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Reflecting Back

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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

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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.

The Campus at “Spring” Break

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The campus takes on a completely different feel for the week of spring break. It’s quiet. The main walkways seem empty — no need to be vigilant to avoid being hit by walking texters. Indeed, there’s an eerie quiet. It reminds me of once walking in an amusement park before it opened. The whole purpose of the place is absent.

This year the word “spring” in spring break seems an unusually cruel reminder of what a long and cold winter it’s been on the Hilltop. Just last week there were snowball fights and snowmen on Healy and Copley lawn. Even now dirty snow piles are eyesores throughout campus. I’m ready for a real spring.

There are faculty around, working on their research. They seem in a good mood, having fun inside their passions, uninterrupted by the other parts of citizenship in a university.

With no students to say “hello” to as I walk, I found I take notice of the buildings and grounds. The walk into campus from the gates remains a pleasant scene, producing a feeling that what goes on here is good thing. It never stops feeling like an honorable place. Deeper in the campus, the construction goes on, in muddy ground, given the snow and rain. The contrast between the classical feel of the entrance and the beehive of activity in construction inside the campus is a metaphor — our collective obligation of preserving what is essential from our long-lasting practices and preparing for the new world coming upon us.

Spring break is an in-between time. It makes me realize that the academic year (which seems to have begun yesterday) is coming to an end. There will only be a few more opportunities for me to meet with faculty groups, seeking their input on key initiatives that are in the pipeline of consideration. My student advisory groups will increasingly be distracted by the pressures of semester’s end. The graduating students need to focus both on finishing their coursework and planning for the post-graduation transition. Some are going on to more education; some are entering the world of work. There are joys and fears.

Throughout the week, planning meetings for initiatives that will make Georgetown even better continue. We’re pushing ahead on the Designing the Future(s) project, with great new ideas on programs. The Graduate School is deep in planning new graduate programs tackling the world’s most pressing problems. We’re working on new mentoring programs for associate professors, strengthening our research supports, and working on space use. This is also the season for tenure and promotion reviews, allowing me to relearn what great colleagues we have on the faculty. We’re busy, even without the students.

So, for this week, although the shouting and laughter of youth are missing, the intensity of the work persists, albeit with a different rhythm. Soon all will be restored to its former pitch and volume as the students return. But then, the sands will seem to trickle to the bottom of the hourglass a little faster with each passing week.

Graduate Students Living at Georgetown

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With the new organization of the Graduate School, there are ongoing initiatives to build important new graduate degree programs, spanning disciplines and motivated by the important world problems that governments, NGO’s, the private sector, and academia are tackling. We’re adding graduate students to the Hilltop.

This increase fits into a larger strategy of continued improvement at Georgetown. First, we have recommitted to the formation of young minds as a key component to our mission; we’ve concluded that for the 21st century formation, we need to enrich the possibilities of learning through original research. We’re getting repeated input that students more effectively acquire life-long learning skills when they learn material through the rigor of original research. Through the Designing the Future(s) Initiative, we’re trying to invent new ways to create project-based and research-based learning opportunities.

Second, we realize that we need more research activities at Georgetown in order to provide the opportunities for large numbers of students to engage in those experiences. Our goal is that every undergraduate have exposure to alternative ways of scholarship and research before they exit. To increase the volume, more graduate programs are necessary in order to increase the potential linkages between graduate and undergradudate students in the same research activities.

Third, many Georgetown students are supplementing the traditional liberal arts undergraduate degree with Master’s and/or professional graduate degrees, to acquire occupationally relevant knowledge and skills. We want to create new forms of graduate education, more fully integrated with undergraduate experiences.

These moves have focused attention on life as a graduate student at Georgetown. What’s is like to be a graduate student at Georgetown? We’ve learned a lot from the strong leadership of the Graduate Student Organization (GSO). In addition to informal talks and presence of graduate students on the Provost Student Advisory Committee, we’re helping the GSO mount a survey of graduate students to learn more about joys and pains of being a Georgetown graduate student.

One weakness of Georgetown is that we have no graduate living arrangements on the Hilltop. This weakness is especially telling for students who come to our graduate programs from outside the U.S., but it also means that we have no residential space that might foster a stronger graduate student community.

We’ve had a breakthrough over the past few days, thanks the diligence of our facilities and student affairs staff, with an agreement reached with an apartment building in Rosslyn, just across the Key Bridge, to offer a set of apartments for Georgetown graduate students. The units are a mix of studios and one bedroom apartments, fully furnished. A minimum rental volume is backed by financial guarantee from the university. The building is walking-distance from the Rosslyn Metro, and we assessing the possibility of a GU bus stop at the building for convenient transportation to the campus.

If the units prove popular we have the option of expanding the number available to graduate students. As we expand our graduate program offerings, this might indeed become important.

The leadership of the new Georgetown Graduate School is working diligently to construct an environment attractive to the best graduate students in the world. This is built first on strong graduate programs led by the most productive faculty. But it also needs to include all the extracurricular enhancements that will make Georgetown the best place to do one’s post-baccalaureate education.

We have more work to do in this domain, but we’re making progress.

Interdisciplinary, Collaborative

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In a survey last year, the Georgetown faculty expressed the belief that they felt inadequate support for interdisciplinary work. We’re trying to do better on this score, and I’ve talked with several faculty about related issues over the past few months.

Interdisciplinary work is difficult at all universities because the traditional organization of a university follows disciplinary boundaries. Disciplines are powerful organizing devices because they validate which research questions are the most important, which research methods are most valued, and what constitutes a real contribution to knowledge.

Disciplines vary on these features, and, hence, working across disciplines requires inventing ways to navigate multiple approaches to scholarship.

At the same time, there has been a sea of change among those institutions that fund scholarly research activities. Most foundations and government research agencies increasingly underscore the value of interdisciplinary work. The unsolved problems and gaps in knowledge are disproportionately on the edges of disciplines. The solutions do not appear to lie within a single field. For example, while the chemistry and biology of environmental harm to land and water is now better understood, the solutions to such problems cannot be found without deep understanding of the social, economic, and cultural influences on human behavior. Countless other examples exist.

We’re trying to facilitate more interdisciplinary research and education, in search for more robust approaches to the major problems facing the world. We have created a stronger framework for joint appointments between two disciplines and between schools. We have empowered the Graduate School to identify coalitions of faculty who want to work together in new interdisciplinary graduate programs.

However, there are two interesting challenges in moving ahead in this domain. First, we need to have wise evaluation of interdisciplinary scholarship. Second, we need to value the role of faculty who are collaborative magnets across fields.

At time of promotion it is typical for evaluations to be sought from those in the field of the primary appointment of the faculty member. The reviewers are promised that their reviews will be seen only by those involved in the review process, in an attempt to elicit frank assessments. When the faculty being reviewed works across fields, it’s more difficult to identify competent reviewers. The typical problem is that a reviewer embedded in only one field tends not to value that fieldwork that partially lies in another field. In some fundamental sense, such interdisciplinary work is not central to the field in question. The best evaluators for such faculty are those working in the same interdisciplinary space. Often that is a smaller set of scholars. Extra care is needed to identify competent reviewers.

The second problem is related to interdisciplinary work, but not limited to it. New studies of scholarly productivity have identified some scholars who are collaborators to many other scholars. These scholars often possess a deep knowledge of a theory or a set of research tools that are valuable to many other disciplines. They become “collaboration magnets” in a scholarly community. I have known many such colleagues in my career. In my opinion, they are often not sufficiently valued. Their publications tend to have more co-authors; they tend not to be the primary author on larger sets of publications; they tend not to be rated as the most prominent scholars in a community. On the other hand, in a real sense their activities make their colleagues better. They are multipliers of research productivity; they are disproportionately valuable to a community.

As we increase support for interdisciplinary work, we need to tackle the issues of assessment of the quality of that work and the valuation of those whose contributions are heavily collaborative. This requires deliberate effort to adapt existing procedures to fit our interdisciplinary goals.

STEM, Liberal Arts, and the 21st Century Leader

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As a liberal arts university, Georgetown is committed to the formation of our undergraduate students in philosophy, theology, literature, art, classical studies, and related fields. We value critical thinking and writing skills. These will forever be a cornerstone of the undergraduate curriculum.

Studies of the outcomes of graduates from liberal arts schools show that by mid-career the knowledge and skills developed in such curricula serve them well. Even if we limit our attention to the criteria of income and occupation, graduates achieve more than their fair share of leadership positions. Liberal arts graduates find themselves contributing to all sectors of society.

We take pride in those findings, especially because the education and formation possible through those fields are not directly linked to job skills and occupational application.

Recent studies of those students who focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) seem to show an interesting parallel. We have all read and heard the arguments that with the advances of technology, 21st century citizens need to be literate with a set of concepts, tools, etc. The definitions of STEM skills are not uniformly stated but include complex problem solving, technology design, programming, deductive and inductive reasoning, mathematical reasoning, and number facility. Knowledge of mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology are related to those skills.

Of the roughly 130 million workers in the US, about 20% require significant STEM knowledge and skill (Rothwell/O*NET 2011). But an interesting fact is that over half of those with a highest degree in an STEM field are employed in a non-STEM occupation. Just as graduates specializing in the humanities pursue a variety of degrees, so too do STEM graduates. The graphic below from the Census Bureau site illustrates the allocation of graduates to occupation by STEM classification (go to Where Do College Graduates Work? for an interactive version of the graphic). It seems clear that, just as a humanities or arts background can lead to mid-career leadership positions in a variety of sectors, so too can a STEM background lead to diverse outcomes.

Blog graphic for 18 FEB 2015

So what do I make of all of this information? First, it’s clear that the level of knowledge related to STEM fields required for leadership in the 21st century will be greater than that required in the last century. But that could also be said of many non-STEM fields. Human knowledge is expanding at increasing rates. We all need to know much more, and crafting curricula to meet those needs is ever more complex. But a 21st century liberal arts graduate needs both the arts and the sciences.

Second, the relationship between one’s college major and one’s life work is complicated and attenuated by experiences. University studies need to provide students with all the basic knowledge and skills that allow them to maximize the benefit to themselves and others of their life experiences. The career choices and job opportunities will come to those with that background.

Third, the original foundation of the liberal arts education — including literature, languages, art, music, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology, other social sciences, and science — still has deep relevance in a world of rapidly increasing technology.

The world needs leaders who can learn how newly created knowledge combines with existing knowledge to help solve important problems. Literacy in multiple domains is important for such combining, but facility with different methods of knowing, critiquing, and adapting is equally valuable. All the components of a liberal arts education can contribute to those skills, regardless in what occupational grouping the graduates find themselves.

Building a Committee

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This week, I worked with a set of dedicated students. Our joint task was identifying a set of candidates for the new Provost’s Committee for Diversity, each of which would be forwarded to the next step of the selection process.

We received expressions of interest from scores of people throughout the university — undergraduate students, graduate students, and staff members. The purpose of the committee is to identify and address the variety of issues that are present in all organizations in the US and in many other parts of the world. They are issues of intergroup activities. How does each of us learn about those different from us? How do we act with respect to others? How can we learn to avoid tendencies for automatic prejudgment and stereotyping? How do we see another as a complex mix of attributes, both visible and invisible?

At Georgetown, we seek to build an environment that looks like the world our students must be skilled in leading. Since many of us grew up in environments much more homogeneous on race, socioeconomic status, language, and culture, we all are constantly learning about other groups. How do we build an environment that nurtures that learning without fear?

The committee’s work grew out of a committed group of students who raised my consciousness, and that of others, about interpersonal problems that are interpreted as lack of respect or rudeness. The group already accomplished much — sketching out a way forward to build academic courses that might educate about issues of race, power, intergroup relations; building more ties between alumni of color and current students; and addressing student life issues that merit attention.

Reviewing the applications for committee membership gave me optimism about the prospects of assembling a strong group. The students provided short essays about their perceptions of key issues that were relevant to the committee. Many discussed the complications of navigating Georgetown as a student of color. Several discussed identity issues that are unique to those coming from mixed heritage. Others described feelings of not being heard or understood in classroom discussions. Some reflected on the campus scene, noting that separation by race, culture, and language groups seemed disproportionate. Others noted students of color tended not to occupy positions of leadership in many student organizations. Many noted that diversity has dimensions that go far beyond traditional notions, and that Georgetown needs to bring those dimensions into focus. Others noted that feelings of isolation hurt academic performance and were distractions from the chief responsibilities of being a student at Georgetown. Some international students, new to the American culture, noted that they experienced treatment by others that was new to them. They didn’t fully understand it.

Reviewing the mass of applications, I became confident that the final candidates we choose will serve Georgetown well in identifying and addressing the pressing issues the university. I can’t wait to see the group assembled.

Measuring versus Harvesting Data: Implications for Quality

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One of the wonderful features of modern life is that we are surrounded by data. Data come at us from various internet-related sources, from transaction files in service industries, and from devices increasingly serving our homes.

This wealth of data has become an increasing focus of social and economic scientists. “Big data” is a phrase that seems to be everywhere.

Researchers who invent measurements in order to advance understanding in their fields have developed sophisticated frameworks that describe quality or error properties of measures. Although the terminology varies over disciplines, all measurements are seen to have properties of undesired variability (“noise,” “unreliability,” or “imprecision”) and properties of systematic bias.

As studies of error properties of data have matured, most fields have become attracted to a notion of “fitness for use.” This phrase means that the impact of data error sources on the analytic conclusions is a function of the use itself. You and I could use the same data for two different purposes; your use could be unaffected by various error properties; and mine could be devastated by them. For example, simple arithmetic means may be sensitive to some errors in data that do not affect correlation coefficients. Economists speak of the “concept-measurement” gap. Depending on what concept you wish a given datum to reflect, different mistakes can be made.

How does all this relate to our new world of ubiquitous data?

When your job is to invent the measurement or to design the instrument, you cannot avoid thinking about how the design of the measurement may be fallible. When you’re harvesting existing data, you’re often unaware of the processes that produced the measurements. There is nothing to force you to attend to these data properties when you analyze the data.

These days, uses of the data without sensitivity to error properties are commonplace. Google Flu depends on the relationship between search terms (e.g., “achy shoulders” or “runny nose”) and diagnosed influenza. When the relationship between the two attributes changes, for example, because of heavy media reports about influenza, then Google Flu’s ability to predict change in real flu cases itself is altered. Not being sensitive to these error properties of the indicator can lead to mistakes.

For uses of “big data” to describe large human populations attributes well, we all have to ask whether all members of the population are covered by the data system being analyzed. For example, if Twitter data are used, what kinds of people are and are not active on Twitter? Further, what types of Twitter subscribers choose to use tweets to record a given attribute (e.g., job loss) and which don’t?

In addition, we have to ask the question of whether the data harvested from the data system are exactly equivalent to the phenomenon we wish to measure. For example, if my tweet has the words “fired” and “job,” I could have said “I just got fired from my job” or “I’m fired up about my job,” or “I fired her from the job,” or “I never want to get fired from my job.” Transforming words into quantitative indicators always entails some slippage of measurement. Whether the slippage hurts one’s analysis depends on the purpose of the analysis.

An extreme statement of “fitness for use” implies that there is no such thing as data quality without a specific use. Data without a user have no quality attributes. I’m happy with that formulation as long as each data user accepts the burden of critical review of the mismatch between the data and his/her analytic use of the data.

“Big data” without careful attention to properties of the data can produce big mistakes. As more and more researchers analyze data that they had no role in producing, we need more care, not less.

A New Era of Georgetown Educational Innovation

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In the fall of 2012, President DeGioia launched the Initiative on Technology-Enhanced Learning, at a time when MOOC-madness was at its height. Georgetown used internal funds to beef up the IT infrastructure, enter EdX as a member, and support faculty to innovate in their classrooms. We wanted to make sure a) that we would mount a faculty-led process of innovation and b) that Georgetown education innovation was part of a larger multi-university, high-quality platform in EdX.

In many ways, through the enthusiasm of faculty and students, and the leadership of Vice Provost Bass, Georgetown now is at a very different point in the developmental lifecycle than in fall 2012.

We have innovated in many classes in many different ways. Large numbers of faculty are involved. We’ve learned what it takes to bring into production new technologies adapted to Georgetown pedagogical goals. We’ve introduced blended classes of various types, some using content we had built for MOOCs. We now have new online programs.

We are now finishing up a year of the Designing the Future(s) initiative, the second era of active experimentation. We’ve jumped from the class, as the unit of innovation, to the program. We’re developing new minors, certificates, majors, and degree programs. We’ve done it by engaging hundreds of alumni throughout the country, faculty in DC and Doha, staff throughout the university, and students. There were receptions, gatherings, and Webinars reaching 100’s more alumni and parents. A common tool was the “design lab,” in which participants were actively engaged in imagining the key ingredients of the 21st century Georgetown. This Georgetown is what the participant identified as the essential benefits of the current experience, modified by knowledge of how to increase the depth, breadth, and impact of the education. All of these efforts were the focus of the past few months.

In the incubator space of the small red house on 37th Street all of this input was synthesized. At this point, 30-40 faculty, students, and project managers are developing 15-20 different projects, all aimed at testing new modes of delivering high quality education.

President DeGioia has articulated student formation, scholarly inquiry, and support of the common good as three key roles of the modern university. The future designs were asked to use new ways, unencumbered by current structures to achieve maximum success on all three of those goals.

We viewed the 2012 initiative as a seed capital investment. We quietly hoped that other sources of funding would be forthcoming if we offered a proof of concept. Deep down we knew that, if there were no external support for this line of work, we could not achieve the goals that Georgetown had articulated.

The last few months have seen an unquestioned success in seeking external funds to support this work — now amounting to over $4 million in gifts and grants. This is the sign for which we were waiting. Alumni, parents, and foundations have decided that what we are doing at Georgetown deserves nurturance and support. We have seen the fruits of the seed funding of 2012.

The many people who made this possible deserve our praise and thanks. Their long hours paid off. Future generations of Georgetown faculty and students will reap the benefits of these pioneers.

If You Build Experiential Learning, Will They Come?

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Recently, the Main Campus Executive Faculty approved a framework to mount experimental courses that would serve all students. I wrote about energy among students, parents, and alumni urging Georgetown to offer such courses in the past (see: Hacking Georgetown-Provided Skills).

Deans of our various schools have returned from visits to potential employers of our graduates with requests for new courses. From the Law School, the visit conveyed the importance of new lawyers needing more financial literacy. From other visits, knowledge of web analytics and basic webpage construction was mentioned. Others brought home the message that understanding the processes of startup organizations, the phases of organizational development, and the group dynamics of growing an organization was vital. Still others mentioned a set of rhetorical skills — the pitch, the autobiographical sketch, the negotiation, the debate — that all work organizations exhibit. There were other mentions that concerned alternative forms of writing in a work organization (e.g., the briefing of the boss, a memorandum for a work group, or a proposal for an initiative).

As we were collecting this input over the past months, I ran ideas by student advisory groups. They were supportive. Their support prompted us to move forward.

Following work with faculty and students in the Red House incubator on campus led by Vice Provost Randy Bass, the Designing the Future(s) initiative crafted a proposal for a set of courses that were not currently part of degree curricula. The faculty agree that we should experiment with such courses.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation sent out a late announcement of a course in which students could enroll during this term. The course is built around a real world problem. Students working in teams will identify effective ways to expand an existing program in the Philippines designed to provide healthy meals to children in need. The students are tasked with addressing questions of how to make the program scalable and how to make it sustainable.

To do this, they will study the latest models, technologies, and methods of collaboration across the traditional sectors of government, academia, and business. Students will meet with the client, rapidly prototype different solutions, conduct quick data analysis, iterate to identify the best ways forward, and present the recommendations to the client. In short, the students have an opportunity to contribute to an organization’s success and improve the impact of the organization.

With this as a description, the Beeck Center announced a meeting for interested students. Scores of students went to the meeting, many more than could be accepted into the course. The students were told that the course would offer them absolutely no academic credit that would count toward their degree. Even without academic credit, the Center had more applicants for the course than they could accommodate.

The course is off and running with 23 active students working the problem.

While we had faith that such courses would be attractive, until this experience, we couldn’t present evidence that students would choose to pursue them. This one experimental course has emboldened us to move ahead.

Georgetown built an experiential learning opportunity for our students, and they jumped at the chance to be part of it.

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