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Research as Service

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It is common for faculty to assess their contribution to the university and their profession along three dimensions – teaching, research, and service. These roughly correspond to the three central goals of all universities – formation of their students, original inquiry and discovery, and advancement of the common good.

“Service” at most universities consists of administrative duties associated with the shared governance of the academy. This includes leadership and membership on the various committees common to an academic unit (e.g., curriculum, graduate admissions, seminar committees), as well as membership on university committees (e.g., school executive committees, presidential task forces). It reflects service to one’s profession, through committee and elected offices of national and international associations. Finally, it concerns community outreach – how have the candidates contributed their expertise to improvements for the general public.

For Jesuit universities, the service dimension has an added goal of aid to disadvantaged populations and the poor; indeed, a social justice mission is explicit in such universities. Land grant universities also tend to have more explicit goals involving community service, quite independent of their education and research mission. Such service is much more oriented to groups outside the university than the service of academic administration. Most Jesuit universities have ongoing opportunities for faculty and students to directly serve the community (e.g., tutoring in underserved neighbors, health clinics, legal advisory services).

This arbitrary differentiation of teaching, research, and service increasingly seems ill-suited to the lives of many of my colleagues. I’ve written about the movement toward integrating research and teaching more fully. Such research-based courses are beloved by students and give faculty members the chance to integrate two parts of their lives.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve grown to be uncomfortable with the stark separation between research and service. Georgetown’s service to the common good must be exercised as a university. That is the type of institution that we are. Many faculty represent fields that cannot have direct impact on issues of social justice. Most faculty, however, are pursuing agendas that can have large indirect benefits to the common good. For example, our colleagues in the basic sciences that pursue discoveries about the mechanisms that affect human organ performance may not directly improve the health of anyone. However, the amelioration of human health conditions may not be possible without their discoveries. When asked for reasons why they’ve chosen to use their knowledge and skills in the way they have, they will often note their hopes for indirect beneficial effects on humanity. Similarly, a mathematician using knowledge and skills to model climate change can be using his/her knowledge in hopes of informing policy for improvement of the earth’s future state. An economist who studies the impact of education on income can be motivated by hopes of extending the benefits of formal education to disadvantaged groups. A poet can produce words that motivate action towards the common good.

In short, scholarship can be conducted in service of the common good, with the goal of improving the state of the poorest among us. Universities collectively serve the common good when the research questions pursued by their faculty and students can be a piece of effective action to serve these needs. Some of our expertise directly serves; other fields of knowledge can only indirectly serve. Nearly all our scholarly work, however, can be part of the solution.

Global Competition, Global Diplomacy, and Academic Research

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A colleague of mine recently reminded me that, during the Cold War, nuclear physicists in the Soviet Union and the US continued scientific exchanges. In the opinion of some, these exchanges were critical to the eventual diplomatic agreement between the two countries regulating nuclear armaments.

Academics can easily build bonds with those working in the same knowledge domain, regardless of where they live. Sometimes these encounters take place in professional conferences, where those from several countries describe their work to one another. This free sharing of work is motivated, of course, partly by the selfish desires of individual scholars to obtain praise from the peers, but also by the obligatory acknowledgement of the dependence of one’s own work on the prior work of others. Cross-national dependencies and collaborations are common.

Ignorance about this sharing culture can lead to misinterpretations of comparisons across countries in scholarly activities. For example, a recent report compared countries on inputs and outputs of investments in research.  The first figure below plots national expenditures on research and development between 1981-2015 for major groupings of nation-states. The United States leads in expenditures (adjusted for purchasing price differences) throughout this period, but in the last 10 years the rate of increase by China is much higher than all countries.

In one sense, the first graph reports financial inputs to the research and development sector of the societies. The second graph reports one output – the number of peer reviewed articles in science and engineering fields between 2003-2016 (the last few years of the first chart). Here the European Union leads for every year, but the rate of increase for China again exceed other countries in the past few years. China passed the US in number of articles in 2016.

 

With the perspective of competition among nation-states, it’s tempting to conclude that the US is “losing” in knowledge production across the world. A nationalistic reaction to such information is, however, myopic.

Such a reaction, I believe, ignores two attributes of academic research. First, the rewards of individual academic scholars derive from wide dissemination of their work. They seek broad sharing; they revel in reactions and praise of their work by others; they carefully monitor the impact of their work on others. Hence, the work of one country’s scholars is available to all. Knowledge is freely shared globally. The “profits” of higher scientific volume cannot be retained only by the country of the scholar. Second, as the story of the nuclear physicists in the Cold War illustrates, many scholars thrive on collaboration and collegial interchange. They don’t conceptualize their work as part of the national production of knowledge or an advancement of proprietary value but rather part of the product of a global group of scholars working in a similar area. These groups form inter-nation ties that are strong.

In a world where conflicts between countries may arise, academic exchanges and scholarly collaborations become even more important. Investment in research is not just good for a country that invests, it’s good for the world and the ties among societies.

Critical Thinking, Imagination, Creativity, Interpretation, Design Thinking, Problem Solving, Self-Teaching, Inquiry, Scholarship, Research

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One of the joys of being a provost is learning a bit about the cultures of diverse areas of study within the university. Some fields are relatively united around a strong conceptual framework identifying key questions and methods to answer them. Other fields are debating what key questions should be addressed or what methods, used to answer them.

The fields also vary in their nomenclature for research or scholarship. “Discovery” as a word implies facts waiting to be uncovered. “Interpretation” implies the existence of alternative knowledge from the same entity (e.g., a text, an object). Both require an invention on the part of the student. Sometimes we label the invention a new “hypothesis;” sometimes it is creating a novel interpretation or critical review of a pre-existing piece of work. So, the different fields have developed different words to describe these methods of advancing insight — critical thinking, imagination, creativity, interpretation, design thinking, problem solving, self-teaching, inquiry, scholarship, research.

These variations are relevant to challenges facing higher education today. We now know that most of our current students will live beyond 100 years. Further, the world they inhabit will repeatedly create and destroy whole occupational classes, industries, and life styles. It seems clear that the content of what we teach in some fields will be radically different 30-40 years from now, yet our graduates may then only be in the middle of their work careers. What will they need, when they’re 80 years old, facing the elimination of their third or fourth occupation, to retool, to learn a new field, so that they can enter their last occupation before retiring at 95 years old?

The leaders of the future must be nimble self-teachers. How do students learn to be self-teachers? Self-teaching is a lot like original research or scholarship.

Those disciplines with very well-developed paradigms, organized about a set of integrated concepts and practices, tend to have distinctive pedagogical strategies. They start with fact-based courses that introduce the student to key sets of knowledge, with successive courses building upon the early ones. In such fields, only the later classes in the major expose the students to the cutting-edge problems the faculty themselves are currently researching. At that point, they too can begin original research.

In contrast, fields that have diverse perspectives, looser frameworks, more open scopes, can allow the student more immediate participation in the process of invention within the discipline. Such disciplines can introduce students to original inquiry much earlier in their exposure to the field.

Regardless of the field, the faster we can get students working in original research, the faster they can acquire skills that will serve them in the later years of their lives. Ideally, the future of Georgetown liberal education will give each student research-methods’ skills from every major field of human knowledge.

In short, research in all areas of study depends on critical thinking (or whatever they call it). Graduates who know many different research methods will be more successful in the future than those who have a more limited set of tools. At Georgetown, the innovation in teaching methods, the integration of research and teaching into courses, and the developments in experiential learning will assure that students become familiar with multiple methods during their time here. If we continue to advance these initiatives, we can be more assured that the decisions of 80-year-old Georgetown graduates will be well grounded in diverse self-teaching skills.

Venturing into Entrepreneurship

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A few weeks ago, the McDonough School of Business, based on a gift from the Leonsis family, announced the opening of the Georgetown Venture Lab, a facility within the space of WeWork White House, just a baseball throw from the White House.

The purpose of the site is to provide current students and alumni a space to develop their new enterprises. Most of these have the goal of offering a new product or service, in hopes of building an organization, bringing on employees, and making a profit. Some are oriented to social entrepreneurship, probing ways that health, economic, or cultural needs might be fulfilled through a self-sustaining nonprofit organization.

Georgetown Venture Lab is large open environment room, with lines of desks and nearby seating areas. Like all WeWork spaces, it exudes energy of innovation and sharp thinking. Ideation seems the coin of the realm.

At the current time, there are 28 different enterprises that are pursuing their dreams, from an organization offering pop-up HIV screening in underserved areas to an organization using artificial intelligence approaches to negotiating a purchase of an automobile. Some, by virtue of sharing space, have started unanticipated collaborations.

My visit to the Venture Lab was prompted by the annual award ceremony of the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Alliance (GEA), a group of alumni who themselves are entrepreneurs, or who are devoted to supporting entrepreneurs. Members of the GEA seek to connect student entrepreneurs to knowledgeable alumni who could support them.

The awardees varied from those in the class of 1988 to those in the class of 2016. The entrepreneur of the year was Doug Bouton, a mathematics and theology major, graduating in 2007, finishing law school in 2010. In his acceptance address, he told his story of discovering that a career in law was not fulfilling, despite helping him pay off large law school debts. Quitting a large firm after a little more than a year, with no other source of income, he began his plans for an ice cream manufacturing company. The early days were bleak, with repeated failures to launch and increasing debts. But the story gradually changed and in 2017, his ice cream was named one of Time magazine’s “inventions of the year.” Now Halo Top ice cream is one of the fastest growing consumer products in the country. Doug’s was a story of courage in discovering one’s authentic self, perseverance, and success.

What was common to all the acceptance speakers was spontaneous reflection about what a Georgetown education meant to them. It was about the values that they felt they learned at Georgetown. For many they saw their companies as the manifestation of those values, either in the services they offered, the actions of their company within their community, the employee culture they were attempting to build, or even their aspirations for their own behavior as an entrepreneurial leader. Making money was indeed important for the sustenance of the enterprise; doing good, however, was an explicit goal.

Prior to the award ceremony, I spoke with several students interested in entrepreneurship as a life’s work. One said something that stuck with me: “What attracts me is how much creativity is catalyzed when you have nothing to start with.” The pleasure of invention and the creative act was the motivation for that student.

It’s wonderful that Georgetown has the Venture Lab, as a home for such creativity.

Faculty Research Collectives

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One of the difficult, but thrilling, aspects of modern social science research is the exploration of how new internet-affiliated sources of data can inform traditional social science questions. A group of Georgetown faculty, partnering with counterparts at the University of Michigan, have been working together in this area over the past three years or so. Recently, they have come to refer to their group as the Social Science Social Media Collaborative (see collaborator list below). They collectively were awarded a multi-year Michigan Institute for Data Science (MIDAS) research grant to investigate how traditional social science surveys could be blended with social media data. The McCourt School’s Massive Data Institute is a key home for the Georgetown work.

The two data worlds (survey data and social media data) have fundamental differences. First, surveys are slow to be designed, collected, and analyzed. Social media data are being emitted second-by-second. Second, surveys usually measure many attributes on the respondents. Social media data tend to be quite lean in measures from any one platform at any one time (a tweet contains words produced by a subscriber at a specific moment). Increasingly, social science analysis uses many attributes to discover the important predictors of some phenomenon. Third, survey data are designed by researchers to answer specific research questions, each respondent is given the same question to answer. Much social media data are generated without any researchers involved; they are organic to the day-to-day lives of individual subscribers; they are often unstructured text, not numerical data. Fourth, the percentage of the human population covered by social media is highly variable across platforms, unmeasured, and thus problematic for use in inference to the larger population. In short, whether social media data are relevant to important social science questions is one of the current puzzles of the field.

Despite these unknowns, there is great hope that combining social media data with traditional survey data can provide new insights for the social sciences. This is relevant to the work of the Collaborative. It is an interdisciplinary team of computer scientists, communication scholars, developmental psychologists, political scientists, statisticians, and survey methodologists. Thus far, they are working on two domains – 1) the process of public opinion formation and 2) parental decision-making.

One metaphor for these first social science uses of social media data is the first use of a microscope by scientists in the 1600’s – seeing for the first time, aspects of physical entities that the human eye could previously not detect. Sometimes it’s not even clear what one is looking at. The immediate question is how does the new, more granular view integrates with the traditional more highly aggregated view.

Regarding political attitude formation, the group is comparing tweets by journalists and the general public during the 2016 election season to concurrent Gallup polling, news coverage, and other event measurements. They have taken all these data sources to pose a variety of questions – how do the issues of importance to survey respondents compare to the tweets of Twitter subscribers over the weeks of the campaign? How do key phrases of journalists to describe events get transmitted among them, what are the patterns of influence among them? Do survey respondents use similar phrases as Twitter subscribers to describe election events?

Regarding the parenting decisions and learning processes, surveys, blogs, parenting websites, and tweets are the data sources simultaneously examined. How do parents gain their information about how to parent? The initial findings are that Mom-focused behaviors in the social media data tend to concern health of the child; Dad-focused, about how to behave as a parent. Using network analysis (who follows whom), the gender of the parent was the key driver (e.g., Mom-focused accounts tend to follow other Mom-focused). Finally, it appears that Dads retweet more frequently than Moms. No survey has provided insights into Internet sources of parenting information in this way.

These are first looks from the new microscope. These scientists are asking the basic questions of how they compare to the traditional measurements. Without this basic understanding, we will make little progress at using this new data world to understand society. Kudos to the Social Science Social Media Collaborative!

 

(The collaborators include Leticia Bode, Caren Budak, Michelyne Chavez, Robert Churchill, Pamela Davis-Keane, Mei Fu, Chris Kirov, Jule Krüger, Jonathan Ladd, Linda Li, Colleen McClain, Zeina Mneimneh, Josh Pasek, Trivellore Raghunathan, Rebecca Ryan, Yiqing Ren, Stuart Soroka, Lisa Singh, Michael Traugott, Laila Wahedi, Yifang Wei, Xintong Zhao.)

The Georgetown Institute for Racial Justice

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I’ve written earlier about the university-wide effort to launch the Georgetown Institute for Racial Justice. The Institute will be a research and outreach organization. It will be a multi-disciplinary home for scholars at Georgetown and visitors from outside. It will be a coalition of research programs with different foci. Key foci would include racial injustice through research on inequalities (e.g., health, education, income, employment, housing, family, environment), diasporas, migrations, and the search for justice through research on social structures (e.g., legal, governmental, education systems, medicine, policy, voting, etc.). It will connect to the scores of scholars at Georgetown whose own scholarship relates to the social, economic, and health consequences of racial differences. It will use, whenever possible, the Washington community as a partner in its work and through those partnerships solidify the University as a good citizen of the city.

We are passing a threshold in the development of the Institute this semester. Last year the university requested proposals from units throughout the institution – proposals for new senior faculty members who would be jointly appointed in the Institute and in an existing academic unit.

We received a large number of proposals, each of them meritorious in its own way. A university faculty committee reviewed the proposals, evaluated them, discussed what combinations offered the best launch for the Institute, and selected four proposals. The four proposals are spread over all three campuses of Georgetown, the Law Center, the Medical Center, and the Main Campus:

School of Nursing and Health Studies, Department of Health Systems Administration
Growing attention to social determinants of health, stemming from and poor health conditions in communities of color, has produced a call to action for the health care sector. A joint hire between the department and Institute would strategically position the university to be an academic trailblazer and thought leader in promoting health equity – particularly by applying a racial justice lens to how health care is organized, delivered, and perceived. The NHS Department of Health Systems Administration will seek a thought leader in promoting health equity.

Georgetown College, Department of Performing Arts and the Department of African American Studies
It is crucial to keep the very public role of the humanities and the arts at the heart of our work on transformative social justice, as an acknowledgement of the long history of African American engagement with arts as activism. The Institute should take advantage of the large and influential set of arts organizations within DC to help fulfill its mission. A joint hire between those departments and the Institute will support the work of artists exposing structures that perpetual racial hierarchies and using their art to cultivate solutions to pressing social problems.

McCourt School of Public Policy
From public classrooms, to courtrooms, to voting booths, institutions meant to upheld the American ideals of “free and equal” continue to be manipulated and corrupted. As such, research at the cross-section of public policy and racial injustice is vital. This open joint search between the McCourt School and the Institute will bring to Georgetown a prominent scholar in public policy, economics, political science, sociology, public health, law or urban planning who produces impactful research on public policy and racial justice. 

Georgetown Law Center
Too often, we are reminded that the actions of the US justice system — from law enforcement, prosecution, trial outcomes, and incarceration – tend to vary by the race of the person experiencing the system. The importance of the issue demands that the Institute mount activities in this domain. The Institute should promote wider understand of the mechanisms which promote the persistence of racial inequities in the justice system at all stages of its processes. A joint search between the Law Center and the Institute will enhance and solidify the law school’s contributions to the problem of racism and the criminal justice system.

In a real way, these four appointments represent the founding generation of the Institute for Racial Justice faculty. They will shape the initial years of the organization as it grows its prominence in the world. Fifty years from now, after the Georgetown Institute for Racial Justice is an acknowledged leader in thought leadership regarding racial justice, they and their colleagues will be recognized as the founders of the Institute. We are very excited to be launching these efforts.

A Year Since the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission

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This week we’ll recognize the fact that one year has passed since the report of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission delivered its report to Congress and the Executive branch. The Commission was created by a bipartisan group in Congress, led by Paul Ryan in the House and Patty Murray in the Senate. The goal of the Commission was to give guidance to the country on whether decisions about government regulations, laws, and programs, could be more effectively made using data already existing in government agencies.

The commission consisted of a mix of experts in program evaluation and economic analysis of program performance and scholars well-versed in privacy issues.

A value widely shared among commission members was that data collected on individuals should be used to promote the common good – especially to evaluate the services provided to the public by government agencies. This required some innovation in thinking about two attributes of data – protection of the privacy of those described by the data and access to the data for statistical uses. Statistical uses aggregate individual data to describe groups of individuals. As such, statistical uses of data are inherently uninterested in the attributes of any individual.

The innovation in the commission’s work was the finding that privacy protections now in existence for many government data bases could be improved. Computer science has provided a whole set of tools that protect data from unwanted access — cryptographic techniques, secure multi-party computing, differential privacy, and combinations of those tools. Many data sets now held by Federal agencies do not use such tools for data protection.

Many of these tools can be used in environments that permit access to data for statistical purposes. In short, both privacy protections and access can be simultaneously increased. Of the two attributes – privacy protection and access – the commission asserted that public trust in evidence-based policymaking must place privacy first. Given such innovative privacy protections, then the public can reap and appreciate the benefits of new statistical uses of data to inform the public debate about program and regulatory effectiveness.

To achieve this pair of changes affecting both privacy protections and access to data for statistical purposes, the commission proposed a National Secure Data Service (NSDS). The Service would build upon existing Federal staff knowledgeable in using the above tools to blend multiple data sources together in ways to offer the country radically improved analytic capabilities. The Service would have the authority to access administrative data for statistical uses only. The statistical uses would permit Federal agencies and qualified external researchers to merge together data sets temporarily for evaluative purposes. The Service would explicitly not become a data warehouse, which, in the opinion of the commission, would become a target for hacking and other unwanted intrusion. Further, radical transparency will be given to the work of the Service. At any moment, the public could know what data sets are being used, for what purpose, and the results of the analysis would be publically available. Higher standards of privacy protection, along with greater transparency, would yield, in the opinion of the commissions, greater public trust.

Within days of the report’s delivery, a House bill implementing some of the Commission’s was passed. Passage of a companion bill in the Senate (S2046) has not yet been achieved.

The Commission’s collective recommendations attempt to correct a weakness in our country’s ability to use already-assembled data to inform public policy. Most other developed nations are enjoying these benefits.

I continue to hope that key tenets of the commission’s recommendations will be implemented. The country would be better served and better protected.

Trust in Institutions

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I’ve commented before on the US public’s loss of trust in major institutions. Declining trust is not just a US phenomenon, but it is nonetheless troubling to those of us working within institutions.

Reflecting on these trends led me to speculate about the mechanisms for trust building. Of course, there are many social science theories that touch on the development of trust. Sociologists and psychologists note the prevalence of reciprocation norms. These norms prompt a person who has received an act of kindness/assistance/gifts from another to perform a commensurate act at some later point toward that person. The reciprocation both builds and sustains trust over time between actors within a society. Others argue that as the wealth of societies increase, the perceived benefits of institutions decline because of the belief that they are not as fundamentally necessary to the everyday welfare of individuals.

What features of an institution might sustain trust?

First, the “trust” bestowed by a person seems to require an expected benefit to that person. Some of the theories of customer satisfaction have noted that merely meeting a customer’s expectations does not in itself generate satisfaction. For example, if I believe an airline will not serve me well (that is my expectation) and it does not, the experience does not make me satisfied. Instead, satisfaction, and perhaps trust, comes from believing that the organization will makes me happy, will serve my needs, and then experience it effectively doing so.

Second, trust seems easier for institutions whose clients agree on goals among themselves. At a very basic level, organizations whose mission is focused on a specific public, whose expectations and needs can be identified, seem at an advantage to trust-building. With an alignment between goals of individuals and goals of institutions, the trust likely seems higher. Homogeneity of goals among an institution’s stakeholders facilitates meeting those goals. As institutions mature, and stakeholders increase in numbers, managing homogeneity of stakeholder viewpoints is challenging. When an institution’s stakeholders do not agree on what the institution should do, trust is threatened.

Third, institutions with singular goals seem to have an advantage. If the goals of an institution are unambiguous (both to the public and those within the organization) the correspondence between stakeholders and institution is likely to be better. One wonders whether some of our institutions have seen a gradually widening of the scope of their missions over time (witness the demands that schools perform some activities that were formerly the role of families). Institutions with wide, vaguely-stated goals seem open to unmet expectations and, thereby, a loss of trust.

Fourth, trust requires time. Vivid in my memory is a focus group I witnessed long ago, when we were exploring the role of trust in responding to social science surveys among the public. One woman stated that the reason she trusted a certain institution was that it had been around for a long time, and inferred that longevity was unlikely without good performance. The argument suggests that one requisite of trust is time for the development of a history of interactions between the public and the institution.

Fifth, trust in an institution requires transparency surrounding its activities. The recent shocks to trust in institutions often involved secrecy by the institution. Increasingly, the public appears to use transparency as a prerequisite to trust. Those institutions that appear to lack transparency produce lack of trust among some merely by the absence of transparency.

Sixth, trust is enhanced when institutions adapt to changes in their stakeholders’ norms. Institutions, as they grow, tend to specify appropriate behaviors and inappropriate actions by codifying them in written rules. Much of society however runs on unwritten rules, which some call “norms.” Norms are often unwritten, but they define what we find acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in different situations. Norms often change faster than rules. Those institutions where rules become out of alignment with current norms seem to be subject to loss of trust. In a rapidly changing normative environment, those institutions that nimbly adapt their rules to emerging norms are likely to maintain trust.

Of course, many of these reflections raise the issue of how important public trust should be for an institution. If the core mission of the institution becomes out of alignment with the society it serves, what are the leaders of the institution to do? How can institutions avoid mission creep that leads indirectly to loss of trust? Can there be too much transparency? How can institutions influence the normative structure of a society in efforts to build trust?

Faculty and Students, at the Beginning of their Time at Georgetown

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On every university campus, this is the time of many receptions and orientation meetings of both new students and new faculty.

Today, I had the pleasure of meeting with newly hired faculty. The Provost Office organizes an orientation day, presenting key information that a new colleague needs to know at Georgetown. Each year in these meetings, I am reminded of why academic careers are such an important component of a society. These are people devoted to building the next generation of educated leaders in diverse fields, while simultaneously advancing knowledge in their field for the common good of society. They are passionate about both of these missions. The instructional passion propels forward the formation of our students; the research passion enriches the lives of students through their research-based learning experiences, as well as impacting the world through discoveries unseen before.

In our faculty orientation, there is a little anxiety about how one will “fit into” Georgetown. There is curiosity about how the Georgetown students will compare to earlier teaching experiences one has had. There are questions about how one’s own research activities can be moved into a new home. Everyone in the group wants to do well and seeks the information to permit them to do so.

Similarly, over the next few days there are meetings of new students where senior administrators and officials welcome the new students. It’s common to give them a sense of Georgetown’s commitment to educating the whole person, to helping each student find their way to serve others, and to helping each student succeed. Clearly, like the new faculty, the students are somewhat anxious about whether they will be successful.

Hence, there are some similarities between the faculty and the student meetings. Striving to succeed is a widely shared focus. However, there are some stark contrasts, as well.

Most of the entering students haven’t experienced many failures in their lives. They have passed all the academic hurdles placed in front of them.

In contrast, many of the new faculty have already experienced the common failures of an academic career. They know that only a minority of the academic articles written are accepted by good peer reviewed journals; many book manuscripts are rejected by presses; the majority of research grant proposals are rejected. One of the hidden parts of academia is that the rate of rejection one experiences is quite high.

The students, for the most part, are shielded from this fact. The published work that instructors assign for readings in classes is the very best of the research products of a field. Students rarely learn how much work never made it to that level of excellence. Yet, each faculty member knows that producing work that becomes part of the established field (which is taught to the next generation) is a rare event in any field. For every research idea that works, they have worked on scores of others that didn’t work.

My hunch is that, in these orientation meetings, we could serve our new students and faculty with a little more acknowledgement of the important role of failure prior to success. For the faculty, we need to communicate that Georgetown wants to foster an environment that supports this complicated high-risk, high-payoff devotion to innovation through research. For students, we need to communicate that many significant accomplishments need a set of failures before success; if you’re not failing frequently enough, you may be aiming too low; the “hit” rate on really important ideas is quite low, and we all need to get accustomed to rejection on the way to hard-earned success.

When faculty and students come together around this issue, great things can happen. When faculty share their research lives with students (either in student research experiences or in classrooms), they can teach them lessons of repeated failures leading to success. The students learn under close mentoring that failure is an opportunity for insight. Georgetown’s efforts to integrate research and learning have those benefits in mind. It’s an aspect of formation of our students worth the investment.

Institutional Support for Interdisciplinarity

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We have just received preliminary findings from last year’s self-administered survey of faculty members at Georgetown, the COACHE survey. As was true in the two previous surveys, faculty tend to give low scores on assessments of Georgetown’s “support for interdisciplinary work.” We need to do better in this area and are actively planning to do so.

As we plan for the next fundraising campaign, one of its unifying themes demands thriving interdisciplinarity. It flows from a simple four-step argument:

                  1. Georgetown is a Jesuit-animated research university devoted to service to others, with                   special attention to the disadvantaged.

                  2. Therefore, it is proper that it create university structures that permit it to have larger                    impact on solving the world’s problems.

                  3. The existing problems plaguing the world cannot be solved by knowledge within a single                    discipline, school, or profession.

                  4. Hence, to increase its impact as a global research university, Georgetown needs to increase                    its support of the work of interdisciplinary teams devoted to those solutions.

We have already moved in this direction in various ways. The EVPs launched a set of initiatives to attract senior established scholars for joint appointments across schools and campuses. Interdisciplinarity is inherent in the goals of the Georgetown Environment Initiative, which is bridging the gulf between the science of environment and the public and political discourse in the area. It is inherent in the Massive Data Institute, where high-dimensional data will be blended with traditional sources to understand complex social phenomena. It also is consistent with the thrust of launching the Institute for Racial Justice, which is recruiting faculty who would have half-time appointments in the Institute and halftime appointments in a more traditional academic unit. A world-problem orientation motivated the reorganization of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the creation of new graduate programs focused on problem areas that have career lines attached to them. Faculty are themselves increasingly coalescing into interdisciplinary work groups. Finally, an interdisciplinary spirit is motivating many of the faculty searches ongoing in the university, initiated by individual units.

The demand for interdisciplinarity comes both from faculty and students whose interests lie on the interfaces of disciplines, where more work is always needed. Students have always thirsted to make their mark, to fix all of the ills of the world as they see them, and, especially at Georgetown, to help others live more fulfilling lives. Students are, in that sense, problem-oriented. A university like Georgetown should take advantage of those orientations. We imagine a university where every student has as a dual focus – studying a traditional disciplinary field, but also working with those outside their field on world problems of common interest.

What we are missing at Georgetown, however, is a set of homes for the faculty and students who want to work on these problems. Most of the current interdisciplinary groups that I observe are forced to use conference rooms to meet periodically, but then must return to their offices spread throughout the university. They do not enjoy the random bumping-into-one- another or the quick hallway conversations that the shared space of an institute or center provides. Without such space, students from diverse disciplines who share an interest in a world problem have no common space in which to meet, no place to hang out and speculate on alternative ways of solving world problems. They have a more difficult time finding each other.

Many of the ideas bubbling up from faculty and students about how to make Georgetown more impactful require such homes to achieve their aspirations. We have the human resources to do this; we need to invent the physical space to take advantage of those resources.

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

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