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Moving Ahead on the Institute for Racial Justice

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Over the past year, the Working Group on Racial Justice of faculty, staff, and students implemented decisions relayed in President DeGioia’s speech of February 4. The working group completed its report in the Spring, and President DeGioia approved its recommendations early in the Summer.

Much of the work of the working group focused on the conceptualization of a new Institute for Racial Justice, a university-level institute that would further the research and outreach initiatives of the University. We identified a set of scholars across the university, active in research and outreach relevant to racial justice, including health equity, D.C.-focused research, performance studies and racial justice, prisoners and justice, and race and migration. We expect that large numbers of them will want to affiliate with the Institute when it is functioning. We have mounted a series of external speakers to visit campus over the coming weeks, to heighten attention to such areas.

The working group conceived of an institute that would be a coalition of research programs with different foci. Key themes would examine racial injustice through research on inequalities (e.g., health, education, income, employment, housing, family, environment) and seek justice through research on social structures (e.g., legal, governmental, education systems, medicine, policy, voting, etc.). Broadly, these are:

  • Disparities, Inequality and Difference. What are the sources and dimensions of enduring racial disparities in areas such as health, education, income, housing and employment? How should we understand the impact of family structures and environmental conditions on social and political outcomes? What are the long-term trends and future projections that define racial inequality in the United States?
  • Structures and Solutions. What legal or political structures perpetuate injustice along racial lines? What proven solutions seem to work in areas such as education and medicine to alleviate the power of race as a determinant to community trajectories? How might areas such as banking and voting regulations be transformed to enable full participation in markets and elections?
  • Diasporas, Migrations, Expressions. To what degree is the U.S. experience of race a national, a continental, or even a global phenomenon? How do cognate ways of perceiving and structuring the world, such as ethnicity and gender, intersect with the past and present? Under what conditions do other social groups and structures around the world, such as religion, become “racialized?” How can we understand and analyze the monumental cultural products of the African American experience and their connections to the struggle for justice?

In addition, the group proposed a set of joint appointments of scholars whose work would propel forward scholarship, collectively making Georgetown one of the world’s premier locations for studies and outreach furthering racial justice. These will likely be multi-year searches targeting senior faculty members with well-regarded scholarly work on racial justice and experience in building research teams. Since the institute will be a university-level entity, we seek scholars who might have affiliations with one of more of the campuses. We will launch searches designed to yield four new faculty members with 50% appointments as research professors in the institute and 50% as tenured professors in other academic units.

Over the next few days, an email from the Executive Vice Presidents (EVPs) will seek proposals from academic units (e.g., schools, departments, interdisciplinary degree programs) for new tenured faculty appointments furthering our work on the institute. These will be vetted by a faculty advisory committee representing all three campuses. The committee’s recommendations for searches will be submitted to the EVPs and the searches then launched.

Our goal is bringing to Georgetown the best scholars in the world working in the areas above. Simultaneously we will build out structures and seek external financial support for the institute. I personally look forward to the submission of proposals for new faculty that will help us build the institute.

Formation and Career Guidance for PhD Students

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Following an external review of the Cawley Career Center, the Office of the Provost has decided to separate the activities of career advising for undergraduates from those for graduate students. Cawley will in the future focus on undergraduate services for career counseling. We have appointed an implementation team to tackle the problem of building career counseling services for graduate students.

Masters programs seem to have distinct needs from PhD programs. The issues for career guidance of PhD students are changing as universities change. By definition, PhD programs are designed to educate the next generation of scholars in a field. They will be the ones who will generate new insights, building on the work of the current generation. They will be the ones to expand knowledge domains.

Most PhD programs were established to create the next generation of academics. Indeed, national studies suggest that most PhD students begin their studies with the goal of entering a tenure-line academic career. They aspire to follow in the footsteps of their undergraduate faculty who encouraged them to enter a PhD program. As their studies proceed, they seek out role models among their graduate faculty in order to shape their desired blend of research, teaching, and service. They imagine themselves 10 years hence as living very similar lives as those who mentor them.

In turn, the faculty guiding the studies of PhD students themselves are quite familiar with the nature of academic job markets, with the protocols for vetting job candidates for new assistant professor positions, the culture of job talks, and visits to a candidate campus. They know what departments are strong in their field and, often, what departments have strong supportive cultures and which departments are exhibiting internal conflicts. Good mentors of PhD students convey these features of academic life in many informal meetings and conference introductions over the years of the student’s experience. For many, they are replicating the very same experience they had as a PhD student.

Unfortunately, there is no system in the US that calibrates the supply of completed PhD’s with the demand for their knowledge and skills. In some fields, the likelihood that a PhD student eventually achieves a full professorship with tenure is small and declining. In these fields, the supply of newly minted PhD’s vastly exceeds the demand for new assistant professors. Hence, it is common that, within a few years of observing the job outcomes of more senior PhD students, a good portion of PhD students begin considering nonacademic career options.

Some PhD programs have altered their focus to a more nonacademic direction. The best such programs develop ties with commercial entities or nonprofit institutions that require PhD level staff. The faculty of the program thus take on the same career counseling role but for nonacademic careers. When some of the faculty in the program have real-world experience in such organizations, they can offer valuable advice about what the course of a career might be, how to translate research experiences on campus to the needs of the organization, etc.

At Georgetown, we pride ourselves on careful attention to the formation of our students. For the good of their graduates, faculty where increasing portions of their PhD graduates enter nonacademic careers necessarily assume new obligations for helping their students find their way in the nonacademic job market. Some issues are common across fields (e.g., how to translate a curriculum vitae into a commercial résumé, the anatomy of a private sector job interview). These might be ripe for common services at Georgetown for all interested PhD students. Others are quite specific to the types of nonacademic organizations hiring PhD’s from a particular discipline. These are worth discussion and deliberation among our faculty, asking the serious question of how well we are serving our PhD students, as they enter the nonacademic job market.

Moving across the Schools

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Conversations with students often challenge our preconceptions of how knowledge is best transmitted within a university. A common lament that I hear is that the organizational barriers to accessing knowledge outside of one’s unit are too large. The students question why they are prevented from enrolling in a course of great relevance to their life’s ambitions that is offered in another unit.

Of course, there are quite legitimate reasons for restricting the enrollment in some courses to a subset of students. First, the course may be a second or third in a sequence of classes that successively build upon one another. Taking the second course without the knowledge from the first course would produce unusual challenges for the student. Second, sometimes a course is required for a certified major or specialty area. Giving some preference to those students in the major makes sense. (However, if the demand for the class from other students is large, it’s incumbent on the university to consider opening another section of the course.)

But there are also reasons for restricting enrollment that are difficult to justify, at least from a provostial view. One of these is a culture of strong identity within a school, which breeds a belief that all the resources of the school should be limited to those students pursuing a degree from the school. While such esprit de corps is laudable, permitting it to breed an exclusivity about course offerings is misplaced, I’d argue.

The second reason that is offered is that the budget model of units does not permit reacting to student demands from other schools or units. This is the common concern across universities, but it merits attention among those who make these budget allocations. All academic specialties have required courses and elective courses. The university should eliminate barriers for a student to take relevant elective courses wherever they are offered in the university, to the maximum extent possible. The revenue flows should be worked out in an equitable way.

There are also reasons why permitting such movement is good for both students and faculty. A class with diverse backgrounds brings with it differing perspectives. When those perspectives reveal themselves in group assignments, class discussions, or study groups, everyone in the class benefits. Faculty are encouraged to use diverse examples to illustrate theoretical points, and students learn faster when heterogeneous reactions to the material guide class discussions.

Today’s students are active consumers of their education. They seek novel assemblies of classes to fulfill requirements of a degree. They push for more flexibilities in the curriculum.

One step in fulfilling these expressed needs would be to reduce the constraints on students moving among different departments and schools.

Instructional Integration of Introductory and Advanced Coursework

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One of the treasured aspects of Georgetown is the strength of its faculty. Indeed, while students come and go and administrators come and go, faculty form the more permanent heart of any university. The scholarly lives of our faculty are key drivers to the quality of the education they deliver.

There is increasing evidence that the impact of higher education on a young person’s life is a function of how deep an exposure they have had to faculty who are actively expanding knowledge in their field. It is these exposures that teach a student how devotion to inquiry into a field yields payoffs, both in terms of human understanding of the world and in the pleasure of new discovery.

Interactions with faculty teach students the life of the mind – how constant curiosity fuels exploration of the unknown, how the academic culture thrives on the confrontation of alternative explanations of phenomena, and how shared debate among those seeking the truth can hone skills applicable to any life of meaning. A good question to ask ourselves is how we are facilitating the exposure of students to faculty throughout their time here.

It is common that academic units offer different types of classes. There are introductory and gateway classes, designed to introduce a field to students with no prior experience in the field. There are subfield courses that follow these gateway courses, permitting the student to gain specialized expertise. Finally, there are advanced seminars that tackle topic areas, often based on cutting-edge developments in the fields. It is commonplace that the sizes of classes successively decline over these three types.

The circulation of faculty across these types of courses is a issue each unit must tackle. Who should teach the introductory courses? Who should teach the small advance seminars? That really translates into – how can we best expose students to the diverse expertise within the faculty of the unit?

In my observation of different units, I’ve come to the conclusion that high performing ones tend to develop a culture that shares across faculty the responsibility for all three types of courses. Each faculty member does a rotation of teaching in the introductory courses, each faculty member teaches intermediate course topics, and each teaches an advanced seminar. For units that offer both undergraduate and graduate classes, all faculty do a mix of teaching in the two types. The rotation schemes work best, it seems, when multi-year schedules of teaching assignments are laid out, offering visual evidence of a “fair” allocation across faculty.

A side benefit of this rotation is that innovation in the introductory courses appears to become more likely. There seems to be a tendency to discuss the design of such courses more openly, since all the faculty in the unit share the responsibility for delivering them. This permits the introductory courses to evolve as the field evolves. Further, new as well as senior faculty can teach advanced seminars in their subfield expertise presenting the latest developments in the field. In units with undergraduate and graduate student classes, there seems to be more discussion about how to integrate the experiences of the two groups.

In a real way, such faculty cultures treat the teaching obligations as a shared duty of the faculty citizens of the unit. These cultures treat the delivery of the curriculum as a group exercise, not the sole responsibility of whatever faculty member is the current chair or coordinator. The culture clearly requires multi-year planning of rotation over the curriculum, but even that allows faculty to have greater security over their own schedules.

The benefit to students is that they experience in the different courses that rich diversity of perspectives within a single field. Students can be introduced to a field and exposed to senior scholars simultaneously. Students are exposed to different potential advisors and mentors as they progress through the curriculum. In short, they can get a sense of what a community of scholars can mean to a young mind interested in learning a field.

An Integrated Liberal Education

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Many Georgetown students are attracted to a Washington, DC, higher education experience because it offers contact with scores of institutions, organizations, and agencies that are devoted to improving societal conditions. Many of the Georgetown faculty also understand this fact and take advantage of these organizations to enrich their own scholarship.

Increasing numbers of faculty wish to use their talents in scholarly efforts aimed at ameliorating important problems. Students seek internships in DC institutions tackling these problems. As Georgetown evolves in its efforts to enlarge its impact on the world’s unsolved problems, we need to attempt to increase its use of every resource in its environment. It is fortunate, as a university devoted to a mission of serving others, that Georgetown is located in such an environment. Indeed, the combination of a mission of changing the world and a location compatible with the mission is nearly unrivaled.

We might also ask whether we could facilitate these activities within Georgetown. One wonders what next steps might be logical to increase the university’s impact on the world.

One impediment that Georgetown faculty have faced in working in interdisciplinary teams has been addressed by creating new graduate programs that offer preparation for careers in fields that are more problem-oriented. This can be quite effective when there are well-conceived professional job families that are devoted to some problem area. It permits faculty to work together with others having similar interests despite not assigned to the same department, school, or campus.

Many research universities have supplemented these educational programs with interdisciplinary research institutes. The research institutes are spaces where faculty from different units, all interested in the same problem area, can gather to work collaboratively. I’ve written about the Humanities Center as an example of such a unit.

One could imagine a set of such research units as a way to enrich the liberal education life of our students. In this design, students would pursue a major area of study to learn the lessons of going deeper and deeper in a knowledge domain. This would be similar to the current protocol. In addition to that deep specialization, however, would be opportunities to work in one or more problem areas. The student and faculty work groups in the problem area would be deliberately multi-disciplinary. A student in anthropology might be working next to a student in computer science in tackling real world problems. Their faculty leaders in this work would also represent different disciplines. In addition to the transcript noting the courses in their major, it would (probably in digital form) present the experiences they had working in the problem area, as well as work products of the experience.

Students would be citizens of multiple education/research groups – a major field and (several) problem groups. Faculty too could have such dual membership. The Georgetown of this design would have purposeful structure designed to facilitate the formation of women and men for others.

How could we evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of such a design?

A Plea to Faculty in Fall, 2017

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I’ve argued that universities have deep resources to re-teach to society the importance of civil discourse among opposing viewpoints in a shared search for the truth (see here). Indeed, I believe they have a unique responsibility at this moment in history to act vigorously on this part of their societal role.

It occurs to me that, in every university class I have ever experienced, the course material presents alternative viewpoints on each topic. In science classes, for example, it is common to introduce current understanding of a phenomenon by illustrating the evolution of ideas as discoveries evolved over the decades. Students learn that what was accepted as truth at one point of time was overturned by the march of scientific progress. Usually, at moments of paradigm shifts, there were strong conflicts within the field. Exposing students to those conflicts and how they were resolved – first, with confrontation of opposing theories and then with resolution through new findings – is an important lesson.

In humanities courses, making interpretative judgments about textual or visual material are part of the learning process. The success of a single text in generating multiple interpretations is a testament to its richness, but students need to learn to dissect and debate alternative interpretations. Articulating the evidence for alternative interpretations is a key skill.

In social science courses, alternative theories that explain political, social, and economic behavior are the meat of the disciplines. Classes teach these alternative theories and debate their utility to explain “ground truth.” Learning the relative strengths and weaknesses of alternative theories is knowledge needed to “do” social science.

So what do faculty have to offer in a society where all visual and print media are displaying people shouting and roughing up each other over opposing viewpoints? How could classroom experiences teach skills that might help our students learn to be leaders in a world of strongly conflicting views?

Very minor tweaks to courses could have students engage the opposing viewpoints in the course material in an active way. These classroom exercises would teach exactly what the academy excels at – debate discourse that focuses on opposing ideas not opposing actors, that identifies the key ideas of the viewpoints that conflict, that requires evidence to be presented, and that requires the actors to honestly admit when they have no evidence to refute an argument.

Some of the students who come to us this fall have not witnessed, to any important degree, this type of discourse. It is not being generated by our current society in sufficient volume. We need to show them how it’s done.

Each of our classes could illustrate these norms of confrontation of opposing viewpoints. Involving the students actively in simulating these dialogues might act as a small step forward in our students learning the skills of civil discourse and honest shared dialogue in a common search for the truth.

Universities need to do all they can to model the behavior of civil discourse about conflicting ideas. But institutions are really just collections of individuals. All of us at Georgetown have a stake in this.

A Unique Responsibility of Universities

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There are features of academia so essential to its nature that those within it sometimes fail to appreciate their importance.

Almost every attribute of a university is designed to engage dialectical interchanges — formal arguments sequentially presented in a “cooperative conflict” with shared goals of seeking truth. Sometimes the iterations of the argument take place slowly, with one book challenging the interpretations of another book published years earlier. Sometimes the dialogue happens more rapidly, in professional meetings with scholars face-to-face presenting alternative viewpoints.

Universities thrive on intellectual conflicts. However, the conflicts are governed by strong, but unwritten norms. First, the conflicts are not conflicts between persons but conflicts between ideas. Arguments are totally focused on alternative pieces of evidence that lead to different conclusions. Ad hominem arguments are simply not seen as valid and indeed lead to reduced credibility of those who forward them. Second, much of the interchange is focused on whether the actors are addressing the most important question and limiting the facts to that question. It is inappropriate and unwise to change the question in the middle of an argument. Third, while opinion and value judgments are inevitable in human discourse, the standard of interchange is use of objective evidence. The actors are required to submit their evidence for all to review. The more objective, replicable, and sound, the evidence is, the more influential is their argument. Hence, it is common for academics to avoid expressing their emotion-based opinions without an explicit disclaimer. Fourth, in many fields there are norms that require academics faced with new evidence to change their conclusions. Careful scholars using the scientific method explicitly state that their current knowledge is really the current state of the field, which they hope will become more and more sophisticated and insightful over time. All scholarship, in some way, has a goal of overturning earlier understanding by presenting new evidence to support new conclusions. Fifth, the intellectual dialectic needs multiple parties in the discourse. Hence, academics actively seek out those who see things differently. Without understanding a different theory of the case, one doesn’t know what evidence needs to be assembled to refute it. Hence, the debates and discourses are mutually beneficial to the opposing parties, in order to make more robust their own viewpoints or to provide new insights that are better descriptors of the truth.

One of my most vivid memories of a classroom display of this was when I co-taught a course with a colleague with whom I disagreed. We chose to display these disagreements in front the class. It worked to wake up the class, who, I guessed, had never witnessed such a display. We argued the alternative points of two approaches, with point-counterpoint. We continued the debate over class episodes. We chose to structure the discussion to illustrate the points above. We explicitly identified the question on which we disagreed; we went through the steps of logic. We ended by noting the absence of information that led to our current disagreement, and what further scholarship was needed to clear it up – in essence, “What evidence would it take to change your mind?”

We live in a world where day-to-day discourse on opposing viewpoints contains few of the properties of the intellectual dialectic described above. Popular media display multiple actors shouting over one another. There is little listening and much talking. There is no feature that suggests that the speakers share a goal of seeking understanding, but rather they are proselytizing pre-specified canons of their ideology.

So, I don’t think universities should be shy at this moment in history. We have real contributions to make to society. We offer calm, thoughtful, evidence-based exchanges of differing viewpoints as a vehicle of communion in seeking the truth. This is increasingly in short supply, but it seems that the demand for this is growing.

“Groupiness” in Scholarship

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The cultures of scholarship are highly variable across the disciplines. Some fields are filled with single scholars doing their work in isolation. Others consist of large teams, with separate roles for each member or for different universities in cross-university consortia. Recent reading, talking to employers, and watching events in the science research sector, have made me think about whether we’re preparing our graduate students for both kinds of scholarship.

Some years ago the National Academies of Engineering issued a grand challenges report. The purpose of the report was to focus attention of the field on complicated unsolved problems like making solar energy economical, restoring and improving urban infrastructure, and providing universal access to clean water. Most all of those activities are taking place within teams that are focusing on different problems. As I mentioned in an earlier post the social science community was recently asked to develop a team-oriented research culture in order to increase its impact on society. The National Endowment for the Humanities has a collaborative grant program. The National Endowment of the Arts seeks to fund groups working across different arts fields. The National Institutes of Health have programs in translational research; the National Science Foundation is using the notion of convergence research. In short, most funding agencies for scholarship are attempting to promote group work.

Even in disciplines where individual work remains the basic building block of disciplines, after completion of our graduate programs, our students may find themselves working in teams. Outside of academia, the world of work is often organized in groups of colleagues pursuing a common goal. Increasingly, both our Masters’ and PhD graduates will work in organizations that are organized about teams fulfilling a goal of the organization.

With this in mind, I began to wonder how often our graduate programs expose our students to group work, where collaboration, listening, and adjudicating divisions of labor are experienced. One great benefit of working in groups is at the idea generation phase where the evidence is clear that different life experiences and talents produce better outcomes in diverse groups. Another benefit can occur in producing a written or visual product, when multiple people, all seeking to make the product better, can teach each other the value of multiple minds.

I’ve seen joint seminars that collaborate in writing proposals, simulating research grant proposals. Some programs offer “consulting” experiences, where clients outside the university present unsolved problems for their organizations and the class proposes solutions.

As I look at how the world of science and the humanities is evolving, it seems likely that our graduates need preparation for team-oriented work in their areas of expertise.

What more can we do to help them prepare for that world?

Faculty Service

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Tenure-line faculty at US universities have multiple duties. They are key drivers of the curriculum design and instruction, they are core to the research and scholarship produced by the institution, and they provide key service as part of the shared governance process of the university.

Service incorporates membership on unit-level committees on student curricular processes, faculty merit review, etc., as well as university committees evaluating new initiatives. There is previous research that found a positive link between service to one’s university and commitment to that institution. That is, there seems to be a virtuous cycle when faculty contribute their time to making the institution better. Service also incorporates activities in support of one’s professional affiliation, often through membership on local, regional, or national committees of a professional organization. There has also been some commentary that the role of service varies over a typical academic’s career, with more attention to service and perhaps more fulfillment from service later in one’s career.

I recently came across an interesting piece that combines data from self-reports of 4,400 faculty at 13 research universities, based on the COACHE survey of faculty. About a quarter were assistant professors, a third were associates, and the rest were full professors.

There was a fairly consistent pattern of results, with the associate professors less satisfied than assistant or full professors with the amount of committee work, time spent on those tasks, the attractiveness of the assignments, the equity of assignments, and other aspects of service work. The associates were most likely to report less satisfaction with juggling the demands of teaching, research, and service.

The discussion in the paper noted a common tendency in research universities to shield assistant professors from service obligations, as well as a commensurate increase in service work performed by associates. At the same time, the analysis showed that full professors are more satisfied with their balancing teaching, research, and service. A clear question is whether the associate rank is shouldering a disproportionate share of the administrative duties.

The use of associate professors in burdensome administrative roles is something that Georgetown is trying to reduce, in order to provide an environment for their continued scholarly growth.

Georgetown faculty have participated in two editions of the COACHE survey. In the 2014 version of the Georgetown survey, we noticed a pattern of lower career satisfaction on average among associate professors, and that led us to probe what underlay the findings. As a result of faculty focus groups, we mounted a faculty-led effort to improve the clarity of promotion criteria from associate to full. We also mounted a program that encouraged new mentoring of associate professors.

However, we haven’t actively addressed service obligations of the professoriate at Georgetown. The analyses from other universities has made us more sensitive to the service side of the associate professors’ lives. I’d be interested in the community’s reaction to this issue.

Gathering of the Tribe: The Annual Professional Meeting

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Summers are traditional times for some (certainly not all) professional organizations to have their annual meetings. The meetings have a common format, with presentations made by scholars grouped into thematic sessions. Often a designated discussant is asked to critique one or more presentations, pointing out weaknesses that might be repaired in the next version of the work.

Having just come back from such an event, I find myself reflecting on their value.

For everyone attending such sessions, there are glimpses of what’s new in the field. Many presentations are incremental to the work presented in last year’s conference, but there are usually undeniably novel presentations, which generate some buzz. Sometimes these present real challenges to the field’s accepted knowledge. Such presentations generate arguments that sometimes break out in the discussion after presentations (or later in dinners and more casual gatherings). Academic fields thrive on conflicting viewpoints and debate.

The meetings are glimpses into the future. Many fields are facing multi-year delays in the publication of scholarly results, based on clogged peer review and editorial processes. The only way to keep up to date with a field is by attending such meetings. They are the setting where new work is first displayed. Three years later one sees the peer-reviewed final products, but by that time other developments have already taken place. These conferences disperse the key ingredients to update our class syllabi in order to give our students the most current knowledge in a field.

In thriving and growing fields, the attendees are disproportionately young scholars. It is they who dominate many of the sessions, seeking feedback on their efforts to push the field forward. There is nothing quite like orally presenting your work for real-time peer review.

There’s generally a lot of informal mentoring that occurs in these settings. They are one of the few arenas where those new to the field encounter those with much more experience, but without the complication of working in the same organization. Honest discussions and interchanges seem to be permitted more in these meetings.

Another real benefit of such conferences is reinforcement of one’s professional identity. Those working in relatively small professions may find themselves the only staff member interested in a set of issues within their organization. They can find themselves isolated, too frequently challenged to justify the legitimacy of their interests. The annual conference becomes a time to reenergize professional commitment by interacting with others who share those interests.

This socialization feature of an annual conference is especially important to emerging cross-disciplinary fields. By definition, interdisciplinary fields combine scholars from multiple traditional disciplines. Over the years, when traditional disciplines accept and incorporate such groups, the original professional organization tends to grow and revitalize itself. Those that are hostile to interdisciplinary add-ons sometimes face a challenge of renewing themselves. When an interdisciplinary field has their own conferences, they often use them to build out the field more fully.

Professional development needs contact with other professionals. Advancing one’s work requires knowledge of the cutting edge developments in the field. Assurance that we are presenting our students the latest developments in the field demands that we know those developments. Professional conferences are valuable tools to achieve these goals.

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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