Georgetown’s distinctive and deeply-rooted attributes have enabled it to thrive over its rich 200-year history. The university’s Catholic and Jesuit values, commitment to academic excellence, capital-city DC location, global legacies, and abiding sense of community have empowered and guided the progress of a well-established, student-centered research university. These enduring attributes have enabled a thriving highly selective undergraduate program and have powered the outsized ambitions of a relatively small institution among the world’s great universities.
The 21st century university has greater demands from society than ever before. Georgetown has the ingredients to thrive in this environment. The Jesuit mission of “setting the world on fire,” of “contemplation in action,” and of “women and men for others” is real at Georgetown. Many come here in order to use their lives in service towards a better world regardless of their faith beliefs. Any vision of the future for this community should create ever-stronger activities and structures that enhance the mission of service to others. “Values-Based Solutions to the World’s Problems” thus should be a fundamental centerpiece of a vision.
This focus requires unusual reliance on academic excellence to act as a magnet for the best minds to be at Georgetown. Fulfilling the mission of women and men for others in an increasingly complex but interconnected world will demand cutting-edge knowledge from all the disciplines and fields that constitute the modern university. This means that faculty must be thought-leaders in their fields and engage with the best students in combining their expertise with those from other fields. It means that we must build environments where out-of-the-box solutions and high failure tolerance will be supported.
There are few better geographical locations to a mission of “Values-Based Solutions to the World’s Problems” than Washington, DC. It is the home of the central government of one of the world’s great societies. It is the home of scores of international non-governmental organizations and national governmental research organizations who themselves are devoted to common goods. Georgetown is centered within this global city and is better positioned than most to play an important role in tackling problems on a global scale.
Universities have the task of formation of their students’ minds, bodies, and spirits. Universities have the societal obligation to foster ongoing inquiry that advances human knowledge. Universities advance the common good. Formation at Georgetown arms students with understanding of domains of timeless knowledge, the fundamental questions, animating values of life, basic theories, and conceptual frameworks about how the world works. The core curricula deliberately include foundational knowledge useful in countless applications throughout life. Unsurprisingly, Georgetown, like all universities, organized itself into relatively homogeneous departments, fields, and schools.
If Georgetown retains only the traditional disciplinary units, it risks deemphasizing the focus on solving world problems. On the other hand, if it organized itself only by units devoted to different world problems, it risks losing advancement of the basic disciplines key to future world problems. It must do both.
There are probably many different ways to achieve this. One vision is an organization that permits dual citizenship of faculty and students in both discipline/school units, but also in university-wide centers and institutes whose missions are totally focused on a given world problem. Some centers and institutes (i.e., collections of centers) would likely be enduring over many decades (e.g., an institute on racial justice); others might have shorter lives. The centers would have faculty research appointments of variable duration; the centers would be filled with student (both undergraduate and graduate) affiliates, working side-by-side with the faculty. These institutes would offer credit-bearing courses for minors and majors affiliated with the disciplines contributing to the solution. The units would form partnerships with global institutions in the Washington area, to enhance the likelihood that Georgetown-invented solutions would actually be implemented. The centers and institutes would have space devoted to them, with offices for faculty, carrels for graduate students, design spaces, ideation laboratories, computational facilities – all forming a home for those wanting to work together and teach one another within interdisciplinary groups solving the world’s problems. Whether permanent or transitory, creating opportunities for faculty and students to work side-by-side in this manner is key for our future impact.
None of these ideas can proceed with success without continuing to strengthen the traditional disciplines of our faculty and students. Indeed, working collaboratively on the world’s problems without deep knowledge of individual fields eliminates the value of collaboration. However, with such collaboration our service to the common good can be greatly enhanced.