Georgetown, as a Jesuit institution, has special mission among universities. Like all of them, its task is to educate the next generation of leaders in many different fields, to expand and disseminate new human knowledge and understanding, and, as an institution, to contribute to the common good of the society.
Unlike some other institutions, however, Georgetown attempts to integrate these three goals. For example, it seeks to form “women and men for others” through its educational activities. This means that the education mission and the common good mission are joined together. It has courses which motivate, design, and implement community outreach and social justice interventions.
Over the past few months, some ideas that are coming to the fore from faculty and students could be characterized as attempts to coordinate not just two, but all three of the goals of the university – formation, inquiry, common good. Indeed, taken together these ideas form a logical evolutionary step for the university. They seek research leading to action serving the common good integrated into the educational activities through new Centers or Institutes.
Many of the ideas are defined around problems that face all parts of the world. They tend to be complicated issues, not yielding themselves to solutions from one campus, one school, or one department. Many of them disproportionately affect the poor or otherwise disadvantaged. These are areas like the threats of epidemic infectious diseases, the impacts of technology on society, economic and social development, environmental amelioration, and so on.
Although these ideas require very different sets of knowledge and human resources, they seem to share various needs.
Because all are interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary they will succeed only by combining talent across traditional pillars of the university. However, one can’t assemble a strong interdisciplinary group without the existence of strong disciplines.
Because the initiatives are all problem-oriented, the initiatives will succeed only if the participants are passionate about seeking solutions to the problem. The actors must leave their disciplinary allegiances at the door. They must be curious about different perspectives; they must be respectful of knowledge extracted from different fields. They must let the problem define what parts of their disciplinary knowledge is relevant.
Because the initiatives seek to integrate serving the common good and research, the participants in the initiatives need to mount activities to implement the knowledge in practical settings. Theory development must serve effective action. For some disciplines, an action step implementing knowledge in the real world is unusual.
Because of this action step, the initiatives need an intentional mix of tenure-line faculty, research faculty, postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate assistants, and professional staff. The diversity of staff is quite unlike that of a traditional teaching department.
The initiatives will profit from mixing different ways of approaching a problem. For example, they might profit from mixing design thinking, systems engineering approaches, computational intensive analysis, entrepreneurial approaches, and others.
Assembling an effective team, with alternative perspectives, but all passionate about finding solutions to an important problem requires perseverance and time, to exchange perspectives and language, in order to discover previously undetected insights from multiple fields. Effective interdisciplinary groups rarely quickly succeed on complex problems, but often only such teams can succeed.
Finally, teams solving big problems require their own physical home, where those passionate about the work can interact and teach one another. Novel mixes of students, faculty, and staff can achieve ambitious shared goals when they are “down the hall” from one another.
As we aspire to serve others more impactfully, we must build an environment that supports those aspirations.