Skip to main content

Address

ICC 650
Box 571014

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

maps & directions
Contact

Phone: (202) 687.6400

Email: provost@georgetown.edu

 

Hack@Georgetown

Posted on

Through the good work of two Georgetown undergraduates, Casandra Schwartz and Taylor Wan, last weekend the Healey Family Center was a beehive of activity. Laptops, wireless devices, and virtual reality tools were spread across scores of tables. The atmosphere was loud, boisterous, and electric with energy. It was “HoyaHacks,” a hackathon organized by students, faculty, and University Information Services (UIS), and sponsored by a large group of corporate and nonprofit entities.

There were some formal lectures on web-scraping, Java, HTML, CSS, data visualization software, and data analytics. There were games and social events.

There were over 300 participants, mostly students, mostly from non-Georgetown institutions. Some were high school students; some were graduate students. Over 40 institutions were represented.

The highlight of the hackathon was a competition for building software applications that solved interesting problems. Teams had about 36 hours to do their work. Some of the teams formed on the spot; members had not known each other prior to the event. Others came from the same school to the Hackathon together.

The problems they tackled were diverse. One application used a sensor placed on the user’s head, with a Bluetooth connection to a laptop application. On the screen appeared the letters of the alphabet and a set of special characters. The software took a few minutes to identify which letters were the focus of the user and then began to display them on the screen. In essence, with complete immobility except for one’s eye movements, the user could spell out words on the screen. The application’s benefits for the physically impaired people were obvious.

Another application was designed for users who were in a new city, at night. With current functionality, Google maps can route their walk back to their hotel identifying the quickest route. But sometimes, in a strange city, returning to one’s hotel by foot generates concerns about personal safety. One group developed an app that used data on open hours of businesses and altered the Google route to maximize the likelihood of walking through neighborhoods with open stores and other businesses.

Yet another app showed real time spatial clustering of financial events, like bankruptcies, plotting the incidents as a layer over an interactive map. Multiple layers would be used to display demographic differences in the statistics displayed (e.g., female vs. males).

Another app showed real-time tracking of favorable or unfavorable sentiments of political candidates, based on Twitter feeds and natural-language processing of the text in tweets. Using the geographical location in some tweets, they can plot the variation in sentiment across the country.

There were many other interesting projects.

Judges from faculty and private sector sponsors reviewed each of the projects and voted on the best. Demonstrations of the applications followed. It was a real competition.

I was excited to see the creativity of many of the students. They presented clever uses of Internet-based data resources to solve real problems. I hope Georgetown has many hackathons over the coming years.

This HoyaHacks was designed to allow the participants to both invent the problem and find its solution. Other hackathons are more thematically organized, providing to the students a well-defined problem to explore and solve. Reflecting on the success of last weekend, I can see real payoff for faculty to pose candidate research questions as part of a thematic hackathon and benefit from working with students on their solutions. Maybe we should try such an idea in the future.

Appreciation is Due

Posted on

We’ve had a little snow here in DC.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), I was visiting our Doha campus during the Snowzilla event. With closed DC airports, I was able to return only on Tuesday afternoon, much later than I had planned.

I arrived to see piles of snow outside the airport, and streets and sidewalks still covered. It was a mess.

When I arrived at the Georgetown campus on Tuesday afternoon, I saw completely clear sidewalks and walkways throughout the campus. Every walk had been salted, entrances to buildings were completely clear. Yes, there were piles of snow everywhere, but there were no impediments to working on campus.

When I caught up with colleagues, I learned even more. Workers at the eating-places on campus and in the maintenance areas had slept on campus in cots during the blizzard. This allowed them to give ongoing service to our faculty and students.

I learned that the campus crews had cleaned up the campus in record time, especially given the large accumulations. I saw an email from a parent of an undergraduate thanking the facilities and food service staff for their dedication and care during the snowstorm.

Most of the time of a provost is spent on academic affairs, attempting to help the university attract and retain the best faculty and students, and supporting innovation in education and research. However, none of this matters very much if we don’t have a physical environment that permits faculty, administrators, and students to do their joint work.

In most publicity that we distribute from Georgetown, faculty and students are highlighted routinely, for their scholarly, athletic, and academic achievements. Staff that keep the physical environment and provide direct services to students are less often featured.

It’s at moments like a gigantic snowstorm that we are reminded of the utter dependence of academic activities on the dedicated university staff who keeps the campus functioning. That we have staff who give up their time with their own families to stay on campus solely to serve students is sufficient evidence of a deep commitment to the mission of the university.

We owe them thanks.

It Takes a Community

Posted on

Over the past few weeks and months, Georgetown has been the site of several events of community building and strengthening. For example, the Black Alumni Summit held in late October brought together a large group of African-American alumni to reconnect to the university. Hundreds of alums attended sessions that catalyzed a new wave of networking. The sessions focused on leadership and education at Georgetown, as experienced by our African-American alumni.

In another set of activities a university-wide committee on diversity, a committee largely containing student members, has been meeting. We’ve divided up the various initiatives we want to advance (e.g., improving the diversity of the faculty, increasing the visibility and breadth of educational programs focusing on race and culture, improving campus tours, improving faculty understanding of diversity issues). It’s been good to see how dialogue between students, faculty, and administrators can form bonds of commitment to address important issues.

The students have expressed the desire to meet and network with alumni of color. They are seeking the kind of informal mentoring that can help younger persons learn from the lessons of those who have experienced some of the same things they are experiencing. How best can one navigate his/her way through Georgetown as a student of color? What support mechanisms can be forged? How is social interaction at Georgetown different from what they might expect to experience in various work settings? What kind of issues are students likely to encounter when they enter the world of work? How have alumni successfully traversed those issues? What have the alumni learned about career options that the students might not know? How do they best achieve their ambitions?

The wonderful thing I discovered in these activities over the past few months is that there is a perfect alignment between the contact students of color wish to have with alumni, on one hand, and the interest of alumni of color in interacting and mentoring our current students. Both sides want the same contact. All we need to do is to create the mechanisms to nurture such interactions.

This won’t be a one-way street of benefits, solely helping students. I am confident that both the alumni and the students will be enriched by the interaction. Good mentors are effective because they care for those whom they guide. In return, they receive the deep pleasure of helping one another. This opportunity to give back is part of completing a circle of benefits they received in attending Georgetown. The resulting satisfaction the mentor derives is sweet and long lasting.

We’ll work over the coming days to develop ways to make these connections more and more real, more and more widely available to our alumni and students.

Seeking Faculty Input on What They Think about Georgetown

Posted on

Two years ago, we mounted a survey of full-time faculty on the main campus and the Qatar campus, using a web-based questionnaire organized by the Harvard School of Education. In doing this, we joined Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, Tulane University, University of Rochester, University of Arizona, and University of Virginia, among others.

The survey is called the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) Survey. The areas covered by the survey include the research environment and institutional support; teaching load and student quality; nature and distribution of service responsibilities; facilities and work resources; personal and family policies; health and retirement benefits; interdisciplinary work and collaboration; mentoring; tenure and promotion opportunities, clarity and reasonableness; recruitment and retention, and institutional governance and leadership.

As provost, I found the systematic measurement very useful. Use of the Harvard team to conduct the survey allowed us to assure faculty that administrators, like the provost, would never be able to associate answers with individual faculty members. Only statistical summaries of data are available to the provost’s office, deans, or unit heads.

We sought transparency by giving several presentations on the results of the survey to faculty throughout campus. Our use of the statistical summaries went beyond just reporting them. We found the survey so valuable that we shaped the agenda of the provost’s office based on the results of the survey. We mounted focus groups to get richer, qualitative information about important domains. We designed and implemented improvements in areas where we saw major problems.

We want to continue using feedback directly from faculty, based on these measures, to hold ourselves accountable for the responsibilities of the provost’s office. We want to see whether things are getting better, staying the same, or getting worse.

For that reason, faculty will be asked by the Harvard group to answer a few questions, once again. This will allow us to compare current assessments of faculty with the results from the 2013-2014 academic year. (This year, Medical Center faculty will also be asked to participate, and separate statistical summaries will be provided for that campus.)

The support of the Georgetown faculty for the survey last time exceeded that of the vast majority of other campuses using the instrument. We were a national leader in the percentage of faculty who responded. Such completion rates increase the certainty that statistical results represent the full faculty. Hence, we were confident that we could use the 2014 results to guide real actions.

We wish to continue to guide our actions by faculty input. If you receive a request for the survey, please take the time to complete it.

Semester Interlude

Posted on

It’s a quiet week on campus; all the administration and many of the faculty are back, working away. However, the students won’t return until next week. It’s an extended “in-between” time this academic year.

An empty campus evokes moments of reflection that seem harder to achieve when it is filled with the hustle and bustle of students. While the quiet is welcomed, it also reminds us of who is absent.

When we surveyed faculty about the joys and pains of their jobs at Georgetown, one strong result was their love of teaching Georgetown students. It’s clear that the energy and interests of the students offer a kind of stimulation to the minds of faculty that can’t be achieved in solitary scholarship on their own. Questions from students repeatedly force a faculty member to rethink basic questions in their field.

From the student side, I hear stories about how a faculty member took time to talk about their future. The talks might focus on the students discerning their way through life challenges or more narrowly career-oriented discussions. Once they overcome their fears of opening up to a faculty member, the students love these encounters. For many students, it’s the best thing we have going at Georgetown.

These interactions between students and faculty are central to creating self-awareness as part of the students’ formation process. Along with all the other student support systems we offer, they help answer both the “what” to do with one’s life, but also the “why” of that doing. The self-awareness is a key tool to discerning how a way forward can offer genuine meaning to their lives.

All our faculty are leaders in this endeavor. They help students find their way forward. Anything we can do to maximize those encounters will strengthen the university.

We’re blessed that we have faculty who excel in this and gain deep satisfaction in guiding students, and we’re blessed to have students who appreciate its value.

With each passing day in this semester interlude, we’re coming closer to the students’ return. New classes will start; new mixes of students and faculty will be launched. Former students will stop by to renew bonds with professors who no longer teach them. Students will discover new faculty whom they admire. New bonds will form over the coming months. The cycle of formation, self-awareness, and discernment of life purpose goes on.

Protecting Privacy While Serving the Common Good

Posted on

One key challenge facing the new world of high-dimensional data is the protection of individual privacy.

An interesting fact about statistical uses of data is that there is no value in inspecting individual records. Statistics relies on aggregations of records. A sample size of one is generally uninformative. Real statistical users are uninterested in individuals. Hence, all their operations can be done without any identifiers on the case records.

Statisticians collecting data commonly promise those from whom data are sought that their data will never be revealed in a way that is associated with their identity. If the data providers completely trusted the statistician, there would be no concern about whether the individual information about the person would be revealed to any other persons.

Over the decades statisticians developed methods of protecting the data from abuses. Some organizations have contractual arrangements with data analysts such that if data were revealed, the analyst (or his/her employing organization) would agree to pay large financial penalties. All US Federal statistical agencies (e.g., the Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics) have laws covering access to confidential data that provides criminal fines and imprisonment, if breaches occur.

Most statistical organizations separate identifying information from other data as soon as possible after collection. Many organizations sponsoring statistical analysis construct computer environments detached from the wider Internet, with sole access given to those with pre-vetted access rights to the data. When merging together multiple data sets on the same individuals, some organizations create personal key variables that uniquely identify the person, but strip off all other identifying data. The file linking the unique key with the other identifying information is kept offline, to protect it from any hacking possibilities. The final merged files may not even been permanently assembled. Separate component files are stored in different locations.

When data are made available for public statistical uses, most organizations conduct rigorous “disclosure risk” assessments. After stripping off the obvious personal identifiers (e.g., name, address, administrative identifiers), individual variables that might be indirectly identified are “perturbed.” That is, quantitative variables, like income, might be collapsed into categories, with a top-end category (e.g., $250,000 or more) that assigns the same code to many records. Alternatively, random statistical “noise” is added to the data, in a manner that does not affect arithmetic means of the individual variables. Variables not susceptible to such coding are not included in the anonymized public file. Finally, techniques of “differential privacy” are introduced, so that statistical analyses conducted on a data file are altered to a degree that individual identities have known levels of protection.

It is true that all privacy-protecting procedures depend, in one way or another, on the integrity of the people handling the data. If I, as a data provider, don’t trust that the procedures reviewed above are implemented as advertised, I would easily feel that my privacy was at risk. But I also suspect that few of the public have knowledge of the processes above.

My own personal records have been hacked, from multiple organizations in widely publicized events. Each of the organizations was using my records, not for statistical purposes, but for administrative purposes (e.g., personnel, credit). Those record systems need personally identifying information to provide their value to the administrative processes they serve. They cannot use many of the data protection techniques above.

In looking forward, what can statistical organizations do in order to generate trust? Many of the above procedures protect the identity of individuals. In this regard, statistical uses of data permit a much safer environment for individual data than administrative environments, whose uses of the data demand identifiers. As I think to the future, I wonder whether trust of data providers for statistical uses might be improved if they knew this.

A Home for Humanities’ Scholarship

Posted on

One of the jobs of a provost is striving to support all the different fields of inquiry at the university and the educational programs connected to them. Some fields require teams of scholars working to produce research outcomes. Others depend on the quiet and difficult work of single scholars. In all fields, as human knowledge expands and deepens, the work of academic scholars becomes more difficult, as each strives to discover or create something new, something that is a lasting contribution.

As I talk with and learn from our scholars in the humanities, I’m impressed with diverse needs they have for their work. Many require periodic visits to archives in other countries for their work. Many seek increased contact with scholars working in related areas, to use them as a source of new ideas, to seek their reactions to work in progress, and to use the fellowship of like minds to renew their own energy in times when progress is lagging on a given project. All require concentrated time to get into the flow of their creative and scholarly work.

Fields where government research foundations mount peer-reviewed funding programs for supporting scholarship don’t face the same issues. Grant funding can support teams of researchers from multiple disciplines. The camaraderie in the teams acts to propel research progress. The research teams become small families, teaching and motivating each other. Space is often devoted to the project team. It becomes a home for the team, a place to gather both for work and social support.

Scholarship in the humanities throughout the world tends to take on a different form. Most countries fund biomedical research at the highest levels; next, the natural sciences and engineering fields; next, basic scientific research; and last, research in the humanities. Hence, universities that care about the humanities need to pay special attention to building environments supportive of research in those fields.

At Georgetown we are launching a discussion about these issues with a special focus – the feasibility of building a Humanities Institute that would become a home for our faculty and students. It is not a new idea, but we haven’t yet made sufficient progress on it, in my opinion.

In talking with my colleagues, there are several unmet needs. We need space that is a comfortable home for intellectual interchange. We need procedures to give individual faculty precious time to finish-off projects that are important scholarly products. We need a home for students to interact with faculty on the key issues in the fields. The home might also include the possibility of visiting scholars to spend time at Georgetown. The home might be the convener of faculty working in the same domain. These are only a few of the ideas that have been forwarded. There are many other ideas that are possible.

We’ve named a working group, led by the vice-provost for research, to sketch out ideas that are possible components of a Humanities Institute. We hope to collect the various ideas and optional ways forward by the end of the Spring semester. We can’t move forward without good ideas; once we have assembled them, we’ll address how we might find the funds to make the ideas possible.

A World without Benchmarks

Posted on

The word “benchmark” has many meanings. In the context of assessing organizational performance, one often hears, “Let’s do some benchmarking,” by which is usually meant, a comparison to multiple comparable organizations. In the world of government statistics, the word “benchmark” has a meaning close to a notion of a “gold standard,” the closest to truth that is humanly possible. It is the preferred estimate whenever it is known. Differences between a given estimate and the “benchmark” estimate are sometimes used as a proxy to the lack of accuracy or bias of that given estimate.

This is pertinent to the world of the US Federal statistical system right now. The system is a collection of agencies that provide estimates of the unemployment rate, of gross domestic product, of educational attainment, demographic distributions, and a host of other statistics that provide the society with the basic picture of itself.

These statistical processes have gained their benchmark status because over the decades they are consistently collected and assembled, their procedures are well-documented, they produce information that comports with other observations, and the agencies that construct them are perceived as trustworthy, objective servants of the public.

With the emergence of high-dimensional data resources, many arising from the Internet, we now have the capability of creating statistics that measure some of the same societal phenomena as government statistics. For example, price inflation indexes can be constructed by scraping e-commerce websites. New jobs can be estimated by Web-based job openings’ services. Analysis of internet searches can construct statistics about concerns of the public on health, politics, etc.

At this point, those involved in these enterprises use the traditional government statistics to evaluate their new Web-based statistics. When the new statistics agree with the traditional, their inventors feel justified in their approach. The traditional are still the benchmarks, the “gold standard.”

There is an ongoing gradual decay of the benchmark systems because of lack of public participation in the data gathering operations and tight budgets. We might be moving into a statistical world without benchmarks. The internet-based data will be blended with traditional data in order to create new statistics as a way to support the traditional approach. Statistical models will be used to estimate quantities that had simpler descriptive characters in the earlier data world.

How can we best navigate a world where the benchmark statistics disappear? No one knows, of course, but my bet is that in the absence of a single benchmark estimate, we will prefer to have multiple estimates of the same phenomenon. Indeed, it might be useful to actively build multiple approaches to measuring some key societal trait. We would want to disseminate the resulting statistics simultaneously, seeking to see whether they all point in the same direction or indicate very different messages. With a consistent finding among them, we would have greater confidence in the signal; with disparate findings, we would be cautious.

This is a more complicated world for the public, who is accustomed to single benchmark indicators. It’s a more comfortable world for statisticians, however, who are commonly concerned about the over-simplification of individual benchmark indicators. We’ll need clear communication and user-friendly visualizations to make this new world work well.

The Benefits and Costs of Boundaries: Maximizing the University’s Contribution to the Common Good

Posted on

Universities have the mission of the formation of young people, of assuring support for the original inquiries and scholarship of their faculty, and of contributing to the global common good. These three goals are achieved by the design of educational programs, the recruitment and retention of the best faculty, and structuring an environment in which faculty and students can interact to exchange and expand knowledge for the betterment of the world.

As universities evolved, some features of the institutions favored a removal from the day-to-day affairs of commerce and its related professions. Those features seem to be best accomplished by intense concentration on fundamental questions in a domain of knowledge. Indeed, a continuous tension in university intellectual life concerns striking the right balance between “theory” (concepts and principles useful to understand many phenomena) and “applications” (the solving of practical problems). There are fields with strong boundaries between theory and applications.

Further, in their early days, universities rather quickly organized into groups of scholars with shared expertise, the germs of the disciplines and fields that we have now. A continuous tension in universities today is how many scholars with similar interests are necessary for multiplier effects on the scholarship of those faculty. As human knowledge expands at very increasing rates, specialty areas seemed to become more and more narrowly defined. Some disciplines place strong boundaries around their domain.

The boundaries between theory and applications and the boundaries among disciplines are strong forces in the organization of universities. So too are the aspects of university culture that seek distance from or boundaries separating them from the world of commerce, government, and other institutions.

At this moment in history, however, it’s appropriate to question whether progress on some issues might be better served by crossing those boundaries. At Georgetown, we have already moved to support the crossing of disciplinary boundaries and some theory-applied boundaries. The reorganization of the Graduate School, to nurture interdisciplinary graduate programs that focus on large unsolved problems facing the world is one example. The recent call for proposals for tenure-line joint appointments across units, schools, and campuses is another.

A further move could be imagined regarding the boundary between Georgetown and the “real” world, especially the various institutions in the DC area. Our Washington location makes us neighbors to one of the world’s largest collection of PhD-trained researchers in almost every field imaginable. This includes the health scientists at the National Institutes of Health; the physicists and chemists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology; the environmental scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the astrophysicists and other scientists at the National Aeronautical and Space Administration; the large numbers of PhD economists at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Federal economic statistics agencies and others; the historians at the Smithsonian; the art and art history scholars at diverse museums; the performing arts professionals at the many institutions in town; the social scientists in think tanks throughout the area. I left out other disciplines, but you get the point.

Many of these scholars are in full-time pursuit of their passions in their particular field. But many miss the chance to have impact on young students’ lives. Some teach a course now and then at Georgetown. Few have real joint appointments at Georgetown.

It’s worth imagining how Georgetown might take advantage of these unique local resources, creating more permanent appointments with such scholars. Could this expand the opportunities of our students working as interns in those environments? Could their faculty status permit us to integrate the internship more fully into the education program? Could this improve the bridge between theory and practice by integrating more fully such scholars into the Georgetown community? Could this be an efficient way to increase the breadth of our faculty talent? Could adding such faculty increase the possibility of Georgetown contributing to the common good through problem-motivated scholarship and practice?

Getting Better, but Just for the Educated

Posted on

Georgetown is blessed to have among its research centers the Center on Education and the Workforce. They have been a source of important evidence on the role of higher education in the larger society. A new report on how the macroeconomic recovery is affecting the job market was just released.

The report is consistent with the narratives that Georgetown students on the job market have been telling me – things are getting better.

From the report, however, I learned that things are not getting better for all persons seeking employment. The report defines a “good job” as one whose annual median salary is in the top 1/3 of all full-time, full year workers, more than $53,000. (The median salary for all full-time, full-year workers is $42,000). The “good jobs” also tend to have higher rates of employer-sponsored health insurance and retirement plans. The US economy has added about 6.6 million jobs in this recovery; 2.9 million were these “good jobs.”

The most telling chart in the report is below.

Graph

Almost all the good jobs added in this recovery have been filled by college graduates. High school graduates have actually been pushed out of the jobs.

This is another piece of evidence that higher education matters for the individual life course. The formative processes, both intellectual and social, that occur in institutions of higher education are valued by the US job market. This result, added to the prior evidence of almost a doubling of expected lifetime earnings due to college, demonstrates that the investments in human capital that families and students make have pecuniary benefits. It is critically important for the future of the country to rebuild the world-class ecology of state and private universities within the United States.

We, at Georgetown, are committed to expanding the access of these benefits to larger groups of young people especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. We are also committed to outcomes that are not monetized directly – the formation of women and men whose purpose in life extends beyond their own income to the welfare of others. In this moment when some are questioning the “return on investment” of higher education, however, the CEW report reminds us that Georgetown can focus on “women and men for others” with some assurance that we are also giving our graduates the opportunity for a more secure personal financial status.

Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202) 687.5103provost@georgetown.edu

Connect with us via: