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Academics are often evaluated on three performance criteria: teaching effectiveness, research impact, and service. The metrics used for these three vary somewhat over schools and fields. Some colleges solely devoted to undergraduate programs tend to emphasize teaching performance more than research. Some university units place almost sole weight on research impact of the faculty.

Measurements on these three criteria are necessarily subjective. For example, the research impact of work often itself ebbs and flows over the years after it is completed. Judging impact of a journal article just completed versus one of several years earlier necessarily uses different evaluative information. Most of academia runs on collections of subjective judgments by peers.

The service criterion is an interesting one. Most academic units are organized to manage themselves with relatively few hierarchical features. The work of curricular operations and student assessment for degree progress is distributed among the faculty in the unit, and faculty committees are a common tool of service to the department of degree programs. The value of this service is locally situated, at the smallest unit of aggregation of the university.

In addition to service for the department or program, however, shared faculty governance creates service opportunities to the larger institution. These include elected offices and university committee appointments to offer advice and recommendations to the university administration. The value of this service is a strengthening of the university decisions affecting the academic qualities of the institution.

There are also service activities that lie outside the campus. Some of these fall under the larger mandate of a university to serve the common good. For example, some are direct actions to improve the lives of residents of the local community surrounding the university (or even more globally). Students and faculty are active in teaching basic skills to local youth, offering social support to the disadvantaged, and providing pro bono legal and health services to the poor. Often these involve joint participation of faculty and students, working side by side as equals. The value of such service is a strengthening of a feedback loop between the university and the larger community. It reminds the university that its mission goes beyond classrooms and laboratories. This kind of service helps concretize the contribution of the university as an institution to the society in which it is situated.

Another service opportunity is to one’s profession. Every discipline and most subfields create professional associations. They hold conferences that allow faculty to present their latest work, for dissemination but also for critique. These professional associations are critical in sustaining the intellectual culture of the field. Attending the meetings has the value to the faculty member of staying current in the field. But service to the association strengthens the contribution of the field to the larger society.

Unusual service in such a way involves holding national offices with administrative duties for the association. Associations often divide themselves into sections representing subfields. Each subfield has an elected group guiding its work; the overall association has executive councils and national leadership. The value of this service to the university is potential influence over the development of disciplines and fields.

Another form of service to a profession involves reviewing manuscripts for journals or university book presses, and research proposals for funding agencies. This is part of the deep commitment to peer review as a tool to determine the best scholarship in a field. Extraordinary service of this form would be serving as an associate editor of a journal, an editor of a journal, or on an editorial board of a book series for a university press. The greatest value of such service is to the larger profession, working to advance the scholarship within the field. But the value of this service is often to the reviewer her/himself — reviewing new work gives insight into the latest developments in a field.

A final service opportunity involves government service. As a university located in the nation’s capital, Georgetown faculty are especially attractive to government agencies. Georgetown faculty serve on presidential and congressional advisory committees, scientific advisory committees of mission agencies, and review committees of programs. For deeper involvement, the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) permits an agency to offer a university staff member a fulltime appointment of duration no more than four years. Most all universities place some limits on the length of such service, with a two-year leave being common.

This type of service is distinctive among those above because it requires the full-time commitment of the faculty member, taking them away from their department, their students, and colleagues. It is extraordinary service, often negatively affecting the faculty’s research output in the near-term but enriching both their teaching and research afterward. The value of such service is to the larger society, by more quickly and effectively bringing new findings into practice within the government.

Universities must serve the larger society. The work of the faculty is key to fulfilling this mission. It is proper that we evaluate faculty on their contributions to that mission.

Christmas Eve at the Motor Vehicle Inspection Center

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Our car required renewal of its emissions inspection, and we realized that, given our crazy schedule, perhaps the best time was when Georgetown was on break. Thus, we found ourselves at the DC vehicle inspection center at 7:30AM on Christmas Eve.

This was an encounter that we had been dreading. We assumed that despite all attempts to the contrary, we would arrive without the proper documentation. We expected long lines, awaiting service with hundreds of others, hundreds of cars idling in the cold. We anticipated slow-moving workers, sullen from the monotony of their work, killing time until quitting time.

We pulled into the lot in a mood appropriate to those forethoughts. A worker, bundled up for the cold, approached our car. He asked what service we were seeking and directed us to the right line. Then he smiled at us and said, “I hope you have a merry Christmas!” It set us back, and we wished him the same. The next technician was equally welcoming and wished us all the best. The service was fast and uncomplicated. We left uplifted.

I’ve reflected on this encounter since that moment. I have written about the loss of faith and trust in institutions. I’ve described increasing examples of stakeholders taking direct action instead of appealing to the institutions to address their concerns. Petitions among dissatisfied groups seem to be more and more common. However, institutions have the unique ability within a society to improve the lives of many people simultaneously. They must, of course, be responsive to their stakeholders, but assumption that they can’t and action must be initiated independently seems unwise.

So, the simple encounter with the vehicle inspection center stopped me in my tracks. I had succumbed to the same disease I was lamenting. I had completely ignored the Ignation notion of the presupposition – the need to approach all interpersonal interaction with the assumption of good will on the part of all actors. I had assumed incompetence, inefficiency, lack of customer orientation. My guilt led me to write my first-ever email, praising a motor vehicle inspection service to its leadership.

The increasing tendency to assume failure of institutions to address any concern of stakeholders has a certain epidemic quality to it. Institutions that are indeed failing initially breed the attitudes. However, one institution’s failure to serve does not produce the same failure among others. One fears, of course, that the default reaction to concern becomes independent actions, assuming inaction from the institution. The current challenge to all institutions appears to require unusual speed and transparency in actions, attributes that are not built into the design of most institutions.

The second thought I had from the DMV episode was that greatest strength of any institution is its people. Since the salary scales of the staff we met are likely rather low, I suspect that part of their motivation is serving the common good, assuring cleaner cars are traversing the DC streets. That they showed respect and good cheer to a random customer is a result of a culture that all institutions seek. One wonders how the mission of the facility is communicated effectively to those staff day to day. It is something to be preserved.

I’ll try to do better in future interactions with the various institutions in my life.

Reflections on Podcasts

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I’ve been enjoying building out a set of podcasts with Georgetown faculty over the past few months. The podcasts can be found here.  The title of the series is “faculty in research,” to communicate the passion driving long-run interest in key research questions.

First, it’s great fun for me to learn how faculty conceptualize their own research careers, and I’m grateful to those faculty who subjected themselves to my poor interviewing skills.

Second, there are some lessons I’m learning from the interviews.

While some of the faculty were interested in a key set of questions for many decades, even from youth, most have a circuitous journey of interests. It does seem true, that almost all can make conceptual connections between the various phases of their career. But many ended up pursuing a set of interests quite different from those they considered in their youth.

Connected with this, there were several faculty who communicated that much of their course in life was not planful. In some sense, they see their journey as having surprising turning points. This was especially true for those who made risk-taking decisions in their careers that took them in directions that were not completely obvious.

Many faculty conveyed the importance of mentors in their lives. Many used the same set of mentors for decades in their lives. The mentors were key to important life decisions, changes in the foci of their research, and changes in positions. It was clear that the mentors cared about them as persons as well as scholars. These were loving relationships, with great mutuality.

Another theme was how the juggling of the three duties of an academic (teaching, research, service) itself changes over the life course. Several noted how pregnancies, childbirth, care for young children necessarily produce adaptive mechanisms to remain productive as a scholar in the face of changing time demands. Many noted how they increase their attention to bigger issues or more challenging questions as their career evolved. The payoffs had lower odds, but were potentially higher. And the scholar felt the questions were the most important to address.

Many of the faculty were engaged in combining knowledge from multiple disciplines. Some were doing this by reading across fields and teaching themselves. Others were collaborating with scholars in different fields, who shared an interest in the same problem, but had different knowledge/skills to address them. What was clear is that collaborators also tend to become friends. So, the pleasure of collaboration was not just derived from discovery, but also the social connectedness that any friendship provides.

Most who were collaborating across fields noted that exchange of language and achieving mutual respect deserved careful attention. Patience was required. Identifying the synergies across two fields often requires at least two minds, and they emphasized the importance of active engagement over time. Collaboration took time but the rewards far outweighed the costs.

I was honored to interview these colleagues. They have successfully found how to use an academic environment to nurture their research interests, while simultaneously educating the next generations of leaders in their fields and serving the larger communities.

A Resource for Georgetown Faculty Collaborators: Visitor Lodging Right Outside the Gates

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Most faculty members at some point in their careers spend time at other universities, refreshing their viewpoints on their own scholarship and meeting potential new collaborators. Once a collaboration is ongoing, periodic face to face meetings are highly desirable. Such meetings both can make important progress on the collaboration, and renew the excitement of a project in a way that is not possible on email, or Zoom, or other media.

Some universities have lodging facilities for visiting faculty – short-run apartments or rooms near campus where the visitor can reside during the visit. These are key resources for a university that seeks to increase the impact of their faculty in their fields.

I am overjoyed to report that we at Georgetown can now offer our collaborators such a resource.

One opportunity is a competitive one – the Georgetown University Distinguished Visiting Scholar program scheduled for Spring and Summer of each year. The scholar would be welcome to stay during a flexible time period between January and August in a given year, with a preference given to those here for longer periods of time. Nominations can include a time period within the next five years. For example, one may nominate a scholar to stay at GU from January through May of 2022.

What do the winning nominations provide? Free rent and utilities at a high quality, fully furnished, university-owned townhouse, one block away from the hilltop campus. The property, one block from the university, consists of two bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms, is fully furnished, with rent and utilities covered. A $5,000, one-time stipend, provided by the Campus (Main, Medical Center, Law Center) most closely aligned with the scholar’s work.

The scholar would be expected to provide a university-wide lecture, and, to engage in research or other activities that will enrich the community.

For details on nominations see this page on the Provost web site.

The second opportunity is limited only by the capacity of the number of townhouses on 36th Street NW. This is for a Main Campus visiting scholar whose rent (approximately $4,400/month) and utilities are paid for by any one or combination of the following: the visiting scholar, the department, or the School that nominated her or him. The property is one block from the campus gate: it consists of three bedrooms and 1.5 bathrooms and is fully furnished. This property is available year-round. The scholar would stay at a minimum of one month, with preference given to scholars staying at least one semester. The property can be booked up to two years in advance. Note that although the rent may appear high to those new to the DC area, the close proximity of the properties to campus would alleviate the need for our new colleagues to have a car.

For more information on this opportunity see this page on the Provost web site.

The long-run performance criteria of these programs are measures of whether Georgetown is viewed as supporting collaborations from scholars throughout the world and whether Georgetown faculty are able to increase the joint scholarship products of such collaborations.

Information within Democracies

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Information is the life blood of a democracy. An informed citizenry must judge the merits of government actions through periodic votes for elected officials; their “informed” status comes from widely distributed information. Proportional representation in legislative bodies needs population counts. Policy makers in the private sector and in government need objective information to identify problems and prospects that need investment.

To be useful, statistical information on the society and its economy must be credible. The consumers of the information must believe that the information is not affected by political or ideological perspectives about the phenomena being measured. They must judge that the technical expertise of the producers of the information is sufficient to produce the accuracy fit for their use. They must believe that the information is consistently produced, in order to safely judge whether things are getter better or worse over time.

Who produces such information to power the deliberative requirements of democracies? Across the world, central governments have been given the role to produce national statistical information in ways to maximize their credibility. In that regard, national statistical information forms a data infrastructure that resembles the role of physical infrastructure, like an inter-state highway system, national defense assets, interstate utility grids, and basic science research. All of these are national investments to serve the common good of the society. Their benefits are sometimes relatively small for each individual, but essential to the welfare of the whole country. In some sense, these infrastructures are the threads of the fabric of the society.

Most of us don’t think of the highways and bridges of our locale as valuable – until they exhibit a problem. A bridge is never more highly valued than on the day it breaks and falls. So too when statistical information that is used by a citizenry to evaluate its welfare is threatened or terminated, its value is vividly illustrated by decisions having to be made without its guidance. (For example, a missing report of the unemployment rate can affect stock markets from the uncertainty that is breeds.)

It is also true that the credibility of statistical information can be destroyed much faster than it can be earned. Events in Greece and Argentina in recent memories that were judged as political interference to portray stronger economic statistics than were true, were then followed by years of skepticism about the quality of subsequent indicators. With proof of ideological bias in the statistics, regaining trust that leads to credibility is a difficult proposition.

In few countries are there examples of widespread advocacy for better statistical information. Infrastructure, whether it be data infrastructure or physical infrastructure, rarely produces the passion that other social issues produce. When the infrastructure is well-designed, well-funded, and is innovating at the proper rate, there is really no reason to produce such advocacy.

Such is not the case in our country. We have an aging data infrastructure, starved of new investment for some years. The country’s expenditures have declined in inflation-adjusted dollars. “Bridges” haven’t yet fallen, so the outcry of users is muted. The risk of loss of credibility because of the long-run lack of investment is, however, real. And once credibility is lost, as we have seen in other countries, regaining it may take a long time.

When Good People Work in Institutions with Good Missions

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Over the past few days, we witnessed testimony of civil servants in hearings on Capitol Hill, who exhibited deep professional expertise, a complete devotion to the mission of their agency, and an honesty that naturally arises from a code of ethics motivating service to others above all.

There are millions of such persons in the US civil service, military, public health agencies, as well as state, county, and city institutions. Many of them have educational achievements, creative thinking skills, energy and drive that exceed most employees of private sector organizations. Many have chosen to work in government as a way to serve the larger society. They believe in the value of strong societies, and they use their roles in an institution to achieve this.

They are, as a set, relatively modest personalities; few seek the limelight. They work on really big problems. The problems their work pursues are not solved easily. Satisfaction from their work relies on deferred gratification. The problems often involve multiple stakeholders with competing interests. Solutions depend on understanding and empathizing with all of those stakeholders. Hence, the personal success of this staff often depends more on listening, comprehending, and reflection. Only with those traits can creative solutions that maximize benefits with minimal harm be achieved.

Recent history shows that institutions designed to serve the common good can indeed be easily weakened. This has occurred in the eco-system of US state universities through diminished funding, in state public health agencies, and in some Federal agencies. Weakened institutions designed to serve the common good tend to fail in their mission at a higher rate. Loss of trust in such institutions is understandable.

With such distrust, some believe that real change can arise only at micro-levels, with a small number individuals of good will sharing goals and working collaboratively on solutions. Such actions can indeed improve the group good, but scaling those solutions depends on large scale cultural changes to spread the behavior over millions of such groups. Much good can come from such small-scale actions. They are necessary, but not sufficient.

With compromised common-good institutions, it is easy to give up hope for societal improvements and turn away from institutions. With weakened institutions, it is tempting to turn to direct action to demand and shape large scale change.

There is, however, another way forward, focusing on attempts to increase the efficacy of common-good institutions. When the best minds and hearts in the society devote themselves to these institutions, they become stronger.

We saw a glimpse of the strength of character and intellect of such people over the past few days. I hope it inspires a new generation of “women and men for others” to choose to devote their energy to renewing such institutions.

Short-term vs. Long-term

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Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce recently released a report on the monetary payoffs of different colleges and universities. The authors compared schools for payoff at 10 years and at 40 years after graduation.

Of course, a variety of assumptions were necessary to estimate these payoffs. First, there were data available on earnings based on IRS records after 10 years, but not after 40 years. (The authors, for comparative purposes, assumed the median earnings remained the same across schools after 10 years.) Second, the authors assumed about a 2 percent inflation rate each year, so that $1000 today would be worth $980 next year. Third, there were no adjustments for economic shocks or cost-of-living differences across geographies. There were other necessary assumptions, for example, that the changes in tuition rates over the coming years would not be different across institutions.

Given those assumptions, the authors attempted to estimate what economists call the net present value of the degree. Each year in college means reduced earnings during that year, as few students garner the income they could have received if they were not in school. Tuition costs vary across schools. When the graduate hits the job market, first year, fifth year, and tenth year salaries vary across schools’ graduates. The net present value combines all those factors and estimates in shear dollars, what is the current value of the degree. This permits an estimate of the “return of the investment” of tuition.

What are the findings? First, community colleges and some certificate programs have the highest return on investment (ROI) in the short term (10 years). Second, colleges that offer 4-year bachelor’s degrees offer the highest ROI in the long term (40 years). Third, public institutions have higher ROI in the short run than privates, but privates, better in the long run than publics.

Georgetown’s ranking among 4,500 US institutions is 215th for the 10-year ROI but 9th for the 40-year ROI. In contrast, for example, St. Louis College of Pharmacy is ranked 5th for 10-year ROI and 2nd for 40-year ROI. In general, among the 4-year degree institutions, the highest ROI for both short run and long run are very specialized bachelor’s degree programs.

It is heartwarming to see Georgetown’s long run value empirically estimated. Of research universities, only MIT, Stanford, and Harvard have higher ROI at the 40-year mark. Hence, Georgetown is a long-term value, as measured by income achievement.

But many of my colleagues would place relatively little weight on the analysis of the report. They would argue that the singular notion of income as a basis for comparing institutions is myopic. In that regard, it would be nice to expand the data available for outcomes. One can imagine that measures of civic participation, of psychological and spiritual health, of creative skills, and of physical health would be useful additions. Using the matched records to IRS filings, could provide charitable deductions, but many of the other outcome measures are not routinely obtained.

So, for the time being, we’ll have strong result based only the ROI based on income. My biased hope is that Georgetown would be even stronger on the other dimensions.

Big Research Topics; Group Work

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One of the most precious attributes of being an academic is the great freedom of choosing the problems and issues in one’s scholarship. The restrictions on choice are, admittedly, larger when one is pre-tenure. Those early years are ones that demonstrate the ability to have an independent, integrated research agenda that yields multiple products and demonstrably some thematic consistency. This often limits risk taking of the scholar as the focus needs to have high odds of peer review support. Compared to other professions, however, even that restriction is rather minor. Even then, one’s curiosity and hunches for innovation are given large import.

Of course, after the demonstration of independent scholarship is achieved, and tenure, received, the faculty member is given even greater freedom. It is interesting to note the findings that many faculty at that point feel some loss of direction – a post-tenure depression, as it were. Part of this, no doubt, is due to the fact those pre-tenure restrictions are removed. (The other interpretation one hears, in a type of gallows humor, is that one begins to question whether all the work pre-tenure was worth it.)

It is great to talk to faculty who are newly tenured as they deal with this new freedom of choice. Some for the first time contemplate projects that will take many years to complete. Others consider learning new research skills that they judge are high-risk but high potential payoff. Some feel emboldened to take on a new perspective using blends of multiple disciplines. For these, there is a sense of renewal, excitement of taking on new challenges.

A special joy for a provost is to see some of this freedom lead to new collaborations across fields that normally don’t work together. Groups of collaborators with multiple perspectives maintain an energy that is rare in more homogeneous groups. The energy seems to come from the shared experiences of learning from one another. Sustainable voluntary collaborations generally consist of folks who mutually respect one another. In some sense, they know they need each other to complete their understanding. They exchange teaching the other and learning from the other. Perfect reciprocation.

Of course, they never can fully exchange all the deep knowledge that each has achieved in their own specialty. They learn enough to complement the other’s knowledge, enough to solve the research problem at hand.

One of the greatest pleasures as a scholar is to develop a long-term collaboration with another scholar who comes from a different tradition. Collaborators most often become friends, so there is a socio-emotional benefit. Such collaborators supply inputs to the research that the other can never match, so they magnify the productivity of a scholar. Such collaborators often make research more fun, so the natural addiction of scholars for knowledge acquisition is supplemented by greater joy. What could be better?

The American Studies Program at 50 Years Old

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The American Studies Program is an interdisciplinary major within the College of Arts and Sciences. By constructing a sustained research agenda culminating in a senior thesis, students acquire the abilities to organize logical arguments guiding original inquiry and to work collaboratively in a set of out-of-class activities coordinated with the curriculum.

Last weekend, the program celebrated its 50th anniversary with a gathering of current and former students and faculty. Over 250 former students attended the event, some who graduated in the early 1970’s. This, in my experience, is an extraordinary assembly for any major.

The gathering prompted deeper thoughts about higher education:

First, what are universities about? What is their role in the society? What is their unique contribution?

They build the leaders of the next generations of the collective population. In a liberal arts tradition, they do so by transmitting knowledge sufficiently broad that the recipients can be wise in all the life situations they will encounter. At the same time, they foster opportunities to go deep into a knowledge domain, experiencing the thrill of being at its edge.

When alumni return, it is rare that they praise a faculty member through reciting memories about the content of a course. Instead, they remember conversations about navigating conceptual frameworks, learning how to identify good questions, and connections among disparate facts that affected their life perspective. In short, the lasting lessons appear to be ways of thinking and doing. We have terms for this: critical thinking, rhetorical competencies, design-based thinking, entrepreneurial thinking, cross-functional group collaboration, reflection and discernment, evaluative judgment, self-learning, systems thinking.

Second, how is the knowledge in the day-to-day world organized? Are there organizations that have the same name as university departments — The History Firm; The Physics Company; Philosophy, Incorporated; Sociology Associates?

Few, if any. Day-to-day life does not package its issues into disciplinary bundles, but disciplines are crucial to navigating the world. Making connections among knowledge domains is key.

Third, because of the organization of knowledge in the world, the challenge of effective undergraduate experience is to provide depth of intellectual development and a breadth of cognitive approaches to launch the student as a leader of their generation, whatever sets of careers they will pursue. Most of the current undergraduates will live beyond 100 years old; they will have four to five distinct careers; our job is to prepare them to retool their knowledge base when they’re 75 because their current career has been disrupted. This will require self-teaching — observation, analysis, interpretation, reflection, evaluation, inference, explanation, problem solving, and decision making. All of this requires agile wisdom under uncertainty.

Studies of learning impact are crystal clear on two attributes of a successful undergraduate experience — the existence of a strong mentoring relationship with a faculty member and the experience of an extended, year-long academic project. Each of these breed experiences connected to the learning goals above.

In the American Studies Program, Georgetown has a program intentionally designed with this in mind.

Happy Birthday, American Studies!

Modeling Civil Discourse Between Two People of Opposing Views

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I’ve written in the past about the apparent need at this moment to relearn lessons of how to productively have a dialogue with someone of opposing views. In recent chats with students and faculty, there seems to be a growing consensus that role models of civil discourse between two people of conflicting beliefs are more and more difficult to find.

Indeed, students entering Georgetown increasingly are likely to have rarely witnessed such dialogue. They themselves have not developed the skills necessary to participate in such a dialogue. Conversely, they have read and maybe even participated in the harsh verbal interaction that exists on social media sites and in the comment fields of electronic media. They can witness daily the shouting matches embedded in the overlapping speech on news shows. Indeed, such events may discourage any attempts for them to enter into discussion with someone of opposing views (unless they merely want to mirror the shouting matches they seen).

As with many universities, Georgetown hosts controversial speakers, but they rarely have interlocutors. They do expose themselves to Q&A, but these tend to be single-iteration interactions. Students also see debates, where each side attempts to score points against the other.

What is rarer is two well-informed persons having a dyadic discussion on a topic of disagreement between them. They listen to one another, as evidence by their paraphrasing what they hear from the other, to verify their own understanding. They ponder the other’s thoughts and probe them for clarification. They may even say from time to time, “I never thought of it that way.” But they’d also politely say, “I don’t think I see it the same way you do. Here’s how I see the issue.” Or “I think we agree on that point, but not on another point.”

The discussion would be filled with evidence for their beliefs. Feelings might be expressed but not as valid evidence for a position, but as a measure of depth of belief. The density of emotional communication is kept low.

In the ideal-type of a family dinner, there are such discussions of issues of the day. When those are guided by wise elders, the younger set learns about active listening to the other’s talk. They gradually learn that such dialogues are effective vehicles for a collective search for the truth.

The Jesuit notion of “presupposition” is relevant here. The concept is that we should assume the other actor is behaving with good will. We assume that the other, as we too, are actively seeking the truth. We assume that they are open to new information and are seeking to process and integrate new information into their existing set of knowledge.

One wonders whether we could invite to campus twosomes of speakers who do indeed disagree with one another on some issue of general interest. Could we encourage them to model the dialogue behavior we’re seeking, for the benefit of Georgetown students? What topics would attract students to observe the modeled behavior? What rules of audience behavior should be encouraged? How could we evaluate whether the events indeed served their purpose?

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