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So, What Difference Do the Social Sciences Really Make?

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These days we’re all spending a lot of time rethinking how funding for basic and applied research will be sustained. This affects the humanities and basic sciences in almost all fields. It’s thus ever-more important to learn how best to communicate why research in diverse fields is important to the future of the world.

In that regard, it was interesting to see a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, “The Value of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences to National Priorities.”

The report concluded that the social, behavioral, and economic sciences are key to our understanding of the “human aspects of the natural world,” that their diverse methods of inquiry are of ubiquitous use, and that the education of future social scientists should prepare them to be more data-intensive, interdisciplinary, and team oriented.

The report contained some good examples of social science findings that truly have changed the world. Developments in game theory decades ago now facilitate the matching of kidney donors to those who need them, vastly improving the efficiency of the process and saving more lives. There is clear evidence that social isolation and stress are precursors to hypertension and diabetes; ignoring that knowledge portends poor outcomes. Experiments in the relevant cognitive burdens of “opt-in” versus “opt-out” decisions have led to large increases in savings for retirement among workers, improving the welfare of millions. Cognitive psychological research in visual perception and memory has informed courtroom practices in eyewitness testimony, consistent with findings that prior beliefs and lawyers’ wording of questions can affect reported memories. SBE research has shown that young children simultaneously learning multiple languages can do so easily, leading to bilingual adults with more cognitive flexibility and less likely to experience cognitive decline in aging. Demographic models of life expectancy are key everyday tools in the insurance sector.

One of the issues in communicating the impact is that the findings themselves have so fully been incorporated into common knowledge that their source has been lost. In contrast to other fields of inquiry (e.g., astrophysics), all of us are embedded in social systems, which confront us with many of the behaviors and thoughts that are themselves the objects of study of the social sciences. To support our self-assessment of our own abilities to navigate this reality, we must believe we understand the mechanisms underlying these behaviors. In that sense, we are all social scientists, amateur, though we are. When new basic research in the social sciences becomes known, we can quickly integrate them into our own belief systems. The findings then become obvious, but only in retrospect.

But there are also counterintuitive findings that have trouble bucking conventional belief systems. While it’s often thought that successful people achieve their state because of superior intelligence, repeated social science findings show that the wealth of parents, quality of schooling, and place of birth has big impacts regardless of intelligence. When groups make decisions, it’s better to have them based on all members’ input than to rely on the single best decision maker in the group. Much of the current biomedical research focus on race and gender differences was motivated by decades of social science findings of health outcome differences in these groups, despite those fields continuing to assume the homogeneity of humans. Such counterintuitive findings from the social sciences generally take longer to have their impact on the society.

So many of the remaining unsolved world problems require deep understanding of human thought, beliefs, and behavior. The Academies’ report and others like it are valuable reminders to the importance of basic research in the social sciences to any hope we have of building a better world.

Protecting Human Subjects of Research

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Over many years the Federal government has constructed a system for peer and community review of research involving human subjects, in order to assure objective assessments of the risks and benefits of the research to the subjects and the larger scientific enterprise. The notion of “risk” includes both the probability of an adverse event and the harm that would occur to a subject with such an adverse event. The application of these procedures began with biomedical research but was also applied to social and behavioral sciences. These procedures are implemented through Institutional Review Boards (IRBs).

As several National Academy of Sciences panels have noted, both the probability of harm and the nature of harm to individual subjects vary between the biomedical fields and others. Hence, the application of human subjects’ protections needs to take into account those differences. Over the past several years these differences have increasingly been recognized by research universities. For example, at Georgetown we have a separate IRB devoted to social and behavioral research.

We want to continuously improve our performance as a research university, and this includes improving human subject protection review procedures. To improve on services, we commissioned an external review of the social and behavioral research IRB was conducted by several members of AAHRPP (Association for Accreditation Human Research Protection Programs), as they are responsible for assuring the highest standards in protection of human subjects. The review team met with the IRB (faculty committee that reviews applications), the IRB staff, the Director of Regulatory Affairs, Dean of Research, Vice Provost for Research, the Provost, and faculty members from Main Campus, the Law Center and the Medical Center.

We’ve received the report and had meetings to discuss how we can implement some of the recommendations:

  • To reduce the burden on investigators completing IRB packages, a new software platform will be introduced within the next year.
  • We will eliminate the requirement that chairs or unit heads on Main Campus approve an IRB application before it is submitted to the IRB.
  • To expedite IRB review of protocols, the IRB staff themselves will determine whether an application is non-human subject research, exempt from review, or eligible for expedited review. These steps allow the IRB members to focus on more important matters.
  • Beyond what is required by federal regulations, scientific review will not take place on the social and behavioral IRB. Further, it is assumed that grant funding and peer-review in the publication process are sufficient scientific review. Undergraduate students must gain input from their mentor(s) to meet the standards of rigorous research.
  • To reduce delays, the IRB will process applications during the summer.

Finally, we learned from our benchmarking that we should encourage more Main Campus faculty active in research to serve a term as IRB members. Such membership will assure that the IRB can execute effective peer review processes intended in the regulations.

Our hope in making these changes is that rigorous human subject protection review can also be expeditious, and that the efforts of the IRB members are disproportionately focused on higher-risk research.

We congratulate all those providing input and evaluative comments to this review process and thank the IRB staff and members who will execute these innovations.

Emotion and Rationality

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One of the interesting differences among academic disciplines is the relative role of emotion versus rationality in the culture of the field.

The power of poetry lies in its compact generation of emotions — so too, the words and movements of a play, the text-based creation of a character in literature, the brushstrokes of a painting, and the movements of dance. But mathematics, philosophy, physics, and many of the empirically based fields have a structure that values a very rigid protocol of evidence. Indeed, the presentation of scientific findings in many fields is limited to strictly factual description. There aren’t too many adjectives and adverbs in scientific papers relative to writing in other fields.

On the other hand, it is not unusual for mathematicians to talk of the beauty of a proof or for physicists, of the elegance of a theoretical result. Further, scientists can be deeply passionate about their work, which is a source of inspiration to the students they mentor. Emotion is often part of doing science but rarely part of its product.

While different disciplines value differently the role of emotion and the role of rational thought and logic, it seems increasingly clear that many day-to-day decisions are complicated mixes of emotion and rationality. For example, several scientists have noted the weakness of arguing policy changes consistent with scientific findings without appealing to emotions connected to the policy change. More and more, narrative construction (and who captures the narrative first) seems to predominate the news cycles more powerfully than the facts connected to them.

It’s interesting in this regard to note the increasing attention of scientists to the power of storytelling. Stories often have their power because of the emotions they generate. This also makes them more memorable, as the cognitive psychologists have taught us. Hence, when stories that pack emotional punch can exemplify a scientific finding, the memory of the scientific finding can be enhanced. Memory of the findings is key to any chance that the findings might shape opinions about any issue relevant to the findings.

Of course, the weakness of stories is that they often don’t capture all the subtleties of complicated scientific findings. They are powerful partly because they are simple and accessible, so as scientists embrace this new communication genre, they grapple with critiques of oversimplification.

The stories that may be most powerful are those that relate directly to a person’s welfare, where the emotions generated within the listener are ones of fear, joy, or sadness via empathy. In communicating research findings, such stories are much more easily generated for biomedical research than for basic research. Biomedical research findings often translate directly into saved lives. Basic research often lacks such direct input into the human day-to-day. So emotion-filled narratives on basic research are more difficult to construct. In that regard, emotion-generating stories for basic research seem to have two lines: a) a story about the original discovery, retelling the hundreds of failed attempts at a finding, the resilience of the researcher in bouncing back from repeated failures, the suffering of a career stalled, and then the eventual glory of the findings (e.g., Thomas Edison creating a sustainable electric light), b) the joy of a labor-saving device (e.g., a smart phone), the thrill of a collective accomplishment (e.g., human space flight), or the solution of a long-lasting problem. The story starts at the end – the wonderful new state of the world – and traces that state back to the original basic research findings.

However, both of these ways to pack emotional memory cues into basic science require more of the listener – the first, the trials of the researcher, requires some understanding of how research works; the second, the source of a wonderful new state launched by basic research, requires the patience of the listener and understanding of the causal chain.

I applaud real attempts at researchers communicating their work to lay audiences through stories that evoke emotional reactions. We’re all relatively new at this, but public support of research requires their connecting their lives to the work of researchers. We can’t stop trying.


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Provosts go to many commencement ceremonies. It’s an attribute not shared by most faculty members or most students. Because the role is one of giving a short welcoming to each set of guests and students, there’s plenty of time to observe and reflect.

The events are filled with joy. It’s heartwarming to see parents and grandparents shouting and cheering when their graduate is announced. It’s fascinating to see the various emotions of the graduates as they walked across the stage – some just beaming with full smiles, others approaching a dean or president with clear trepidation.

The metaphor that stuck in my head over the many ceremonies I witnessed was an agricultural one. Academics are a little like farmers. They plant their seeds early in the scholarly life of a student; for many programs it takes years for the seeds to sprout, be fertilized and pruned. The harvest is the graduation. (The metaphor doesn’t really work because we plant seeds with the first year students, but later that year harvest a different set of students.) The cycle of new student orientation and graduation provides bookends to the year and a predictable sense of accomplishment.

Of course, it’s also a treat to listen to commencement speeches and observe how the speaker handles the temptation to drift into clichés about the ending that is a beginning. This year I observed a surprising uniformity in the themes of the speakers. I could count maybe six different honorary degree recipients and alumni speakers who offered very similar comments:

First, we need to search for people who are different from us or, said by some, find people who disagree with us. We should engage them, actively trying to understand how they view the world.

Second, groups that contain diverse people are more productive. Even if you’re the best decision maker in a unit, better decisions come from you with a group, instead of you alone. Homogeneous groups tend to be unusually swayed by small biases. Freely given input from many folks with different perspectives yields better decisions.

Third, cooperation is a multiplier. When conflicts among different groups can be overcome, and they begin to cooperate, they can achieve much more than each group singly. Cooperation often requires compromise.

It was notable to me that different speakers completely independently chose the same messages to the graduates.

We are all reminded almost daily of the growing wealth inequality in our country, the extreme language inhabiting public discourse, the segmentation of media communities, and the fear of others different from us. Even then, I didn’t expect so many of our commencement speakers to focus on inter-group dialogue as a key challenge to the graduates.

Evidence and Talking Past One Another

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We all find ourselves talking often these days about what constitutes credible evidence relevant to any decision. This is especially common in discussions about the evaluation of scientific findings.

One feature of the scientific method that isn’t widely understood are the roles of reproducibility, replicability, and falsifiability in science. These three features are part of the disconnect between lay understandings of a “finding” or “evidence” and a scientist’s meaning of those words.

“Reproducibility” is sometimes meant that consistent results are obtained when a similar study is conducted. Some make a distinction between the notion of reproducibility and “replicability,” by which they mean, usually in an experimental setting, that identical results are obtained when exactly the same conditions occur again. In some sense, replicability requires more full allegiance to the original study’s conditions.

Clearly, scientists gain evidence of great value from events that are unique (e.g., naturally occurring but unique astronomical events). So some evidence can never really be duplicated. But in experimental and even in some observational settings, a conclusion is stronger when it can be reproduced in similar but slightly different settings. If there is a failure to achieve that, then science returns to the original finding to see if it can be replicated.

Part of the peer review process in scientific findings is attempting to judge whether the results are reproducible. Hence, scientists are required to describe their methods as fully as is feasible in order to judge the reproducibility of the results. Bad research can be winnowed out through this process.

Scientists are comfortable with the fact also that hypotheses can rarely be confirmed, but can be judged to be false. As many have noted, just because we have never seen a swan of a different color than white, doesn’t mean that all swans are white. Seeing one’s first black swan, however, immediately allows us to judge false the hypothesis that all swans are white.

Scientists are quite comfortable with the fact that the current evidence in any field is a cumulation of plausible hypotheses that have received some support. Careful scientists are quick to note the limitations of their knowledge (anticipating a falsification at some future point). They are comfortable when traditional findings are not reproduced. Often such failure to reproduce a result is the beginning of a breakthrough in the understanding of some phenomena. Falsification is big news that spurs on new work.

For the larger public, not embedded in the scientific method as a perspective, failure to reproduce a result or failure to replicate is troubling. Some viewed the original result as a fact, something that is immutable and fully true. When new scientific results show that the original finding is not true, or true under only a limited set of circumstances, they lose trust with the field that produced the result.

The growing concern with the lack of replicability and of reproducibility is related partially to this lack of understanding that a current scientific understanding is merely that – an understanding of the particular moment in the evolution of findings. At the same time, a field that rewards attempts to replicate and reproduce is one that can more efficiently focus on successful cumulative knowledge building.

I suspect that scientists can do better at communicating the nature of the scientific method. It’s key to maintaining the trust of the public.

Questions and Answers

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I once gave a lecture to executives of a media company and later found myself talking with the CEO. He asked me about major demographic trends in the country, and I asked him about challenges facing his company in the future – acquiring staff with the right technical skills, leadership in the company, gaining the right information to guide decisions.

He said that he really never had a problem finding answers to questions that anyone might pose. He claimed he could always find someone in the company to dig up the relevant facts, or he could bring in a consultant with the requisite answers. The scarcity that he continuously felt, he asserted, was the formulation of really good questions. Knowing what questions to ask, judging whether he himself was asking the right questions, discerning whether his lieutenants were asking the right questions – those were the things that kept him up at night.

I find myself coming back to that statement from time to time. Increasingly, I wonder whether it’s deeply related to what higher education is facing this century.

My memories include a set of classes on research skills that I taught, where, after a couple of editions of the class, I realized I was teaching it in exactly the opposite way that I should. I was having the students read journal articles. They had been taught over and over again to read articles to extract from the writing a set of facts. They knew how to do this quite well. They would be able to recite the key findings of the pieces with ease.

What they were not doing, however, was identifying what didn’t appear in the articles. What did the authors fail to do that should have been done? In short, what questions were not asked prior to the work? What unanswered questions were motivated by the findings of the work?

Universities are very expert in transmitting the current knowledge in our fields. We update our classes each edition to assure that we are relevant to the latest developments. We give the best set of answers for the given moment. We do indeed teach the critical skills that are needed to identify weaknesses in a piece of work; we often have students suggest improvements in a piece of work based on very close reading of the work. This critical review can sometimes reveal new questions but often identifies better ways to garner an answer.

To form the leaders of diverse fields for the future, I suspect, we also need to teach the students to ask the right questions. As the CEO said, the ability to ask the right questions is an important vehicle for advancing understanding.

It might be interesting to focus more direct attention on the anatomy of a question in different fields. What makes a good question? What kind of question forces a different perspective? What type of question suggests new ways of proceeding?

A good question probably has to offer a guide to what is not known; that is, what information, if it were available, would answer the question? A good question probably has an answer that fills a real gap in how we understand the given domain. If we knew the answer, the pieces of our understanding would fit together better. A good question, once pursued, probably suggests new ways of thinking about old problems.

It would be fun to play with the idea of classes whose products are not answers, but questions. Like the CEO said, once we identify the important questions, our search for answers has much greater promise.

Space for Creativity

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One of the continuous struggles of universities throughout the world is providing the right amount and types of spaces faculty and students need to conduct their work.

The spaces needed for the formation of students have traditionally been both the classroom and faculty meeting spaces, the latter of which are equally essential in aiding the effective mentoring process for students. In the sciences, much of the learning takes place in laboratories — either “wet” labs or computational labs.

The service mission of the university is often fulfilled off-campus, where the population served is located.

The different spaces needed for research activities are heavily dependent on the field in which the inquiry takes place. Some scholars work largely by themselves. Sometimes they conduct their work off-campus, where they are better able to access the materials needed for their scholarship. Sometimes they work in their office. Some scholars work in teams, with their workstations located in either the same or adjacent spaces.

Even in those fields in which scholarship is a solitary task, many faculty find it useful to exchange their work-in-progress with their colleagues to seek their reactions and to retain the focus to complete their work. Some universities use writing groups that act as motivators for progress and sounding boards for ideas. Conferences and talks given at other universities are also helpful in refining scholarship.

Many fields are exploring the use of teams in doing scholarship; universities have found that shared space for teams is important. This was the idea behind creating the shared space for the Georgetown Environment Initiative (in Regents’ Hall). It is a key feature of the idea of a Georgetown Humanities Center. It is inherent in the Massive Data Institute activities.

Given that Georgetown has packed a research university into a little more than 100 acres means that space is always a topic of discussion. A further criticism of space at Georgetown is that most of the existing space consists of classrooms and faculty offices. There are too few gathering spaces for faculty working in the same fields of inquiry.

This seems especially limiting for faculty whose offices are in different locations but whose work could benefit from frequent interactions with their colleagues working in the same field. A cross-school or cross-department group can meet in a seminar room, but after a meeting, all the members of the group return to their offices spread throughout campus. Further, their student collaborators have even more difficulty with ongoing interaction. Such groups lack a home to call their own.

As we receive faculty input on the Master Plan for the campus, many have noted the need for gathering places, homes for faculty to interact on their scholarship, and space for research teams to do their work.

Some of these spaces (those devoted to quasi-permanent Institutes and Centers within the Institutes) could be devoted to a specific focus over time. Other spaces would probably be best used not as permanently devoted to one use, but as space that could be used during the life of a research endeavor and then given over to another use.

As we continue to develop ideas about the future of space at Georgetown, we all need to identify what are the best spatial configurations to foster faculty and faculty-student interactions around their schol

A New Georgetown Resource

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There was a ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday at Georgetown. That, in itself, is not rare for a growing, dynamic university. This one, however, has the distinction that it recognized the launch of a new resource for Georgetown faculty and student scholarship.

The new resource lies within the Massive Data Institute of the McCourt School of Public Policy. It’s called a Federal Statistical Research Data Center (these are often called RDC’s). This post gives an idea of what the RDC is and what it means for Georgetown.

Much of the social and economic information disseminated by the US federal government is collected by a group of 13 “principal statistical agencies.” The information includes the basic indicators of extent of employment and unemployment, productivity of US industries, creation and growth of new businesses, self-reported criminal victimization, extent of literacy and educational achievement, status of agriculture enterprises, and volume of transportation use across modes. The principal statistical agencies include the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the National Center for Health Statistics, among others.

The information created from the data is used to monitor the status of the economy and the general welfare of the society. The information forms a key component of the way that we are informed about how government policies are affecting society. In that sense, the information is a cornerstone of our democracy, the very source of an informed citizenry.

Over the years, scientific uses of the same data sets have extracted even more information of value than exists through the traditional government statistical indicators (e.g., the unemployment rate, the poverty rate, the home ownership rate, the proportion of adults with a college education). Academic social scientists have performed much more detailed analyses, using more sophisticated statistical techniques, to address questions of what might be causing differential welfare across key population groups; or how experiences early in life might affect statuses later in life; or what the precursors are regarding the success or failure of new businesses.

Since the data were collected under pledges of confidentiality to the respondents, the micro-data files are kept confidential within the statistical agencies that proffered the pledge. Hence, despite the richness of the data, too few academic scholars have studied them.

Over the past few years, employing privacy protecting technologies and rigorous scrutiny, a select number of non-government organizations have been authorized to locate high-security research data centers on their own site. The Georgetown Federal Statistical Research Data Center is one of these, the 24th in the nation.

What can happen at Georgetown that couldn’t happen without it? Approved research projects (ones whose outcome can help fulfill the common good missions of the statistical agencies) can access the micro-data files from the Center itself (located on the ground floor of the Healy building). Analyses using these data resources can answer questions that cannot be answered in any other way. Georgetown researchers, within a few steps of their offices, can do cutting-edge social scientific work, once their projects are approved by the statistical agency involved.

Access to the RDC is secured by electronic entry controls. Within the Center, there are no data stored, but the devices within the Center can access the files located in a data center supporting the RDC’s. Inside, there is a Census Bureau employee to assist the research activity and to ensure that all of the privacy protections are operating properly.

We have a set of Georgetown faculty already engaged in such work, and the RDC is now open for business for other research projects to be proposed. We are quite fortunate in having Professor Brad Jensen of the McDonough School of Business as the executive director of the RDC. Brad has deep experience in the RDC network and will be a great advisor for novice users of the facility. After that advice, formal proposals for projects are submitted, reviewed, and if approved, the work can begin on the Hilltop.

While located within the McCourt School of Public Policy, the RDC is a facility for all of Georgetown. It’s great to see it here!

A Mission Fully Integrated

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I experienced three events in the last couple of days, which seemed relatable to me.

First, I heard a story about a visit by President Kennedy to Cape Canaveral on an inspection of the facilities in 1962. He encountered a man carrying a large broom for sweeping one of the aircraft bays. The president asked him what he was doing, and he answered, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.” The story has shock value because it’s rare to see employees at all levels so devoted to the mission of the agency at the most strategic level. It certainly is the aspiration of any large organization to generate such deep identification with the highest goals of the institution.

Second, on a recent morning while walking into campus, I passed a young student holding an iPhone taking a picture close to an emergent fern, all wrapped around itself. It was a growth so unlike what we know the final visage to be that it grabbed attention. She had clearly stopped for a moment outside the rush of classes and paper writing, to focus on something completely different from her studies. I thought about how wonderful it was that she took that moment, and how wonderful it was that she had that growing plant to grab her attention.

Third, yesterday on campus, a very important day for Georgetown’s commitment to dealing with the legacies of slavery, it was a glorious day – bright sunshine, in the mid-70’sF. The campus was filled with visitors and press and descendants of the 272 enslaved persons sold in 1838.

As I walked across campus, I found the red flowers unusually red, and the greenness of the new leaves on trees especially bright. I walked by sets of campus tour groups and thought about how lucky they were to see the campus at such a peak of its beauty.

Then I passed a set of gardeners working on one of the beds of flowers around the statue of John Carroll. It looked like they were digging up bulbs to replace with some annuals. I knew within a few days that circle would be alight in color.

And I remembered the janitor at Cape Canaveral.

My hope is that those digging in the flower beds know how important their work is to the impression of those young people visiting the campus (trying to decide whether Georgetown is the place for them to come for their self-discovery of undergraduate years). The workers were doing their work while one of the significant historical events was occurring on campus; I hoped they had a sense that they were part of the institution’s action. They were making part of the initial visual impression of thousands of visitors to the campus, some visiting dignitaries, some community members whom Georgetown is attempting to serve. They were creating the environment for faculty and students who conduct the most visible activities of the educational community. I hope they knew that their work creates the essence of the visual impression of Georgetown. The first impressions never leave us; all the university’s ability to fulfill its mission depends on those first impressions. Those caring for the campus grounds help create these impressions.

They are a key part of Georgetown’s equivalent of putting a man on the moon. I hope they know that.

Provosts’ Conclave

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I was in Chicago last weekend for a meeting of the provosts of US Jesuit colleges and universities. It’s a chance to compare notes and share ideas for new ways of improving our institutions for the faculty, students, and staff on campus.

All of us are grappling with similar issues – how to simultaneously improve the academic quality of our institutions while constraining the cost increases inherent in our educational model; how to create the optimal environment for both tenure-line and non-tenure-line faculty; how to fulfill the mission of access to the institution for the best students; how to contribute to the communities around us; how to propel forward the research productivity of our campuses.

The meeting also highlighted the great variation in the Jesuit colleges around the country — in size, elaboration of different schools, and relative roles of teaching and research. On the other hand, the feature that unites the schools is their Jesuit heritage and the mission of service to others that is animated by that identity. Thus, we spent time in the meeting on how best to live that mission in a very complicated and dynamic world of higher education in the United States.

As chief academic officers, we are quite comfortable with the value of periodic departmental and school reviews. We know how useful is the regimen of a self-study, a visit from peers, a report that is shared with the unit and the administration. (Indeed, at Georgetown we have extended these reviews to Centers and Institutes as well as departments.) These visits almost always lead to renewed energy and focus of the university on the reviewed unit.

Several of the provosts reported on a new process that is being piloted now, a review of how the Jesuit and Catholic nature of the college is lived day-to-day. It greatly resembles that kind of voluntary periodic academic reviews that universities conduct each year, but it’s focused on a different feature of the institution. It begins with a self-study informed by faculty, mission and ministry leaders, students, and staff. A small team of visitors from other Jesuit universities spends time at the institution, and a short report is delivered.

Those who had experienced this reported real utility in having a chance to reflect on this aspect of the institution, and learned through the interaction of ways to improve. It reminded me of exactly what occurs with departmental reviews – the value of stopping to focus on a feature of the institution, to give it special attention, and thereby to reintegrate our overall vision of the institution in new ways that incorporate new opportunities for the unit.

Georgetown will probably have a chance for such a review in the coming fall term. I look forward to the chance for all of us to participate in thinking about these matters for the betterment of the university.

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