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Learning to Understand Others

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One of the wonderful attributes of Georgetown is its devotion to inter-group dialogue as a tool to deeper understanding and solidarity. We have several organizations and activities that help us understand perspectives of alternative faith systems. We continue “A Different Dialogue” permitting students to develop comfort with, and skill for, discourse on difficult topics in order to foster positive, meaningful, and sustained cross-group relationships (issues like Ability and Disability, Religion, Social Class, Sexual Orientation, and Race and Ethnicity). We have a thriving Center for Social Justice that engages Georgetown students, faculty, and staff in close collaboration with disadvantaged DC community members. The Doyle Engaging Difference Program offers faculty and students opportunities in learning techniques for pedagogical innovation relevant to issues of difference and diversity, identity and inclusion.

All of us are embedded in a larger society struggling to deal with long run effects of racism, fragmented relationships between law enforcement institutions and their communities, and residential segregation by income and race. Research on the recent violent deaths show large differences by race and ethnicity in how those events are understood. Yet many of us seem to struggle with talking to those outside our own group about these important issues.

We are also members of an institution that is grappling with its own history of slavery and the sale of 272 enslaved persons in 1838. It is doing so in a transparent, public way. It is doing so by reaching out to the descendants of those 272 persons and seeking their help in shaping our actions going forward. Through that, it is attempting to help each of us discover our particular role in grappling with this history.

Conversations across groups from different cultures are difficult. We don’t want to offend anyone. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves by using inappropriate words. We don’t want to make someone in the conversation feel guilty about some prior offense. Yet at the same time we seek to understand the world view of others in the conversation.

Such conversations require a set of social skills that all of us can learn, ones that clearly express our sincere interest in another person’s thoughts. None of us come equipped with full knowledge of how different words are perceived in groups with whom we don’t frequently interact. Trained facilitators can help us over these hurdles.

The Provost’s Committee for Diversity met yesterday and discussed a proposal to create discussion fora with such facilitated dialogue across subgroup lines. We will use the deep experiences in mounting such discussions within the Student Affairs staff, CNDLS, and the Center for Social Justice. The committee is actively seeking collaborators across the university.

None of us can understand others as clearly as we understand ourselves, but honest dialogue with others is a necessary step to any increase in the understanding of others. This is a special moment at Georgetown; generations from now deserve that all of us be engaged as part of progress on these matters. Learning to talk and listen to one another is a good first step.

Unbridled Interdisciplinarity

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I’ve written in the past about opportunities to advance knowledge and serve the world through interdisciplinary work within universities.

At Georgetown, much of this is led by faculty who want to seize the opportunity to advance their own scholarship by combining knowledge from multiple fields.  It is they who are giving energy to the creation of new graduate programs stimulated by unsolved global problems.  There are, for example, proposals approved or being forwarded by faculty interested in the environment, a coalition from the natural and social sciences; one on aging, a coalition from psychology, demography, and the biomedical sciences; and one on global business and international affairs.

Other efforts have allowed faculty who wish to collaborate in their research across multiple fields – the Georgetown Environment Initiative (GEI) has supported work with natural scientists, social scientists, and humanists. The McCourt Massive Data Institute has supported work by social scientists and computer scientists.  The senior vice president for research has supported work on forced migration involving historians, anthropologists, and computer scientists.

Further, major foundations that fund faculty scholarship have signaled the importance of interdisciplinary work, most notably the National Science Foundation in its “big ideas” initiative.  Similar efforts can be found in many private foundations and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The perceived push for interdisciplinarity most likely arises partly because the typical organization of intellectual activity is disciplinary or field-centric.  Universities organize themselves into domains defined by a identifiable set of theories, a set of enduring questions to be addressed, a set of methods espoused as productive of sound evidence, a culture defining what dissemination media are valued, and a set of professional associations that help to preserve all of the above.  These domains have gaps among them; some of the gaps can be filled with unexploited combinations of the domains.  Hence, the call for interdisciplinarity as an attempt to fill gaps.

While interdisciplinarity is demonstrating its value across a whole set of problems, it’s important to note that interdisciplinarity itself is dependent on disciplines.  The promise of interdisciplinarity to make progress on unsolved problems depends on the promise of mixing methods and theories form existing disciplines.  Several of my colleagues have made the observation that good interdisciplinarity requires strong disciplines.  I couldn’t agree more.

The need to initiate interdisciplinary thrusts have come from faculty who see the value of combining fields.  An increasing number of new faculty have generated such aspirations in their graduate programs.  They and their colleagues have forwarded exciting new ideas for blends of knowledge from multiple domains.  We have supplemented our faculty search process procedures to permit such joint hires; we are supporting such scholarship.  This attention is necessary to nurture such activity.

In doing so, however, we must simultaneously assure that the core strength of the disciplines is similarly nurtured.  The best interdisciplinary work contributes to the advancement of multiple fields.  The best disciplinary work can catalyze new interdisciplinary solutions.  Getting the right mixture is the challenge of all universities at this time.

Subscribing to the Provost’s Blog

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Today’s blog post was sent via an email to invite the Georgetown Community (and the world) to subscribe to the provost’s blog. I write a blog post each week, usually on Wednesdays. You can follow the blog by subscribing to the weekly email containing the text of the week’s blog post by entering your email in the left panel box labeled “SUBSCRIBE TO BLOG VIA EMAIL.”

Find out what issues Georgetown is facing; what initiatives we want to mount to make Georgetown stronger; what new things are happening that you might want to follow more closely.

FAQs on the Provost’s Blog:

I get too many emails already, why should I subscribe to the provost’s blog?

Georgetown, along with all other US universities, is facing unprecedented external forces and opportunities that will stimulate changes in how we achieve our mission. Rising tuition, the desire to expand access to quality higher education, the availability of innovative learning technologies, the need to integrate research experiences into education – all demand new ways of thinking about Georgetown.

Reading the blog allows you to stay in touch with those issues from a Georgetown perspective.

I’m a [student/faculty member/staff member]. Will the blog be at all relevant to my life at Georgetown?

The blog has tackled the topics of how undergraduate education is changing, the innovative teaching and research styles of faculty, and the role of Georgetown in the larger Washington community. All members of the Georgetown community have a stake in its future regardless of their role, and the blog posts reflect that.

No one cares what I think; I can have no input into important decisions facing Georgetown. How can I comment on what the provost says?

Every post in the blog gives you the opportunity to express your opinion on the topic covered in the post. The more readers comment, the more input the Provost’s Office has for decisions it must make.

If I subscribe, do I have a way to unsubscribe?

Every time a blog post is sent out to you by email (usually once a week on Wednesdays), the same email gives you a chance to unsubscribe.

You might want to try it for a while, then make a decision. I welcome your input via comments to the various posts.

In Service to Others

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One of the central missions of Georgetown is nurturing an environment where faculty, staff, and students can contribute to the common good of the society. The most frequent focus of discussion in this regard is helping disadvantaged populations both inside and outside the US. However, in a real way, service to others has a more universal mandate.

Thus, when the notion of “service to others” has an unusual twist, it’s useful to remind ourselves of its relevance. In the past few days, Georgetown submitted for review by a DC government agency, the Zoning Commission, a proposed 20-year campus plan. In the DC context, a “campus plan,” is a comprehensive statement of intentions of the university regarding programs, enrollments, building development and use, community activities, campus residential facilities, athletic and other spectator activities, transportation to and from campus, and a variety of other activities. The commission that reviews these plans looks for coordination and assent of the neighborhoods surrounding the university campus. The commission must approve the plan going forward.

Over the prior decades, the discussions with the neighborhood representatives and the university officials led to repeated impasses and litigation. Through the enlightened leadership of the neighborhood groups and the active participation of university officials, the Georgetown Community Partnership was formed in 2012 in an attempt to do better – to build a cooperative approach at the next campus plan instead of a conflictual one. The success of this endeavor is obvious in that all relevant neighborhood commissions, as well as the university, have now approved the plan prior to its delivery to the commission for action.

In a real way, the plan is a manifestation of “service to others” because it codifies an institutional commitment to be a good neighbor. It involves an ongoing commitment to offer community events to the neighbors, both social and intellectual. That is, the university seeks to share its human resources with the neighborhood. It also has an ongoing commitment to the security and quality of life within the neighborhood:

  • The coordination and funding of off-duty, University-paid DC police officers to patrol the neighborhoods surrounding campus during nighttime hours
  • Continued implementation of the Student Neighborhood Assistance Program (“SNAP”), which permits the University to proactively address, and respond to, issues of student safety, student behavior, and street noise during nighttime weekend hours
  • Late night transportation from the main campus to off-campus locations during nighttime weekend hours, to supplement nighttime neighborhood transportation options
  • Regular litter and trash patrols throughout the West Georgetown and Burleith communities, in addition to bulk trash collection during student move-in and move-out
  • Policies for on-campus and off-campus parties that encourage more on-campus social activity and address the impacts of off-campus student parties
  • Continued efforts, in partnership with community leaders, to promote safe and legally compliant rental properties, “good neighbor” behavior from local landlords, and responsibility for property maintenance by student tenants
  • Commitment to residential presence of University professional staff in the neighborhoods, to serve as liaisons between students and the community and provide educational and policy enforcement support

These commitments codify the behaviors of the University community, both staff and students. Together with a commitment to ongoing dialogue, we are building a positive, sustainable, supportive relationship between an institution and its neighborhood. Only through this can we serve those who share this part of Washington with us.

In short, one of the most important lasting legacies of the process of creating the new campus plan could be a greater shared understanding of the perspectives of the university among the neighbors and of the neighbors among the university. Serving others breeds an understanding of others, and that’s all good.

The Annual Renewal

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Most professional careers evolve as a near-continuous stream of work, day to day, month to month, year to year. It is true that they sometimes experience jumps in the level of responsibility; sometimes there are moves to completely new jobs, at a different organization. In service careers, clients might be new, but their issues might be similar to those of earlier clients. In manufacturing, each week brings new production problems, of course, but the fact of production problems is not new. However, the basic raw materials of one’s work often remain the same.

Thus, it is rather distinctive that academia runs on a very strict annual cycle. There is a start, early each fall; there is a finish, in late spring.

For faculty the summer is often an intense refocusing on their intellectual passions, pursuing their scholarship near full-time. They’re off to archives, field locations, their home office, their laboratory, or, for a few, the relative quiet of summer on a university campus.

Then in the fall the cycle begins again.

What’s refreshing about this life is the real sense of renewal at the initiation of the new cycle. It’s a fresh start.

While the course being taught might be the same course as last year, each new offering permits an updating. How should the course incorporate new work in the field that has emerged in the past year? Can my own research work over the last summer be used to inject new energy into the course?

Even if the course design is relatively unchanging, the students are new. They bring fresh energy to their studies. Each set of energy is different. They bring with them vivid reactions to world events that impinge on the coursework. Each of them is an individual; understanding their approach to the work requires individual attention. This gets our diagnostic juices flowing – what will work to open up the learning for them?

This newness each year also allows instructors to move on from any suboptimal performance on their part from the prior year. They too can be new. They have the freedom to learn from failings in last year’s class edition to try a new approach at an explanation or a new set of Socratic questions to facilitate learning.

The differences across years almost always produce some student asking a question that makes instructors think anew about key issues in the field. It refreshes the instructors and sometimes makes them think about their own research in a new way. This is an infrequently noted benefit of the combined job of teaching and research. The two sides of this life act as facilitators to each other. What might appear on the surface to be an naïve comment or question, when reflected upon by the instructors over the subsequent days, becomes a new approach to a key problem in their own scholarship. Those classes that allow the instructors to integrate their own scholarship into the class are precious resources, in that regard.

None of this could happen as efficiently if academia didn’t have this built-in annual cycle of renewal. Each fall is a fresh start. Each fresh start brings the promise of yet unachieved success. We’re lucky that way.

Combatting the Effects of Implicit Bias in Faculty Searches

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Great work by social and cognitive psychologists over the past few years has revealed one weakness of human judgment by developing the notion of “implicit bias,” often taken to mean embedded stereotypes that heavily influence our decision-making without our conscious knowledge. (Take your own implicit bias measurements). As the work evolved some are attempting various interventions to stimulate active reasoning to interrupt the unconscious judgments (see here, for example).

That research investigated some mitigations like efforts to actively recognize stereotyping in a given context; to consciously reflect on individuals who violate the stereotypic assumptions; to seek more detailed information about individuals of a given group based on personal, rather than group attributes; to take the perspective of a member of the given group; and to increase interactions with members of the given group. The experiment showed some impacts of these simple interventions.

Some of the interventions appear to succeed simply by our becoming aware that we are subject to unconscious influences on our judgment. This knowledge alone appears to act as a brake to “fast-thinking” decisions, as Kahneman calls them. It allows our values to be more explicit inputs to our evaluations of others, rather than using superficial criteria.

These are issues that all of us face in daily life, but they are of specific interest as we mount searches for new faculty in the coming year. How can we wisely achieve our goal of increasing the diversity of faculty?

Some lessons of other universities speak to the importance of diversity within search committees themselves; others focus on recruiting actively to produce a diverse pool of candidates from the inception of the search process. And then there are efforts to expose potential effects of implicit biases.

We think we can apply these research results about implicit bias to faculty search committees as part of orientation for search committee chairs. Led by our new Vice-Provost for Faculty, Reena Aggarwal, in collaboration with Rosemary Kilkenny, we also plan to have materials that other search committee members can use.

These efforts are probably most important after fully deterministic criteria are applied. That is, sometimes we receive applications for tenure line positions from Phd’s in the wrong field or from ABD candidates. Sometimes an assistant professor from a lower ranked institution applies for a chaired full professor appointment. Such applications can be easily rejected as unambiguously unqualified.

Some of the techniques are simply ways to force more attention to an evaluation – returning to the stated search criteria, forcing explicit documentation on strengths and weaknesses in addition to overall ratings.

Search committees administer complicated multidimensional and inherently subjective evaluations of potential faculty colleagues. Slowing down the thinking and understanding the individual candidate as much as possible are worthwhile goals.

Taking Care with Big Data

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I recently read a news article about a household tragedy related to sloppy use of big data. The offending event was connected with a digital portal that provided street addresses based on an IP address for an Internet connection. IP addresses cannot be mapped specifically to a street address in many cases, but can be mapped to a smallish geographical area. However, some IP addresses cannot be mapped at all. For those IPs, the mapping service chose a spot in the middle of the country, in Kansas, as the “default” position. Since the mapping problem with IP addresses is indeed prevalent, there were millions of such IP addresses that were mapped to the same default address.

One use of the service was apparently the assignment of a street address to IP addresses that were suspected to be involved with criminal activity. The outcome of the assignment practice as used by the law enforcement agencies was to investigate possible criminal activity at the house. Understandably, this came as quite a surprise to the owners, as wave after wave of different law enforcement agents descended on their house. They’re suing the data-mapping firm.

What went wrong here, from a data ethics point of view? (By “data ethics” here I mean honest communication of what is known and not known about the data.) The mapping firm has many records for which a street address is unknowable. They face a choice. They could mark the case with a code that denotes their own lack of knowledge. They would, therefore, admit that their information is incomplete for any purpose. Or, if they knew that the case lay within a specific country but not exactly where, they could have used a code that denoted that fact itself (“inside the US, not known where”). That code would thereby communicate the level of knowledge they do possess as well as the level they cannot possess.

Instead they chose to impute a specific location. Their imputation, however, was of the grossest type, probably choosing the geographical center of the country. In the best of circumstances, this will be incorrect for all cases but a very few. Perhaps the biggest irony of the story is that after the lawsuit the firm is reported to have changed the location chosen as the default location for cases missing location data. It is reported that they have chosen to impute into all those records a single location that is in the middle of a lake! (One can only imagine what law enforcement agents will do, given this information.)

All data have errors. In a colloquial sense, all data are wrong. But sometimes they’re useful for a given purpose. This occurs when the data are well described and curated in a manner to anticipate multiple uses. Further, the nature of the data is communicated to users in order to minimize uses that are not well supported by the data attributes. Finally, users have a responsibility for appropriate use of data, to know what the data describe well, and to know uses for which the data are ill suited. This requires some attention to detail.

The news story does not elaborate on what is known about the documentation provided users about the nature of the street address information, nor about the sophistication of users. But harm was done to the owners of the default address, harm that could have been so easily avoided with practices common to research data sets. The fact that the “correction” of the default address was to choose a point in a body of water demonstrates how much basic understanding of data ethics is lacking in the data owner.

Liberal Education and Life Expectancy

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One of the fastest growing populations in the US over the past years has been those who are 100 years or older. What changes they have seen during their lifetimes! In 1916, there was no television, movies had no sound, antibiotics had not been discovered, nor had fluorescent lights and even store-bought pre-sliced bread. Many workers worked much more than 40 hours a week; most births took place at home; few teenagers were in high school but instead were working; the number of horses and mules in the country was hitting its peak; few households had electric refrigerators; fewer still had radios.
Enormous changes took place during their lives, and yet, it seems, the rate of change, especially in technology, is vastly much faster now. Imagine what those passing 100 years old in 60 years — today’s forty-year olds — will have experienced in their lives!

All of this is relevant to us in academia, as we attempt to prepare 18-22 year olds for 80 years or more of life after university. It seems clear that when many of the basic features of liberal education were formed, the notion of preparing for a life of 100 years was not in scope. What does this mean for us now?

Many are speculating now about what are the essential ingredients in the design of liberal education. Is it the exposure to the enduring questions of human life? Is it coextensive with the development of deeper understanding of ourselves, as individuals – the sense of interior freedom, insight that allows us to live an authentic life, as Presdient DeGioia stated in his November 20, 2013, launch of Designing the Future(s) of Georgetown? Is it the exposure to a learned, older mentor who guides the synthesis of information in a given field? Is it the acquisition of the thirst and ability to self-teach? (Or, as President DeGioia states – “how to integrate, appropriate, challenge, and critique knowledge—how to see patterns, make connections, identify anomalies.”)

By design, liberal education gives higher odds that the students learn a variety of tools of acquiring, critiquing, and synthesizing new knowledge. They have chances at exposure of different ways to acquiring knowledge — deep reading of text, careful objective observation of events, structured measurement, the randomized experiment, and the simulation. They have chances of alternative expressions of knowledge, with creative and alternative literary forms of writing, with data visualizations, with video demonstrations, with oral presentations

As we discuss the future of liberal education, it would be helpful not to focus on the outcome of a new graduate in their early twenties, but instead, at their 80 year-old self. It is not at all unlikely that they will be engaged in the labor force, working actively to earn a living.

What will they be doing? What attributes of their character will they need to draw upon for energy and meaning? What knowledge will they require to be successful and fulfilled?

It does seem simple to speculate that longer lives lived will be best lived by those who are facile with change. Change will require learning new things. Learning new things requires cognitive tools, precisely those for which liberal education is so well suited. They have a strong chance of creating life-long learning and self-renewal that can maybe even last through age 100.

Sparking Attention by Expectancy Violations

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I have vivid memories of working on a research project, some years ago, feeling great confidence about its likely outcome. I was working late at night and there, in the results, was a completely unexpected, contrary-to-dominant-paradigm result. We made sure it was checked over and over again. We looked over each observation on which the conclusion was based. We couldn’t make it go away. It stimulated a whole set of new research, energized in a way uncommon in my career. That one unexpected finding was so riveting that it spawned years of work.

Recently, I encountered some commentary on learning among infants. There is now growing evidence that infants focus much more intensely on events that defy prior expectations. The experimental manipulations included a ball rolling down a ramp and apparently passing right through a solid wall. The 11-month old infants demonstrated quite unusual attention to this event relative to those that exhibited expected outcomes. In later experiments, the research showed that retention of learning was enhanced in conditions with the heightened attention. The unexpected occurrence triggers alertness, which in turn facilitates learning.

While this has obvious implications for education and experience-based learning, the results also have implications for navigating differences among us as humans. With every new tragedy or violent event in our society, we hear calls from leaders for more dialogue, listening, learning about one another’s point of view, walking in one another’s shoes. Our diversity becomes a strength only if we interact with one another.

One of the horrible features of stereotypes is that we end up expecting another to behave based only on a very limited set of information about them – their race, their gender, their age, their clothing, their speech. What we often learn, over and over again, is that no one person is so simply defined that one or two attributes determine their essence. We are all unusually complicated creatures. We have personal interests, which are not observable. We have individual ambitions, which can be learned only by engaging in dialogue. We have our own unique history, different from others who look like us. We have our own internal identities, which are complicated and elaborated. There is a surprise within each of us. But the surprises are revealed only through interpersonal interaction.

So what does this have to do with infant learning? Dialogue with another person almost always reveals an anomaly with a stereotype – the prediction based on looks fails miserably to capture the real essence of the person. When humans encounter the unexpected, just like the infants in the experiment, that’s when learning becomes self-motivated. When we observe characteristics that don’t fit our prior experience, we become interested and engaged.

The understanding resulting from this learning can be achieved only when we discover what’s beyond the obvious.

Academic Master Planning: Space for Education and Research

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Over the past few years, led by campus architectural consultants, faculty representatives, and facilities’ administrators, we’ve been engaged in imagining alternative futures for the Georgetown academic facilities.

The planning time horizon for the discussion is long (10-20 years). The work acknowledges that space constraints on the Hilltop campus do not permit innovation at the rate we have experienced in past decades.

Some of this work has addressed new space needs on the Hilltop campus; other work has addressed alternative expansions of our downtown locations.

In one sense, this is a logical evolution of work on the “campus plan,” which addressed key Hilltop issues of future dormitory needs, renovation/replacement of key existing buildings, and integrative approaches to space on the Medical Center and the Main Campus. Academic Master Planning is the rubric for work that also addresses what activities might in the future be located in the downtown area.

One approach to these discussions was to organize the work about goals of the university that have endured over the years – a commitment to academic excellence through a student-centered university, growing the academic program as human knowledge evolves, taking advantage of our DC location to serve the nation and the world, embracing the Jesuit educational heritage, serving our global academic ambitions, and enriching our liberal education tradition.

The group invented different future visions of what activities might be conducted on the Hilltop and what activities might be conducted downtown. One near-term issue was determining a location of the new McCourt School of Public Policy that maximizes the success of its mission as the first Public Policy school created in the 21st century. In that regard, discussions of synergies among McCourt and other schools of Georgetown took place. What location of the school best supports the interdisciplinary nature of a policy school? Will the future have more joint programs among our professional schools (Law, Business, Public Policy, Medicine, Continuing Studies)? What Georgetown educational and research activities are best placed near the government and research institutions in the city? How do we design space to maximize proximity of synergistic activities and minimize the harmful effects of multiple sites on cohesion of the university?

In essence, the group has performed some staff work for colleagues throughout the university. We will have discussions with larger groups of faculty and staff over the coming months, to gain new insights and ideas to guide these alternative visions.

It’s difficult to imagine a future 10 years from now, but failing to do so condemns us to a very constrained set of options. We don’t want this. Instead, we need the good ideas of the entire community to make wise decisions.

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