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Self-Healing Institutions

Polymers are substances that are bonded sets of identical, very large molecules, chained or tangled together. The “poly” is the many and the “mer” is the parts. For example, some bullet-proof vests can contain such materials. Since polymers can fracture over time, losing their functionality, studies have been mounted to increase their resilience. They have focused on properties of the structure that might yield a self-healing property. Some of these materials store within them self-repair features, which upon trauma to the material, are released to heal the material. One can imagine the value of a self-healing material in a hostile environment (e.g., outer space or a soldier in extended combat).

Thoughts about self-healing come to mind in thinking about universities. For many decades, the external environments of US universities have been benign. The baby boom and its echoes led to much higher demand for education and research in universities. Support of governments, at both state and federal levels, provided resources for growth. The social compact that universities and the federal government outlined in the Vannevar Bush framework in Science: The Endless Frontier propelled forward the “research” university.

Unfortunately, shocks from the external environments of universities have been increasing in frequency. Legislatures have cut funding for colleges and universities in many states. Boards of Overseers/Directors/Regents have insisted that universities be run as businesses, focusing on a limited set of functions. Federal support for scholarships have not kept pace with inflation. The size of the entering cohorts of students is shrinking. External support for research activities have not kept pace with inflation.

Further, in this time of COVID-19 it’s reasonable to view the external environment of universities as deeply hostile. Indeed, it has forced largely unplanned, abrupt changes in how we fulfill the mission of education, research, and service. Faculty, students, and staff are creating new protocols, out of necessity quite quickly, that try to maintain activities in a new medium. Few claim that this state of affairs is optimal.

So, as universities move to planning the fall, it is tempting to once again find a way to muddle through, in hopes that all this will pass and we will return to the status quo ante, Fall, 2019. This is most tempting if one labels the cause of our difficulties as COVID-19. That is, once this pandemic is managed, we can reinstitute all the features of Fall 2019.

This ignores the fact that COVID-19 is just a proximate cause of our current disruption. But COVID-19, itself, is an effect of other phenomena, which will not disappear when COVID-19 is managed. These more distant causes have produced COVID-19. Ignoring them, and focusing only on the proximate cause may be a mistake.

What are those more distant causes? Environmental degradation that threatens biodiversity, growing human encroachment that places nonhuman species in more frequent contact with humans, global warming, disastrous weather events, drought threatening food supplies, threats of interruptions in flow of electricity and internet connectivity. All of these then can lead to economic shocks. These global trends are outside the power of a university to control.

Taking lessons from both the self-healing features of nature and the man-made self-healing materials may be helpful to us. Inside these are seeds to protect the entity from external attacks or shocks. A portion of the resource base of the entity is solely devoted to protecting it whenever the attack occurs. It is a design feature.

How can we weave into the fabric of the university capabilities to bounce back from shocks like those above? How can we create sensors within the university design to detect the onset of those threats? How can we rush resources to the organizational location of the shock to return it to functioning? In a university, these questions must focus on answers to the chief functions of education, research, and service to the common good.

So, while academic year 2020-2021 is an important focus, it is also important to make changes to create a more robust, self-healing universities to the known threats they will inevitably face.

Universities have repeatedly adapted over the centuries of their existence. Our generation has been given the honor and burden of helping them do this again.

4 thoughts on “Self-Healing Institutions

  1. As Provost Groves points out, global warming, unrelenting human population growth and increased global connectedness make it unlikely that COVID-19 will be a “one and done” event. Infectious disease has become, and will increasingly be, a problem humanity must learn to manage if we are to survive as a species.

    As a leading national university, Georgetown can and should direct its resources to helping meet that challenge. We should endeavor to increase both the number of young people we train to be scientists, and the amount and level of scientific research we conduct.

    But our efforts must not stop there. The coming challenge will require action by our institutions of government, law, business, the media, education, etc. As current events demonstrate, those in such fields will need higher levels of scientific literacy than they in general currently possess to effectively accomplish what we are going to need of them, including the ability to competently work with scientists. Given the large number of leaders Georgetown graduates in such fields, we in particular should modify our programs to impart greater scientific knowledge to our non-scientist students. Indeed, because of who and where we are, that may be one of the most important contributions Georgetown uniquely can make to serve the common good in the coming decades.

    We have a solid foundation from which to proceed. In that regard, and noting that there we have many science and medical faculty worthy of acclamation, I would like to give a shout out to Professor Paul Roepe, who has commented above and frequently contributes to this blog. As many know, but perhaps many others do not, Professor Roepe is a well recognized leader in the area of infectious disease. One focus of his research has been malaria, which kills over 400,000 people per year, more than half of which are under that age of five. That is comparable to (and indeed somewhat greater than) the number of worldwide deaths to date from COVID-19. But it receives far less attention, probably because 90% of those deaths occur in Sub-Saharan Africa. Kudos to Professor Roepe and those in his lab for working this important problem.

    We may not have anticipated any of this when we launched our “Designing the Future” initiative. But here we are. Heretofore, we have had the luxury of largely leaving science to the scientists. Those days are gone.

  2. Thanks to COVID-19 we have the time to learned, first, more about ourself which in return stimulated our brain power. Second, helped us think outside the box which we need it so much because creativity was dying. And Third, woke us up from an uncaring society into a caring one where we want to care and feed the hungry.

    I have a big believe that we will raise from Covid-19 stronger, wiser and caring about the planet and the World.

    The World needed a big shakeup to wakeup.

  3. Thanks for a very fun post, like most chemist I just love polymers. As alluded to, some of the most interesting polymers are biological, and offer excellent additional parallels to Georgetown in the midst of COVID chaos … such as hyaluronic acid and collagen fibers found in connective tissue. They get damaged all the time but self heal and regenerate as long as you follow a few simple rules: minimize stress and environmentally related oxidation, rest and eat well, drink lots of water to keep hyaluronic acid polymers well hydrated, and take your vitamin C. Collagen contains alot of hydroxyproline which is derived from the amino acid proline and is hydroxylated by an enzyme that requires vitamin C to function properly. As any young biochemist will tell you, if oxidative stress is reduced, and when properly hydrated and hydroxylated, rested collagen polymers are stronger than steel. Seriously, like 10 times stronger, and more than 50 % of the stuff has to crack before it falls apart.

  4. “[I]t is tempting to once again find a way to muddle through, in hopes that all this will pass and we will return to the status quo ante, Fall, 2019. This is most tempting if one labels the cause of our difficulties as COVID-19. That is, once this pandemic is managed, we can reinstitute all the features of Fall 2019.”

    This is why I was so disappointed by Senator Romney’s recent remarks in his conversation with GU Politics. Aside from full-throated criticisms of China and a muted critique of the incoherent federal response to the pandemic, he had nothing to say about the fundamental, systemic flaws and weaknesses in our country that have been plainly exposed by this crisis. I had hoped to witness the emergence of a kinder, greener, more equitable post-COVID world, but if the GOP is committed to defending the status quo, I don’t see how anything will change. We’ll be just as cruelly individualistic and hyper partisan and trillions more in debt.

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