my memory is a focus group I witnessed long ago, when we were exploring the role of trust in responding to social science surveys among the public. One woman stated that the reason she trusted a certain institution was that it had been around for a long time, and inferred that longevity was unlikely without good performance. The argument suggests that one requisite of trust is time for the development of a history of interactions between the public and the institution.

Fifth, trust in an institution requires transparency surrounding its activities. The recent shocks to trust in institutions often involved secrecy by the institution. Increasingly, the public appears to use transparency as a prerequisite to trust. Those institutions that appear to lack transparency produce lack of trust among some merely by the absence of transparency.

Sixth, trust is enhanced when institutions adapt to changes in their stakeholders’ norms. Institutions, as they grow, tend to specify appropriate behaviors and inappropriate actions by codifying them in written rules. Much of society however runs on unwritten rules, which some call “norms.” Norms are often unwritten, but they define what we find acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in different situations. Norms often change faster than rules. Those institutions where rules become out of alignment with current norms seem to be subject to loss of trust. In a rapidly changing normative environment, those institutions that nimbly adapt their rules to emerging norms are likely to maintain trust.

Of course, many of these reflections raise the issue of how important public trust should be for an institution. If the core mission of the institution becomes out of alignment with the society it serves, what are the leaders of the institution to do? How can institutions avoid mission creep that leads indirectly to loss of trust? Can there be too much transparency? How can institutions influence the normative structure of a society in efforts to build trust?

Faculty and Students, at the Beginning of their Time at Georgetown

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On every university campus, this is the time of many receptions and orientation meetings of both new students and new faculty.

Today, I had the pleasure of meeting with newly hired faculty. The Provost Office organizes an orientation day, presenting key information that a new colleague needs to know at Georgetown. Each year in these meetings, I am reminded of why academic careers are such an important component of a society. These are people devoted to building the next generation of educated leaders in diverse fields, while simultaneously advancing knowledge in their field for the common good of society. They are passionate about both of these missions. The instructional passion propels forward the formation of our students; the research passion enriches the lives of students through their research-based learning experiences, as well as impacting the world through discoveries unseen before.

In our faculty orientation, there is a little anxiety about how one will “fit into” Georgetown. There is curiosity about how the Georgetown students will compare to earlier teaching experiences one has had. There are questions about how one’s own research activities can be moved into a new home. Everyone in the group wants to do well and seeks the information to permit them to do so.

Similarly, over the next few days there are meetings of new students where senior administrators and officials welcome the new students. It’s common to give them a sense of Georgetown’s commitment to educating the whole person, to helping each student find their way to serve others, and to helping each student succeed. Clearly, like the new faculty, the students are somewhat anxious about whether they will be successful.

Hence, there are some similarities between the faculty and the student meetings. Striving to succeed is a widely shared focus. However, there are some stark contrasts, as well.

Most of the entering students haven’t experienced many failures in their lives. They have passed all the academic hurdles placed in front of them.

In contrast, many of the new faculty have already experienced the common failures of an academic career. They know that only a minority of the academic articles written are accepted by good peer reviewed journals; many book manuscripts are rejected by presses; the majority of research grant proposals are rejected. One of the hidden parts of academia is that the rate of rejection one experiences is quite high.

The students, for the most part, are shielded from this fact. The published work that instructors assign for readings in classes is the very best of the research products of a field. Students rarely learn how much work never made it to that level of excellence. Yet, each faculty member knows that producing work that becomes part of the established field (which is taught to the next generation) is a rare event in any field. For every research idea that works, they have worked on scores of others that didn’t work.

My hunch is that, in these orientation meetings, we could serve our new students and faculty with a little more acknowledgement of the important role of failure prior to success. For the faculty, we need to communicate that Georgetown wants to foster an environment that supports this complicated high-risk, high-payoff devotion to innovation through research. For students, we need to communicate that many significant accomplishments need a set of failures before success; if you’re not failing frequently enough, you may be aiming too low; the “hit” rate on really important ideas is quite low, and we all need to get accustomed to rejection on the way to hard-earned success.

When faculty and students come together around this issue, great things can happen. When faculty share their research lives with students (either in student research experiences or in classrooms), they can teach them lessons of repeated failures leading to success. The students learn under close mentoring that failure is an opportunity for insight. Georgetown’s efforts to integrate research and learning have those benefits in mind. It’s an aspect of formation of our students worth the investment.

Institutional Support for Interdisciplinarity

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We have just received preliminary findings from last year’s self-administered survey of faculty members at Georgetown, the COACHE survey. As was true in the two previous surveys, faculty tend to give low scores on assessments of Georgetown’s “support for interdisciplinary work.” We need to do better in this area and are actively planning to do so.

As we plan for the next fundraising campaign, one of its unifying themes demands thriving interdisciplinarity. It flows from a simple four-step argument:

                  1. Georgetown is a Jesuit-animated research university devoted to service to others, with                   special attention to the disadvantaged.

                  2. Therefore, it is proper that it create university structures that permit it to have larger                    impact on solving the world’s problems.

                  3. The existing problems plaguing the world cannot be solved by knowledge within a single                    discipline, school, or profession.

                  4. Hence, to increase its impact as a global research university, Georgetown needs to increase                    its support of the work of interdisciplinary teams devoted to those solutions.

We have already moved in this direction in various ways. The EVPs launched a set of initiatives to attract senior established scholars for joint appointments across schools and campuses. Interdisciplinarity is inherent in the goals of the Georgetown Environment Initiative, which is bridging the gulf between the science of environment and the public and political discourse in the area. It is inherent in the Massive Data Institute, where high-dimensional data will be blended with traditional sources to understand complex social phenomena. It also is consistent with the thrust of launching the Institute for Racial Justice, which is recruiting faculty who would have half-time appointments in the Institute and halftime appointments in a more traditional academic unit. A world-problem orientation motivated the reorganization of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the creation of new graduate programs focused on problem areas that have career lines attached to them. Faculty are themselves increasingly coalescing into interdisciplinary work groups. Finally, an interdisciplinary spirit is motivating many of the faculty searches ongoing in the university, initiated by individual units.

The demand for interdisciplinarity comes both from faculty and students whose interests lie on the interfaces of disciplines, where more work is always needed. Students have always thirsted to make their mark, to fix all of the ills of the world as they see them, and, especially at Georgetown, to help others live more fulfilling lives. Students are, in that sense, problem-oriented. A university like Georgetown should take advantage of those orientations. We imagine a university where every student has as a dual focus – studying a traditional disciplinary field, but also working with those outside their field on world problems of common interest.

What we are missing at Georgetown, however, is a set of homes for the faculty and students who want to work on these problems. Most of the current interdisciplinary groups that I observe are forced to use conference rooms to meet periodically, but then must return to their offices spread throughout the university. They do not enjoy the random bumping-into-one- another or the quick hallway conversations that the shared space of an institute or center provides. Without such space, students from diverse disciplines who share an interest in a world problem have no common space in which to meet, no place to hang out and speculate on alternative ways of solving world problems. They have a more difficult time finding each other.

Many of the ideas bubbling up from faculty and students about how to make Georgetown more impactful require such homes to achieve their aspirations. We have the human resources to do this; we need to invent the physical space to take advantage of those resources.

A Summer Too Short

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One of the myths about university faculty and administrator life is that summers are times of leisure.

The truth is that faculty are furiously working on their research and scholarship, either absorbing new information that pushes a research idea along, synthesizing information to build out their new products, or writing/producing the final scholarly products for dissemination to the larger world. Some of that work is off campus, in archives, research institutes, or laboratories away from DC. Administrators are planning new initiatives, working diligently on budget issues, and finalizing faculty recruiting. Mostly they’re still on campus.

This summer, much of the Provost Office attention is on cross-school and cross-campus initiatives. For example, we are proud to be working on the university initiative on Racial Justice, launching faculty searches for four founding members of the Georgetown Institute for Racial Justice, who will be tenured members of an academic unit as well as research professors in the Institute. This involves searches on all three campuses, in coordination with a university-level committee.

For me this summer seems over already. With each passing day, I notice more people walking across campus. Some are part of early prep programs at the undergraduate or graduate levels. Some programs start their formal classes in early August.

Workers on the facilities crews are furiously completing renovations in dormitories, bringing in newly purchased furniture, and preparing for the new occupants. The volume of rain we have had over the past few weeks have kept them busy, just repairing and protecting the campus buildings.

More and more faculty are around making final preparations for their fall courses. They’ve changed the mix of time spent on their research and time spent on teaching-related activities.

We’re preparing the programs for the new student convocations, both undergraduate and graduate. These involve large numbers of staff, all devoted to offering a sincere welcome to new members of our community. On the undergraduate side, dormitory move-in is only about two weeks away. This is a multi-day affair with a balloon-decorated campus, filled with upper-level students greeting the families of new students and helping them move their belongings into their new rooms. The level of energy is a stark contrast to the quieter days of the summer.

While I welcomed the quiet of a summer campus for a few weeks, it gets old pretty fast. The vibrancy of a university depends on the energy brought to it by the passion of faculty devoted to their field and the excitement of students in actively pursuing their formation as learners of new fields. This happens only when they’re together.

Over the past few days, as the foot traffic on campus increases, you can almost feel the ever-growing energy that makes a university a special place. They’ll all be back soon, and the magic will begin again.

Provost’s Innovation in Teaching Award

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Georgetown hires faculty who are unusually devoted to their teaching. This becomes the day-to-day manifestation of being a “student-centered” research university. Teaching standards are high, reinforced by the norms of faculty within units. We recognize superb teaching with awards, both within schools and at higher levels (e.g., the Dorothy Brown Award, and the President’s Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Award).

About five years ago the Provost’s Office provided internal grants to faculty to support innovation within their classrooms and to explore new ways of enhancing the depth of learning among their students. Some of these were technology-enhanced methods; others were attempts to deepen the research-based learning within courses. This effort was a success. Indeed, every week I learn about Georgetown colleagues using new tools to improve learning within courses and about the construction of new flexible methods of pursuing traditional courses. Georgetown faculty are actively engaged in innovating within their classes.

The best and boldest of this innovation should be recognized. We should shine the spotlight on those who are attempting new ways of teaching and organizing learning opportunities. So, we’ve decided to create the Provost’s Innovation in Teaching Award.

The Provost’s Innovation in Teaching Award recognizes a faculty member, a faculty team, or a whole department/unit that has exhibited exceptional creativity and innovative approaches to promote student-centered learning. This annual award will be based on the extent of innovation, as well as evidence of impact on students, colleagues, and the potential for wider adoption. The award recipient(s) will present their innovation to the Georgetown University Community, as part of the award presentation ceremony.

The award is open to all full-time faculty in any discipline who teach undergraduate and/or graduate students on the Main Campus at Georgetown University. A variety of innovations will be considered, including but not limited to, those in face-to-face courses as well as blended and online learning approaches. The innovations may have been used throughout a course, in special assignments, or in other learning activities. They may employ the innovative use of learning technologies and/or pedagogical methods.

We are interested in supporting joint teaching efforts of multiple faculty members; hence, innovative sharing of course content and team-teaching strategies are especially welcomed as nominees. Therefore, teams can win the award. When a whole department or program innovates by building a completely redesigned curriculum, the entire set of faculty involved can be awardees.

We are attempting to award innovation, even if it was not completely successful. However, one criterion of importance is what evidence is collected to evaluate the innovation. Those innovations that are accompanied by evaluation of the innovation on learning will be given preference. In that regard, we want to honor those among us who take risks in improving their instructional performance, but do it with devotion to real evaluation of the innovation.

We will name a faculty selection panel to review the award nominations. We plan to have nominations due by December 15. We will announce the details at the start of the fall term.

Spread the word.

Public Interest Technology

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I attended a wonderful day-long meeting Monday. It was a gathering of presidents and provosts, faculty, and potential funders. The purpose of the meeting, led by the Ford Foundation and New America, was to discuss a new field of expertise, which they labeled “Public Interest Technology.”

The field is probably best illustrated by recent stories of the application to public sector work of knowledge and skills common to computer science and computer engineering.
Some of the stories involve combining data sources within a foster care service agency, to accelerate the vetting of applicants for foster parents, as well as the matching of eligible children to approved foster parents. Some of the stories involve analyzing the performance of predictive analytics to discover unintended inequitable treatment of groups. Others concern personal stories of technologists who left private sector internet firms, to serve stints on Capitol Hill. Those stories underscored the added value of technical knowledge in drafting legislation affecting digital data uses.

Georgetown’s joint seminar between the Law Center and MIT was highlighted. This innovative course has MIT engineering students in the same class as Georgetown Law students. Class projects sometimes focus on the draft of policy/legislation/regulations that affect use of new technology. For example, what is the appropriate level of consent required from someone whose digital image is used in facial recognition software platforms? How could one practically implement a consent process?

One theme of the meeting’s discussion was how the curriculum in computer science could communicate the opportunities to apply such knowledge and skills for common good purposes, regardless of what sector of work is chosen by the student. A special focus was the need to communicate the ethical implications of algorithmic design and implementation. Another focus was providing real experience-based learning applying design and development skills with public sector agencies’ problems.

Georgetown is already fortunate to be a recipient of the NSF CyberCorps™ Scholarship for Service Program to provide scholarships to students to earn degrees critical for cybersecurity in exchange for service in the form of employment in a governmental cybersecurity position. This program is a great manifestation of the spirit underlying the notion of public interest technology.

But there are many other activities ongoing at Georgetown that resonate with the spirit of public interest technology. The joint work of the Beeck Center and the McCourt School examining data use for social good is one. Another is the Beeck Center’s convening the Federal chief data officers together to discuss the practical issues of applying technology to the mission of Federal agencies. There is the new McCourt Masters Program in Data Science for Public Policy. Another is the faculty network forming around an initiative on Digital Ethics and Governance. This also acts to pull together other existing structures that are relevant to the space – the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, the Law Center on Privacy and Technology, Institute for Technology Law and Policy.

In the coming days, I will assemble a meeting of those faculty and research staff interested in asking how Georgetown might contribute to building the next generation of policy-literate, technology-literate professionals devoted to using their knowledge for the common good. This is a perfect opportunity for Georgetown to contribute in its own way to development of the field of public interest technology.

The Weakness of Strong Institutions

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There are few institutions in the United States that are experiencing increasing public trust over the past few years. Trust in government institutions seems unusually low.

This is a post about the higher education infrastructure of the United States. This infrastructure consists of a variegated ecology of educational and research institutions. It includes public community colleges, state and regional 4-year colleges, small private liberal arts colleges, state land-grant universities and other large state research universities, private research universities, the national laboratories, and quasi-independent research institutes. The vast majority of higher education students attend state universities; for decades, those schools have offered relatively affordable means to social mobility in the US.

In the 20th century, the large state research universities provided many of the cutting-edge discoveries in the natural and social sciences, a good deal of which found its way into applications in various pieces of the economy. They pushed forward new scholarship in the humanities and contributed to the societal culture, revolutionizing how we think about ourselves.

In the sciences, they offered a key magnet to attract the best minds throughout the world for advanced education. Many of the international students chose to stay in the US and pursue their careers, offering decades of enrichment to the country. Indeed, this pattern was doubly valuable because it coincided with a longstanding weakness of science education in K-12 schools. Without the in-migration of scientific talent, too few US residents were pursuing such higher education to permit the advanced developments we as a country now enjoy. The strength of these institutions of higher education and the ecology of different types of institutions were unparalleled in the world.

For the past few years we have been witnessing the dismantling of this ecology. Those institutions that were once so strong are now threatened. As state legislatures have annually cut tax-based support for these institutions, the schools have increased their tuition prices to replace tax sources. The increased tuition costs then have become the focus of criticism. It seems a vicious cycle.

Reflecting on these events, it is startling how quickly this destruction of government-supported higher education is occurring. How could these institutions so quickly be gutted? How could institutions seemingly so strong be manifesting such weakness? Clearly, there seems to be a breakdown in shared values. Their strength largely rested on a shared norm – that support for education was the gift of one generation to the next, both benefiting individuals but also building a strong nation. Hence, a sense of civic duty underlay this widespread support.

Did lost trust in government lead to reduced support for state-funded higher education? Or, are these independent but co-incidental events? Did the perceived lack of shared benefits lead to large sets of taxpayers critiquing the “eliteness” of higher education? Did universities forget their role in service to the society in return for financial support from the public? Does the lack of support come merely from not knowing about the earnings’ gains among college graduates? Has the growing wealth inequality (perhaps, itself connected to access to higher education) fed beliefs that these institutions are not relevant to the majority of those suffering relative deprivation?

As we see other nations increase their support for higher education and begin to enjoy the societal advancement empowered by such support, it’s doubly sad to see our country willfully diminish the strength of state-supported colleges and universities.

It’s a moment when those who potentially benefit from access to higher education need to express their support. The society that our young will inherit will be stronger with a well-educated populace. It’s a moment when those inside higher education institutions need to remember that they exist solely through the support of others; in some sense, their right to exist depends on consistent demand for their services. It’s also time when those outside these institutions need to communicate their fundamental worth to the strength of a country.

Keeping One’s Eye on the Product, Not the Process

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In the latter part of the 20th century, automobile manufacturers began to change how they made cars. Instead of sequence of design phases, followed by engineering phases, followed by marketing phases, they began to realize great gains in combining those disparate pieces. Engineers and designers met directly with potential consumers, who themselves were examining prototypes of new automobiles. The engineer, whose prior job might have been creating the production process for a door handle, suddenly was confronted with a real client who used the handle in ways completely unanticipated by the engineer. The designer, whose prior job was creating the most aesthetically pleasing door handle, suddenly was confronted with the tradeoff of a consumer who might not share values with the designer and an engineer who taught them about production costs. In retrospect, this reorganization seems to have borne benefits. The companies focused more on the product than the process of creating the product.

I recently learned about transformations among companies that had achieved their initial reputation as radio media units. Their job was the production of radio programs. The programs were designed to be listened to serially, at one set period of time, for a length of time that was prespecified. The program designers assumed that the material was to be heard once and only once by each listener. Enter the digital world. In that world, users wanted the freedom to listen to parts of content, at a time of their own choosing, for a length of time that they could control, in an order that they found attractive, for as many re-listenings as they wanted. It forced, I was told, a gradual rethinking of the business. Instead of a radio business, organizations refocused themselves as story-tellers, information disseminators, and multimedia archives of event documentation. In short, the new technology forced new attention on the product (stories, information) not on the process of producing the product (formerly radio programs, now digitizable information delivered in many ways beyond just the aural).

It’s interesting to apply this way of thinking to universities.

We have three “products.” First, we produce graduates, “refined” versions of persons who complete programs successfully. Ideally, those persons have become more sophisticated in their knowledge, to the betterment of their own prospects, but hopefully also as vehicles to build a better world. Second, universities produce research results, sometimes based on discoveries of previously unknown features of the world, sometimes surprisingly new interpretations of “old” knowledge, and sometimes new creations that evoke new ways of thinking about the world. Third, universities, at their best, enhance the quality of life of their communities or the larger society. These benefits arise from the delivery of consultation to apply knowledge directly in service to the world.

Consistent with the observations above about a “product” perspective, universities need to keep our focus on their outcomes. Inside a university, there are unending demands for attention to courses, programs, student services, classroom quality, space allocation, and all the process steps of a university. However, such attention is misplaced if we ignore how the individual processes contribute to the three most important products of the university. We do that best, I think, when we mimic the trio of the designer, engineer, and customer examining a future auto prototype. Our version of that is having administrators, faculty, students, alumni, and employers all involved in providing input to shaping the future of what the university produces. With that, we can be smarter at designing how to make that happen. In short, maintaining a relentless focus on outcomes helps us prioritize processes. Important to remember; easy to forget in the day-to-day.

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