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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.

Talking about the Georgetown Difference

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It’s faculty and dean recruitment season on campuses throughout the world right now. Provosts find themselves talking about their university more than usual, and they do so with people with only a limited knowledge of the institution.

I like these talks. Georgetown is recruiting more and more stellar faculty over time, and it’s a pleasure to meet them and get a sense of their research and teaching interests.

Talking about Georgetown inevitably leads me to discuss its Catholic and Jesuit character. Given that Georgetown is now recruiting faculty from around the world, this aspect of a university is new to many.

I generally review the notions of our devotion to service to others (“women and men for others”); our focus on the minds, physical health, and spirit of our students (“cura personalis”); our devotion to inter-group dialogue and empathy toward others; our efforts to address world problems while exercising deep reflection on how we do so (“contemplation in action”); our efforts to continuously seek deeper and deeper ways to achieve the goals of the university (“the magis”). I try to give examples of how this affects the deployment of resources across the university, to underscore that the values have real impact on behaviors.

While I don’t claim to our candidates that these values motivate every action by every actor at Georgetown, I do try to convey my distinct impression, as a relative new member of the community, that these values are real. Further, they yield a distinctive environment, one in which values can be evoked in decision-making discussions. Such opportunities are quite rare in most university environments that I experienced in the past.

I find the reaction of job candidates I meet quite interesting to this line of conversation. Some are quiet. Some immediately convey that they themselves had explored this part of Georgetown prior to visiting campus. Some note that this attribute was an attraction in applying. Some want to know more about the day-to-day implications of these features of Georgetown. Some note that all of these attributes sound consistent with their own values.

As I have had more of these discussions over the years, I’ve become more convinced of their utility in helping a potential colleague gain some insight into their possible life as a faculty member at Georgetown. Our discussion becomes more meaningful by the candidate asking how they might apply these values in their own teaching and research activities. This inevitably leads to more discussion about a fuller integration of faculty’s research and teaching into the goal of formation of our students.

I come away from these discussions with renewed conviction that these attributes of Georgetown are viewed as increasingly important in today’s world. Our candidates for positions seem to be attracted to them as signals that the institution does indeed have guiding principles based on enduring values. Further, these values are lived as real, far beyond what is typical in many vision and mission statements of research universities.

Listening to Students

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Universities serve the larger society by the formation of their students through the talents of faculty, who themselves are constantly contributing to the advancement of human understanding.  Through these two functions, universities seek to serve the common good of the full population.

The challenge to all universities is to use approaches to this mission that are effective for the current world, one in which new solutions to old problems are being discovered daily.

Many of these solutions require a new way of thinking as well as using new tools – technology, data-driven adaptation, and novel resource generation. We see these new approaches come to life everyday, from innovative start-ups to established organizations, that harness real-time information to offer leaps in the efficiencies of service delivery.  These approaches are fundamental to the success of ecommerce, the “gig” economy, the “sharing” society, and so on.  It is also true in the innovation that is occurring in educational activities, from the integration of textbooks with online resources, to adaptive and personalized learning systems, to experiential learning activities. It is true in the “maker spaces” that spring up on university campuses, where 3D printing and laser-powered devices permit the creation of objects that are limited only by one’s imagination.  Finally, this way of thinking powers the work of a new breed of social justice leaders, who create and run organizations to improve the quality of life of a population, but who also believe in sustainable revenue streams to achieve those common good ends.

Such ways of thinking are already present at Georgetown, in StartUpHoyas for private sector startups, in the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation for the social good entities, in the Red House activities of Designing the Future(s) of Georgetown for educational innovation, and in the multiple maker spaces across campus for the creation of things.

All these activities are exhibiting strong demand from both undergraduate and graduate students.  Indeed, the demand exceeds the capacities of the units.  We think we need to do more.  So we held a hackathon Saturday organized by the above entities to seek student input.

The students were a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, from all the schools of the main campus.  They were filled with ideas about how Georgetown could do better in this domain.  They envision both a space on the Hilltop and a space in the community (where they could interact with external collaborators).  They imagine coworking spaces, an event venue, and central services to help them more creatively solve problems.  They are open to research and development, but they are most interested in their efforts leading to real action, real problem-solving.  They envision a blend of credit-bearing and non-credit-bearing courses; they want to learn both soft skills (e.g., creative thinking) and hard skills (e.g., data visualization).  They want an environment that is open to diverse skills and backgrounds; they want to work in interdisciplinary teams.  They believe that problem-solving for the social good should be at the core, a particular strength of Georgetown.

The students were wonderfully giving of their time.  Their input will propel us forward, now more certain that we could build a better Georgetown if we act on these opportunities.

Language and Culture

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The American Academy of Arts and Sciences just released a report addressing how language learning influences “economic growth, cultural diplomacy, the productivity of future generations, and the fulfillment of all Americans.” This report grew out of a larger effort to create a set of indicators on the health of the humanities in US society.

The report makes the case that the ability to communicate in “world languages,” in addition to English, will be critical to successful leadership in the 21st century. This is consistent with a view of “world-readiness.” However, it’s also true for effective leadership in any diverse country with multiple language groups.

The report notes that the US has lagged behind other countries in language skills, with 79% of those older than 4 years speaking only English. The goal, espoused by the report, is that all persons would be exposed to a second language and the cultures surrounding that language. The logic of this recommendation is that the 21st century will require facile interaction with cultures throughout the world. It follows that language learning has to be an embedded part of a modern educational philosophy.

The discussion notes that languages either become de-emphasized or become “hot” because of world events. The Cold War led to investments and interest in Russian and related languages; the events of September 11, 2001 led to a rise in popularity of Arabic language skills. Such temporal shocks cause uncertainty in the human resource needs in language skill development. A more orderly environment would provide guidance to students on what language skills would be most useful when paired with their career aspirations. In essence, this would be an embedding of language and cultural skills in all globally oriented higher education.

Finally, the report notes that language, culture, and the nature of disciplinary nomenclatures across countries are all part of a single whole. It argues that immersion in another culture, especially when one is exposed to work groups in one’s field, can be a life-long career benefit. The report reminds us that real global leadership requires the ability to communicate with other cultures in their own language, to understand their cultural contexts, and to competently navigate different traditions of various communities.

Georgetown is proud of the high percentage of students who study outside of the US. The report reminds us that those experiences may have greatest impact if they involve immersion in language, culture, and a professional sector relevant to the student’s future life’s activities. Integrating these experiences more fully into one’s curriculum may have benefits.

Georgetown has programs with credit-bearing requirements outside the US, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. We have living-learning communities that foster both culture and language. We have student-run affinity groups that reinforce inter-cultural dialogue. We have faculty whose scholarship (joint with students) is focused on different cultures and their languages. The report reminds us of how important these features of the Georgetown environment will be in the future.


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Georgetown is sometimes labeled a “student-centered research university.” It’s useful to parse what that phrase actually means. “Research universities” are those that devote a set of their activities, roles, and structures to the expansion and increasing depth of knowledge in all fields. This usually involves graduate level educational programs, although successful research universities stimulate knowledge expansion by scholars not involved in graduate educational programs as well. Georgetown is a “tier-1 Carnegie” institution, which is a designation that reflects a third party assessment of its high volume of research activities. We aspire to even greater heights of research achievement.

More interesting in the phrase “student-centered research university” is “student-centered.” At Georgetown we seek to create research activities that are fully integrated into the students’ experience at the university. In essence, we feel research is another way for students to learn. It’s learning at the edge of fields, where understanding is weak, where deeper and deeper probing is required, going beyond what others have accomplished previously. Such inquiry (sometimes decades later) produces all the applications of knowledge that allow societies to achieve lives that are fuller, wealthier, even happier than was true in their pasts. We want students to understand the deep inquiry that leads to such innovation.

Student-centered universities must, perforce, be attuned to the needs, skills, interests, and energy of each successive wave of students entering the university. They can’t drift into being centered on student characteristics that no longer exist. Even though it is tempting to view each first year student as a blank tablet or empty vessel, ready to receive the knowledge and wisdom of the faculty, each one comes to us greatly impacted by their experiences over 18 or so years. They have been shaped by their parents and family experiences; they have been influenced by grade school and high school teachers; they have been socialized by all the features of modern society.

Our newest students have had a different set of life experiences than earlier cohorts. At this point, the newest students entering Georgetown have no personal memory of the events of September 11, 2001. Yet they have lived their entire lives with issues of terrorism as an ongoing topic. They have had access to the internet continuously. They, or at least, many of their friends have had smart phones for many years. Their high school experiences have utilized the informational resources of the internet, with textbooks integrated into online experiences, with research papers heavily dependent on internet searches. (As a side note, so powerful is the Internet search function utilization in education, that one can detect history assignments involving the civil war by peaks in Google trends every spring semester for “civil war.”) Many Georgetown students are frequent users of Kahn Academy and learning experiences. Many are experienced in drawing on social networks, internet-mediated, for assistance in all aspects of their lives, including education. They know they can access the internet with any specific question and get near-instant answers (albeit often with many conflicting alternatives).

With these cohorts of students, having been socialized to acquire information in very different ways than earlier cohorts, aspiring to be a “student-centered” university must also be different from what it was. It’s more difficult to be a “student-centered” research university than it is just a research university. The challenge to such a goal, as is a focus of Designing the Future(s) of Georgetown is to discover which of the traditional learning practices of the past century remain central to forming the leaders of the next century and which do not. More importantly, what is essential in the old and what can take advantage of the new information channels that are so ubiquitously available to our current students? Only the universities that achieve such adaptability over the coming years will deserve the moniker of “student-centered.”

Spring Break 2017

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It’s spring break week on the Hilltop, and the campus is quiet. The weather has been fickle, with some hints of spring followed by a harsh cold reminder that winter has not yet given up its control.

The provost’s office is filled with the kinds of meetings that are difficult to arrange during classes. These are mixes of planning for the rest of the term and assessing progress on various initiatives that are underway. With no students around there seems to be more cognitive space to take a principled, longer-term perspective on our work.

There’s a pretty full plate of work on various initiatives. The Working Group on Racial Justice was updated on progress in faculty searches for the new Department of African American Studies in the College. Things are going well. The Working Group is now digesting input from faculty discussions throughout the university that offered guidance about a new Institute on Racial Justice that Georgetown hopes to build. We’re aiming for a final report at the end of the month.

There are many other faculty searches ongoing in all the schools, with most reaching fruition. We are very excited about the quality of new talent that we are attracting to join the Georgetown community.

The search committee for the College dean completed its work, leading to the announcement that Dr. Christopher Celenza will succeed Dean Gillis when he completes his term in June. Dr. Celenza will come to us from Johns Hopkins University, where he now serves as a vice-provost for faculty affairs, a professor of classics and German and Romance Languages.

We have searches ongoing for the dean of the McDonough School of Business and the Georgetown in Qatar campus. These are progressing well, with very engaged search committees evaluating the candidates.

At the same time the undergraduate admissions office and all the graduate programs are in the final stages of evaluating candidates for their respective programs. This is a step taken with great care and deliberation. Multiple faculty members as well as staff are engaged in identifying the very best students to join the community. We need to be mindful this year, especially for graduate programs, at the possible uncertainties among international students about choosing to come to the US for their higher education. Admissions committees have reached out to assure strong candidates that, when we accept them to come to Georgetown, we will do all in our power to facilitate their coming. As a global university, we need a global mix of students to accomplish our educational goals.

As one can quickly judge, although we are nearing the end of the spring semester and another academic year, much of our work is focused on preparing for next year. The cycle of completion and renewal is constantly in play on the Hilltop, the rhythm of a university is always one of ending and beginning. It’s nice that way.

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