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It Takes a City

As part of the visioning process of the future(s) for Georgetown, President DeGioia described three different roles of the modern university — a) the formation of its students to discover and effect their authentic selves, b) the original scholarship and knowledge generation by the faculty, and c) the university’s public role that advances the common good.  These are central core missions of a university and describe its key raison d’être. The best universities in the world do all three of these things excellently.

It’s important to note that those key functions of Georgetown rely on a large community.  Some are highlighted routinely and visible to anyone who follows activities of the university.  For example, the Georgetown home webpage almost always reports an accomplishment of a student or student organization; it routinely describes new research accomplishments of our faculty.

Like many aspects of life and of human organizations, however, for every visible accomplishment, there are many non-visible contributors.  While faculty and students get the glory at many times, there are colleagues who support them in these accomplishments whose work was necessary to the glory.

All universities are small cities.  Inside them are buildings that must be built and maintained.  There are roads and cars and vans that are owned and maintained.  There are financial transactions, travel costs, computer purchases which must be documented.  There are applications from prospective students that must be processed and evaluated.  Students need to eat.  Employees need access to their health benefits and retirement planning services.  Actions of the university must be reviewed for their compliance with government regulations. The grass has to be cut; flowers have to be planted; windows washed; trash picked up.  Carpets need to be cleaned; classrooms tidied each day.  Students have health needs and counseling needs.  Faculty and students need course registration, teaching support, and computer support.  Research projects of faculty need supplies. The computer network must be maintained and improved (downtime brings the “campus city” down).  Research grant proposals must be reviewed and sent within firm deadlines to the funding agencies.  Students need help choosing their career paths and linking with employers.  New job openings need to be advertised and candidates for them evaluated. New hires need onboarding services.

None of the achievements of universities — in student formation, faculty scholarship, or the public role for the common good — can take place without efficient and effective services like those above.

University staff who offer these services to faculty and students are most often “behind the scenes.”  They are rarely mentioned in the large national discussions of the future of higher education.  They are largely absent in the press releases on the latest university achievement.  It is true that the services they offer (not unlike the services offered by a provost) are auxiliary to the core functions of the university — the production of well-educated graduates, the discoveries and scholarship of faculty, and the direct contributions to the common  good.  But those core functions cannot achieve success without the best work of a strong university staff.

When these staff members do their jobs well, the educational and research functions of the university can proceed seamlessly.  When they fail, the university can be crippled.  We too often assume that timely payroll processing, efficient computer networks, course registration, clean classrooms, etc., are magically guaranteed.  When they break down, we realize how important they are to our work.  (In this sense, they are like the bridge we travel over each day thoughtlessly, not appreciating it until it collapses.)

So it’s useful and appropriate to take a moment to appreciate the efficiency of the university staff who perform these services.  It is literally true that the “glitzy” stuff of universities cannot happen without them.  To those staff, and on behalf of faculty and students, I say “thank you.”

9 thoughts on “It Takes a City

  1. Thank YOU for making this clear. We are often thoughtless in this regard. One could also include the work of non-tenure line faculty in this group (though they are somewhat different in that they do have more direct and regular contact with students). In any case, I think a big “Thank you” to all the people who make this place run is greatly deserved!

  2. As a University AAP, I’ve been waiting to see something like this for awhile. I thank you for recognizing the importance of what happens “behind the scenes” and outside of the classroom. When we work together (faculty and staff), we ALL succeed in helping our students diversify and enhance their education.

  3. Could not agree more with every single word! I am so grateful to all on this campus who make it work and who make it beautiful.

  4. Thank you Provost Groves for a wonderful post.

    1.5 quick thoughts (inspired by your words).

    1) As we explore the future(s) of the university, the “official” roles of “Staff”, “Faculty”, and “Student” will only become more blurred.

    Yes, the university Staff perform services, but during their lunch breaks, their morning commutes on the G2, their other “9-5” (9pm-5am) — many Staff become the “students.” Learning everyday from our Faculty and also our “faculty” — the Students. Not only “learning by doing” but finding a way to infuse it with “learning by learning.”

    1.5) In a world where employers struggle with employee retention and 1-2 year job stints become the norm, how can we build community around not only our Students, but our “students”? People who not only get the job done, but strive for “the more.” How can we scale their impact?

    How can Staff be a part of the reimagination and experimentation of the future(s) of the university?

    One might argue the ideal future company is a place that intentionally blends work with continued learning to create “whole” employees. Is this a potential future of the university?

  5. Provost Groves, I appreciate your acknowledgment of these roles and of the people who fill them. As an AAP, I interact frequently with the faculty who are often in the spotlight, but I interact daily with the members of our community highlighted in your blog. We have a very talented staff who help to run this city!

  6. “It is true that the services they offer (not unlike the services offered by a provost) are auxiliary to the core functions of the university — the production of well-educated graduates, the discoveries and scholarship of faculty, and the direct contributions to the common good.”

    In my understanding, the definition of “auxiliary” is similar to that of “supplementary.” I would argue that the staff and AAPs are not supplementary, but integral (here defined as “essential to completeness”).

    I’m looking at the staff and AAPs I know and interact with on a daily basis. How many of us are aren’t a part of the production of well-educated graduates? (Here at the Career Education Center, I’d say our staff all works to educate our students, be that how to write a business style cover letter or research jobs, internships, and contacts as they look for potential career opportunities, and we do our work face-to-face with an incredibly high percentage of the student body). Quite a few of the Student Affairs staff are recognized at national conferences and published in academic journals based on their original research. And all of us work towards teaching students what it means to be representatives of the university both in terms of comportment here on campus (learning their baselines and how to return to that baseline in times of struggle or even improve upon it), but also as proud representatives of Georgetown’s name in the community. Our students and alumni are products of every interaction they’ve had on this campus.

    The purpose of higher ed is changing, as we are all aware. It used to be you went to university to learn a discipline and to hone your critical thinking abilities; anything extra you gained was just that– extra. Now, especially as President Obama is calling for more metrics on how universities are adding value to our students’ lives, it is about more than just that. It’s about raising responsible members of our community, training them how to think but also training them how to apply what they know, yes, in careers but more importantly in life. And not all of that learning takes place in a classroom. To say that it is “auxiliary” (and thus less valuable) because it does not saddens me.

    I would love to shift the focus to maximizing the results of our combined efforts, rather than get lost in defining who contributes more of what to the final product.

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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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