One of the problems with a modern research university is that every member of the community is fully busy on their own affairs. Much communication is via email. Many are so busy that it’s difficult to take advantage of all the various stimulating activities ongoing. This is especially true of urban universities, in which commuting and external events complicate the normal bonding of co-workers.
This is true of provosts as well as faculty and staff, but provosts’ obligations sometimes allow them to stop and reflect on the nature of university communities.
I had such an experience yesterday, at the Georgetown Service Awards Presentation. This is a celebration of staff members who have completed, 20, 25, 30, 40, and 45 years of service at Georgetown.
The staff so honored came from all parts of the university. Some worked in the Medical Center in clinical activities. Some were part of the Georgetown transportation department that operates shuttles to and from campus. Others were gardeners or maintenance staff. Still others worked in the admissions, academic support, or other units where they interacted with the students at the university. Some were custodial staff. Others worked in libraries around the university.
Some, featured in a video, described why they spent so much of their career here. It was uplifting for a relative newbie to see the manifested commitment to Georgetown among them. A theme that was repeated over and over again was the felt connection to the mission of Georgetown. They truly believed in the commitment to build a better world by service to others. They had absorbed the belief that their lives were given more meaning by devoting them to an institution that was animated by such values.
It wasn’t difficult for me to begin thinking how modern university life, with internet-mediated communication and constant desire to do more, interferes with our knowing what others in the university are doing. We all have a notion of how our work contributes to the mission of the university. We’re not reminded enough, in my opinion, about how our individual work depends on a whole host of people – some of whom we’ve never met – who do their jobs supporting ours. Of course, the threat posed by this isolation is one of illusory superiority of our self-image.
I was moved in seeing the different long-term staff receive their awards, getting just a glimpse of their role in the university, and seeing, especially in some, the obvious pride they had in their achievement.
I was reminded how happy I was recently seeing new carpet installed in one of our buildings. I reflected on the gratitude I have for the colors of new flowers and blooming bushes on campus. I’m proud that we’re offering shuttle transportation into campus, as a way to be a good neighbor to the Washington community, especially the drivers among us. I count on the Internet being accessible to me throughout campus to do my work. My office depends on properly functioning hardware, Xerox machines, and a safe campus 24/7. I know that the care of students is not just performed by faculty who instruct them but a whole host of others, some providing food, others providing spiritual nurturance.
Those who makes these things happen are easily forgotten. Forgetting that leads me at times to underestimate the value of an interdependent group of people sharing one mission.
That sense of shared mission was clear among these long-term employees. I was humbled to be reminded of how much we depend on one another.