Skip to main content


ICC 650
Box 571014

37th & O St, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20057

maps & directions

Phone: (202) 687.6400



Phrases to Graduates Worth Remembering

Posted on

At the end of last week, I attended quite a few commencement events. For the most part, the thunderstorms held off, and most events were held on Healy Lawn. But it was quite hot for many of them, and I sympathized with the black-robed graduates soaking up the hot sun.

I heard many commencement speakers. Each took a different tone, but there were some common thoughts advanced by many:
• The world is increasingly interconnected.
• The world enjoys the benefits of wonderful advances in technology and biomedicine.
• The world is broken, with conflicts proliferating in many countries, producing large numbers of refugees.
• Georgetown’s Jesuit and Catholic values give to the graduates a burden and challenge to address these issues.
There were, however, some memorable thoughts unique to a single speaker, which have, at least in me, generated some reflection.

One speaker, Admiral Thad Allen, a leader in the post-Katrina and BP oil spill disasters’ operations, is a man who has faced the task of helping save and nurture millions of people whose lives were brutally disrupted by natural or man-made disasters. In identifying key personal attributes needed by a 21st century leader, he said that we need the “ability to confront complexity.”

I had not taken confronting complexity as an organizing principle previously, but it instantly had appeal to me. By “complexity” he meant, I believe, that nothing seems to be independently operating these days. Everything is connected to everything else. Solutions to a disaster displacing thousands of persons need a systems’ approach, reflecting that housing, transportation, energy, food, medical care, all need to be coordinated.

But even in non-disaster situations, we’ve learned that problems facing society are complex mixes of human behavior, science, law, markets, ethics, and literature. A great question deduced from this is “What educational experiences best prepare a person to confront complexity?” What are the skills actually needed to diagnose carefully a problem that has many tentacles and to discern how to approach a comprehensive solution? How can one determine what one does not know, and gain the skills to assemble an effective cross-functional team? How does the mission of solving the complex problem stay the focus of the team, despite the need to address diverse sub-issues?

One quickly thinks of the skills that researchers acquire when they are attempting to identify the mechanisms that drive various processes. For example, for reasons important to me at the time, I once concentrated on answering the question of why people agree to comply with the request from a stranger for a task about which they had no experience. That moved me from sociological, to psychological, to linguistic mechanisms that might jointly underlie the behavior. Certainly intense observation of any phenomenon can breed the skill of “confronting complexity.”

One wonders whether there might be an academic course organization that could give students the cognitive skills to diagnose, deconstruct, and find system solutions to complex problems. I suspect many of our courses do so as an auxiliary benefit, but I wonder if there is any merit in creating a unit explicitly focusing on dealing with complexity.

Another comment that sticks in my mind is a quote from John Gardner, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, tackling the social and economic ills connected with the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration. President Degioia echoed Gardner — “What we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.”

I love the quote.

It is a fitting companion to the observations of the complexity of problems facing our world. The quote itself has the power of refocusing our attention. Who among us has the right to label a problem as “insoluble?” Why can’t we reframe the issues? Why can’t we challenge the traditional approaches that have failed in the past? Why can’t we employ completely different solutions? Can we combine one “insoluble problem” with another to motivate a completely different approach? Why, indeed, do we accept the labeling of a problem as “insoluble?”

Breathtaking opportunities instead of insoluble problems.

“Breathtaking opportunities” was an apt phrase to deliver to a set of new graduates ready (I hope) to confront the intense complexities of the problems facing our world.

Getting Ready for the End

Posted on

It’s a very interesting time on the Georgetown campus.

Most students have left campus. They’ve finished their exams and have turned in their final papers. I see them pushing big carts of possessions across campus. Many have pulled their roller bags and carried their duffel bags to waiting cabs and shuttles.

The work of the faculty jumps up just as the students vacate. Faculty have sequestered themselves away, grading the tests, reading and commenting on the final papers. Then they incur the labor of assigning and turning in final course grades.

In the last few days, the campus has undergone a physical transformation. During study days and exam time, the library and every nook and cranny of the campus were filled with students studying. Those spaces now seem empty, like an airport in the wee hours of the morning. The rooms look lonely, missing the hubbub and energy of students. It’s all interim, a time between two realities.

The campus never looked better. Some of the beauty is the natural effect of the launch of spring — flowering bushes and trees, begonias, and intensely green new leaves. The smells are different — fragrances of flowers all mixed together, fresh earth turned over, and at little pollen too. Some of the beauty results from new paint on lampposts, benches, doors, and walkways. Some of it results from new sod planted on bare areas.

Of course, the sunshine and warm weather enhance the feel of the campus. People seem more relaxed, taking quick moments to took at flowers and trees. The students who are still around seem to be playing Frisbee on the Copley Lawn and lying on blankets talking.

With each passing day, I see more triplets of parents and graduates, walking around campus, taking photos of themselves in front of iconic sights. A lot of laughter can be heard as they walk, and signs of pride are obvious in the parents.

There are white reception tents arising each day across the Hilltop. The place has the look of preparation for a fancy wedding. Today, all the chairs have been set up on Healy Lawn, facing the stage on which faculty and administrators will sit during commencement ceremonies. Those involved in the complicated logistics required to conduct the ceremonies are looking at the weather forecast repeatedly throughout the day (so far, so good).

All of this is in preparation for the end of Georgetown programs on the part of the graduates. I’ve talked with many. Many have deeply mixed emotions. They’re elated that they successfully completed their degrees. But they will miss their time on campus; they’ll miss their compatriots in their programs.

It’s the end, but, as every commencement speaker will remind them, it’s also a beginning. For this, students have understandable anxieties about what the future will bring. This is the excitement of launching a new phase of life for which they hope Georgetown has prepared them.

There are few times during the year when all the purposes of the campus seem to converge so clearly. Nothing better.

Relative Deprivation

Posted on

In the middle of 20th century, Robert Merton described a social psychological construct concerning the comparison of one’s own status and that of relevant others. He observed that, even in groups with very large resources, those within the group who believed they were less well-off felt “second-class,” unsuccessful, and deprived of full acknowledgement of their value. This was the notion of “relative deprivation.” Even if you own a yacht, someone has a bigger yacht.

My job and my various obligations often place me in discussions about the future of higher education and research. For example, during my tenure at the National Science Board, overseeing the National Science Foundation, considerable discussion has been spent on communicating the importance of basic research in the sciences. By “basic” is meant research about fundamental building blocks of a field, regardless of whether the knowledge yields practical benefits or applications. (In one of our meetings, there was a report of a focus group of the general public who reacted that the US shouldn’t be funding “basic science”; it should be funding really “sophisticated” science. Clearly, there are communication problems.)

There is a growing fear among scientists in biology, physics, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, etc., that advances in these fields are being inhibited by lack of Federal government research funding. Instead, those fields that produce technologies with more immediate application to everyday life seem to enjoy more support. The scientists involved in basic research note that many of today’s technologies are completely dependent on discoveries that were made decades ago, within basic science. They fear that a focus on short-run gains by technology-related research misses the value of basic science. In short, researchers in basic science feel threatened.

In an unrelated set of activities, I’ve found myself in discussions about the relevance and long-run sustainability of the social sciences in the country. Participants in these discussions note that findings in social science research are relevant to many of pressing problems of today. For example, while we have some understanding of the chemistry and biology of environmental damage, environmental progress requires human interaction with the natural world. But there seem to be disconnects in getting social scientists active in environmental research. On another front, social scientists complain about the increasing analysis of “big data” by mathematicians and computer scientists, who appear not to have learned the key issues of measurement of human thought and behavior, and who, in the opinion of the social scientists, are not sensitive to data quality. They feel that quick analyses of big data may be flashy, but that long run progress requires social science content and computation. In short, the social sciences feel threatened.

When I’m back on the Georgetown campus, I’m spending my time talking with humanists and learning about fears of diminished support for the humanities. We all read comments from political figures who question the value of undergraduate education in the humanities. We listen when one says “But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history.” Those comments occur simultaneously while cuts in Federal government funding of the arts reach a several decade trend. This does not encourage a culture of optimism for the future within the humanities faculty. In short, the humanities feel threatened.

Finally, I was at a national meeting of scholars, and we discussed the massive decline in state legislature funding of state universities. Since the 2007-2008 academic year, funding is down over 20% per student. Propelled by the land-grant state universities founded in the middle of the 19th century, the United States built a population of strong state-supported research universities. Together with private universities they arguably form the most important strategic resource of the society, a veritable engine of knowledge production and innovation. Together they are a magnet for the brightest, most ambitious students in the world to come to the United States, assuring both constant supply of new talent and, for those who return, leaders of countries who understand the culture of the United States. It’s difficult to imagine a more valuable resource in an increasingly connected world. However, with each cut in state funding, the ecology of US universities is being diminished. The universities raise their tuitions; with each increase in tuition, access to higher education becomes more restrictive.

Thus, each of the groups on university campuses — the scientists, the social scientists, and the humanists — feel threatened. The threats are real. But when the groups restrict their attention to their local campus environment, it’s easy for them to feel threatened by each other. Are they getting their fair share of the campus pie? Is their unit receiving the attention by campus leadership that reflects their threatened status? The real question, as the observations above suggest, is whether the whole campus pie is becoming too small. Further, has the country lost the belief that institutions of higher education are capital investments in the future strength of the country? Instead, is higher education viewed only as a personal service to be purchased, with the sole relevant criterion being lifetime earnings return on investment?

In short, the common enemy of the scientists, the social scientists, and the humanists is the lack of understanding of the role of higher education in building a strong, respectful, just, and innovative society. Hence, this generation of academic faculty has been given another burden — communicating as widely as possible the importance of higher education to a strong future of the country. This is a challenge to us all, but one that is crucial to the country’s future.

Renewal in Doha

Posted on

Last week, we announced a renewal of the partnership between the Qatar Foundation and Georgetown University. This partnership, which started in 2005, successfully built the School of Foreign Service in Qatar in Doha, Qatar. The Bachelor’s of Science in Foreign Service (BSFS) program is one program among many at Education City, an invention of the Qatar Foundation.

At Education City, students can pursue journalism and communications degrees from Northwestern, medical degrees from Cornell, engineering degrees from Texas A&M, art and design degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University, archaeology and museum studies degrees from University College London, biological sciences, computer science and business degrees from Carnegie-Mellon University, and an executive MBA from HEC-Paris. As a totality, Education City is a key tool in building a research and education-based society in the coming decades in Qatar.

From all indications, the work of our colleagues in Doha and the leadership and faculty of the SFS in Washington are greatly appreciated. Graduates of the BSFS program in Qatar already provide leadership in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other key institutions and businesses in the country. All the signs indicate that the campus has achieved its original goals.

The new agreement provides for a continuation and expansion of the size of the student body for the BSFS program. It also seeks more activity on the part of Georgetown. The Qatar Foundation appreciates the outreach to the wider society in Qatar through community activities, the training of employed staff in ministries, and the service activities of students, faculty, and staff to the Doha community. It wants us to expand these services to the Qatari society.

The agreement also lays the groundwork for new educational programs through our campus there. These already include programs in sports management, through the School of Continuing Studies. They will include executive education in leadership and related skills through the McDonough School of Business.

The Qatar Foundation is launching a related institution, Hamad bin Khalifa University (HBKU), which will concentrate on graduate programs. Our faculty in Doha already contribute to a mid-career Master’s program in Energy and Resources, along with Texas A&M and HEC-Paris. There are future possibilities of collaborating with other branch campuses in joint programs, which could take advantage of complementary strengths in the various campuses. Other Master’s programs, joint with HBKU, are possible.

In a real sense, the new agreement seeks to build on the success of the School of Foreign Service in Qatar to create a larger set of educational programs — a Georgetown in Qatar.

In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI urged the Jesuits to go to the frontiers to do their work. The Doha campus of Georgetown was launched in a society that is undergoing dramatic change. While the country is one of the richest in the world, it is a culture quite different from that which spawned Georgetown. Thus, it is a cultural frontier that requires planful translation of US elite higher education programs.

We have successfully imported a strong academic program. We have recruited a global student body and an international faculty. We are now called on to do more. With the new agreement we have an opportunity to expand this example of working at the frontiers.

The First Meeting of the Provost’s Committee for Diversity

Posted on

Last week, the first meeting of the standing Provost’s Committee for Diversity took place in the historic Philodemic Room in Healy Hall. (See Building a Committee for a description.) There are a dozen or so student members of the committee, the winners of an extended proposal review and interview process led by student leaders of the diversity-related activities of this past year. Diversity includes persons differing on race, class, ethnicity, culture, gender, but also LGBTQ and disability status.

The group is a mix of undergraduate and graduate students. They bring to the table a variety of backgrounds and heritages. They come from diverse parts of the globe. They are disproportionately students of color. Most importantly, they are united in wanting to create an environment at Georgetown that is supportive and respectful of all, regardless of how different their backgrounds might be from the elite university setting of Georgetown.

Many want to make it easier for those who follow them to become their best selves through Georgetown. They speak of the difficulties of navigating the sharp contrast between their pre-Georgetown lives and their on-campus lives. They seek easier ways to find others sharing their heritage, in order to share knowledge about academics, to build a support network, and to feel more “at home.” They are interested in learning from alumni of similar heritages how they attained success in their fields.

Some are interested in assuring that students of color are treated with respect and appropriate concern by all the student services that exist on campus. In essence, they seek to extend the notion of cura personalis to sensitivities to the diversity within the student body.

Some are interested in greater inclusion of differences within student organizations on campus. Some are interested in greater support for activities that celebrate the cultural identities of diverse groups on campus.

Others are interested in addressing academic issues — curricula on race, class, power, and privilege. Some seek to understand how we might increase the numbers of faculty from traditionally underrepresented groups across disciplines.

The student members voted on the most important issues to tackle first. We identified subgroups to work on the first issues, and we’ll begin to tackle them one-by-one, seeking meaningful action. Added to the student groups will be Georgetown staff and faculty, when needed, to supply information and expertise on how to create change effectively.

It was a great start of a wonderful new group of enthusiastic students. We want all students at Georgetown to feel it’s home to them. I look forward to a lot of hard work, but also to the satisfaction of partnering to make a better Georgetown.

Large Programs, Small Programs

Posted on

In a set of great discussions about how to make Georgetown a better university, I’ve encountered an issue relating to the size of an education program. Across the different schools, we have degree programs that are housed in units called departments, areas, Centers, and some actually called “programs.” For want of a universal term, I’ll call these “programs” in this post.

At Georgetown, we have big programs and small programs. We have programs with as few as 4 full-time faculty and ones with over 30 faculty.

As I’ve written in other blogs (See: Support for Faculty Scholarship and Flexibility for Faculty Scholarship: Cutting-Edge Education from Cutting-Edge Scholars), the provost’s office has been trying to support faculty scholarship in various ways — banking of courses, use of partial sabbaticals, matching policies for prestigious external fellowships, and more internal faculty research fellowships. All of these tools allow faculty to assemble the precious time they need for more concentrated effort on their current scholarship.

One of the unanticipated problems in liberalizing support for faculty research is that small programs face difficulties that big programs don’t. If there are four faculty members offering 16 courses each year, the absence of one of the four for a term causes the need to replace a larger portion of the course offerings than in a department of 30 faculty, offering 100 courses a year. How could we help? Perhaps we need to adjust our procedures for support of faculty scholarship to permit more advance planning. Say, we might permit faculty to apply for a fellowship that won’t be taken for two years, giving the school and program more time to plan for the absence of one faculty member. Would that be helpful in smaller departments to promote use of these new policies while protecting the department’s ability to deliver on its high quality educational activities?

It’s not just the new policies that have different effects on small and large programs; it’s also true of long-existing procedures.

For example, a similar differential burden applies with regard to promotion and tenure procedures. By definition, small programs rarely prepare dossier materials for tenure and promotion review; large departments are frequently preparing them. Doing something for the first time is always more difficult than doing it routinely. How can the provost’s office provide more assistance to small programs in the entire tenure and promotion process?

I’ve also heard concerns about how small programs that receive their own faculty merit pool feel more constrained in the distribution of merit dollars. It is indeed easier to introduce appropriate variation in merit allocations in larger programs. To address this problem, the provost’s office has constructed an extraordinary merit program to supply some relief to the constraints of a pool, when a faculty member has an unusually productive year. Can we think of other ideas that would help small departments with this structural challenge?

All universities have some small educational programs, and we want to create an environment in which faculty in small programs have a full opportunity to do their best work. We’ve made progress on some features of faculty life. We’ll make others whenever we can feasibly do so. Ideas are welcome.

Truthiness about Busy-ness

Posted on

We’ve been having discussions about how to regain a sense of collegiality among faculty and staff at Georgetown. Faculty who’ve been here longer remember getting together in group lunches, where the conversation was informal and unstructured. They remember learning about their colleagues’ work (an inevitable topic among academics). They remember discovering unexpected intellectual synergies with colleagues they hadn’t previously met.

Some remember a time when seminars within fields were deliberately designed to inform one another about current work that people were pursuing. In some units, there was a strong cultural norm to attend such meetings. Some of these events survive in some units; some of these are facing low attendance; and some have died.

Most think these events are more difficult to mount now than previously. The hypothesized causes are many. Georgetown faculty tend to live far away and commute into campus. Their moments on campus are packed with work; many have their lunches at their desks, working through the noon hour. This has long run effects. I’ve been in many social gatherings in which I learn that staff who’ve been at Georgetown many years have not met a colleague in a different school or even a different program within a school.

Many acknowledge the tyranny of email, texts, and other electronic demands for instant attention. We all have stories of colleagues who telephone 10 minutes after sending a text or an email, asking why we haven’t responded. We all attend meetings in which half of the participants are typing into smart phones during the discussion. The world demands attention to mundane features of life more aggressively than previously.

For some faculty, their day is spent in frequent contact with students. Georgetown faculty tend to spend more time in one-on-one sessions with students than what occurs on many campuses. This seems to compete with time spent with colleagues. We take seriously the devotion to cura personalis when dealing with students. It often trumps the obligations to our colleagues.

Some think that part of the problem results from the evolution of academic disciplines. As fields mature, subfields grow. Increasingly, academic excellence requires very deep, but narrow expertise. The course of least resistance is to seek international fame in a very well-defined area. Some notice that they too infrequently attend seminars outside their disciplines. They devote their free time to drilling further into their areas of specialty. Maybe we place lower value on having a broad understanding of multiple fields.

My last post noted the permanent tension on academic campuses between basic theoretical work — the knowledge-for-knowledge sake goal — and applied work — the problem-solving goal. In a way, I see a link between the perceived busy-ness of our academic lives and this dichotomy. What we’re missing in this busy-ness is what Jesuit education values highly — moments of reflection. We’re cheating ourselves of opportunities to assess what we’re doing from another vantage point — the vantage point of the other, the vantage point of another field. Moments of deep reflection can make important differences in an academic’s career. Just as devotion to theory requires deferred gratification regarding problem-solving, taking time to learn about colleagues’ work delays completing the obvious next step in your own work. However, it might also provide insights into that work never achievable by doing only the “urgent.”

Most costly, perhaps, is that this sense of busy-ness is keeping us away from each other. That is a great loss. We miss the collegiality, but it takes real courage and discipline to regain it.

Basic vs. Applied; Theoretical vs. Practical; Knowledge for Knowledge’s Sake vs. Knowledge with Action in Mind

Posted on

There is much talk these days about the “value” of higher education in the United States. The talk gets confused with immediate employability and the need for a technologically-based society to have sufficient STEM workers. It’s further confused by intense focus on the cost of higher education compared to entry-level salaries of graduates. This has led to studies on the “return on investment” in job earnings. Connected with this are snippets of public discourse about first job salaries of humanities’ graduates versus others; these often reflect poorly on education in the humanities, but they rarely tell the story of life-long learning and critical thought that make humanities grads notably successful in the long-term.

This rhetoric has led to some more recent pushback in the popular press, about the value of the humanities to societies. Sometimes, the argument can be practical, responsive to the concerns of today. For example, I spent time a few days ago with an environmental scientist who believes that the public discourse about the environment cannot be elevated through mere presentation of scientific findings. He is putting his energy into the support of artists and humanists to use their crafts to communicate the spiritual and emotional value of environmental features under threat. This is a creative and important way of connecting fields that are often seen as disconnected. Others will note that problem-based humanistic endeavors, while important, are not the sole purpose and value of the humanities.

Talking to alumni of Georgetown, regardless of what they ended up doing in their careers, produces a common reflection on their years at Georgetown. They learned to think. Their studies of the humanities and other disciplines were integrated and impactful. They read the masters. They were exposed to fundamental questions that every person should face — questions of what is real, how knowledge is possible, the nature of faith, meaning in human lives, the importance of community, and the sources of human happiness and suffering. Sometimes, the alums’ catchphrase is “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” They think of their time in higher education as moments of intense self-discovery though exposure to these knowledge domains. The knowledge gained had lasting value to them (regardless of their career choice) because it centered them and offered permanent guideposts for decision-making.

In some sense, the debate about the value of STEM versus the humanities is unhelpful. We as individuals need both the humanities and the sciences. Further, within each domain we need theory and applications. Some faculty and students thrive in the realm of the theoretical. They develop principles of their field or of their lives based on immersing themselves in fundamental thoughts and writings. They use their energy to advance them — the faculty member by pushing the concepts further; the student, by striving to comprehend the framework of the concepts, manipulating them to understand the field.

At this moment in the United States, however, I feel the pendulum has swung to the emphasis on the practical, the short-run, the easily measurable. With formal education packed into the younger formative years, glorifying the short-run benefits of higher education risks a suboptimal society. Its weakness would be the inability for thought leaders to draw on knowledge from multiple fields. It would discount the wisdom of the ages; it would miss the emotion and spiritual values generated from the humanities that have spurred human action in the past.

I find extreme positions on these issues interesting but myopic. Of course, we could redesign liberal arts higher education to attempt to maximize the return on investment as measured in first five-year income. Of course, we could redesign the liberal arts higher education system to expel all obviously “applied” knowledge and preparation for occupational outcomes. In doing so, we would gradually create a faculty whose foci were myopic. We would limit ourselves and our horizons.

Having on the same university campus faculty and students who vary on the dimension of theory and applications is good for both. “Knowledge for knowledge sake” in unanticipated ways often produces the basis for the wisest course of action. We need to celebrate it.

So, what I value in US universities is a blend — of the basic and the applied, the theoretical and the practical, “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” and “knowledge with action in mind.” The two sides do indeed need each other, and the world needs both.

Reflecting Back

Posted on

I sometimes find myself in conversations with faculty job candidates or young faculty, launching their academic careers. I spend hours reading the tenure and promotion dossiers of faculty. I write reviews of faculty on other campuses. These events often force attention to the choices that all academics make during their careers. Sometimes I think about what conversation I would have with my younger self, knowing what I think I now know.

One of the discussion topics would be about the value of breadth of thinking, exploring different approaches to the intellectual passions that drive us. From my new perch, I see over and over the possibilities of the great things that could happen if faculty and students traverse discipline and school boundaries. My younger self felt so deeply the need to impress others with scholarly accomplishments in my narrow area of expertise. I judged that the time spent on crossing over boundaries, even if it merely meant attending a lecture on an interesting topic in another school, had too high an opportunity cost. I’d probably counsel my younger self to take more time to learn different methods and perspectives on issues related to the ones I was studying.

Another discussion with my younger self would be about risk taking. Every faculty member is constantly judging how their next step in scholarship fits within the dominant thinking in their field. For every next step there are safe, usually smaller extensions of insight and understanding and there are also bold moves that could be attempted. The latter have high risk of failure but often can have a bigger impact. My younger self had mixes of these; looking back, I’m proudest of the higher risk ventures, even when they failed. Only in retrospect is it obvious that the failed bold attempts yielded unanticipated smaller impact products. In addition, they often led to a different contribution later, never imaginable without the initial big failure.

A further talk I’d have would be about how valuable sharing research experiences with students can be for a scholar’s own development. I personally made mistakes of keeping my research life a little separated from my student life. I now realize every time I engaged students in the research I was conducting, it turned into better research. Sometimes the very research project I was working on produced better output. At other times, the students prompted me to see an issue from another perspective, producing a new research product later. I’d tell my younger self to integrate research and teaching as much as possible.

Finally, I’d tell my younger self to be as active as possible in the relevant professional associations of my field. Looking back, I cannot imagine that I would have found the same kindred spirits on my own campus that I encountered in national and international meetings. There, I found collaborators, critics, and mentors who I would not have found otherwise.

I generated these reflections in speaking with younger faculty around campus, searching to find the best ways to ply their trade. Maybe some of these thoughts are relevant to the choices they’re now making.

Honoring Research

Posted on

As President DeGioia has noted, a modern research university has goals of formation of the persons who are students; support for faculty research creating new knowledge, insights, and solutions to pressing problems; and finally, service to the common good in other ways (but often through the products of the first two goals). I am happy to say that this makes working at a university a blast.

We want to recognize faculty excellence in all three of these domains, and we have awards and honorific events at various points in the year to recognize faculty who excel in each of them.

In past years, there was a missing component in the recognition scheme. Last night, in an attempt to repair this, we had a dinner for a small set of faculty who have been unusually successful in garnering external funding to support their and their students’ research activities. The research projects often require multiple persons, the use of special equipment, or the de novo assembly of data. This is a particular slice of the research activities at the university; indeed, there is much more research that is not supported by outside funds. But it’s an important part of our research portfolio.

The process of doing research based on external funding is a tough road these days. Thousands of grant proposals are submitted each year (NSF alone receives over 48,000 proposals a year). The rate of successful proposals is low and falling, given Federal government budget cuts. Some of the gap is filled with private foundation funding, but it’s fair to say that great diligence is required to garner funding in nationally (and internationally) competitive grant programs.

The process in many agencies provides a panel of outside reviewers, who read the proposals in the competition, grade them on pre-specified criteria, and write evaluative summaries. Having spent years writing such proposals, I can attest that the evaluations are critical, sometimes, brutal reviews of the value of the work. Reading the anonymized reviews on your own failed proposal is not fun, yet sometimes leads to improved ideas. But there are limits to resubmitting a revised proposal in many agencies, so the stakes are high in the first submission.

Hence, increasingly, getting a single grant funded is a big deal. Getting a series of grants funded is very rare. But it’s also true that, in almost all of the evaluations of how well a university is doing, the amount of external research funding is a critical evaluative component.

Because of the peer review process, success is explicit validation that the faculty’s work is cutting-edge. And thus the success of external funding strengthens the entire institution.

The faculty at the dinner were those from the Main Campus who had indeed assembled unusually strong track records in external funding for research. We held the dinner to acknowledge their hard work, to celebrate their success, and to let them know we were proud to be their colleagues.

When I looked around the room and saw colleagues from the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences, I was a proud provost.

Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202)

Connect with us via: