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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.”

4 thoughts on “Student-Centered

  1. In order to be student-centered, could you expand childcare services for students with children? So many grad students have small children, but although there is Hoyakids, it is extremely difficult to get off the waitlist. There are very few spots available since Hoyakids’ enrollment is so limited, and then I believe the policy is that full-time staff get priority over full-time students. So a lot of grad students are really in a bind about how to stay in school while also juggling baby care/toddler. As a Catholic university, and as a ‘student-centered’ university, Georgetown would really benefit from expanded options in this area, since at this point childcare seems extremely difficult. I am currently taking a leave of absence to care for my baby since I couldn’t get him into any daycares, and he won’t be eligible for Hoyakids till sometime in the summer of 2018… but if he doesn’t get off the waitlist at that point, what will I do? Is there any way to devote more resources to Hoyakids or to alternative childcare options so that students have greater access and can stay in school more easily?

  2. A crucial topic at an important time, thank you for another important post.

    We have indeed been Carnegie “tier 1” for awhile, and now currently enjoy “RUVH” or “R1” status via the Carnegie ranking system. RUVH/R1 Universities are only 2.5 % of postsecondary institutions in the U.S. A number of revisions to the ranking system were made in 2015, some that reflect the dynamic definition of “student centered” that is so ably summarized in the post. In comparing past “tier 1” criteria to current “RUVH/R1”, several points seem to me to be of enormous importance, as GU continues to define it’s student centered research university identity:

    In a nutshell “tier 1” definitions of the past relied more intensively on total federal research grant recovery, whereas “RUVH” relies heavily on BOTH funding (but now from all categories, meaning federal, foundations, and the institution itself; in essence now bundled together as “research expenditures”) AND doctoral education. In 2015 GU cites $176.1 million in research expenditures and we awarded 114 PhDs. These are impressive numbers; indeed, a research climate that benefits large numbers of exceedingly bright and motivated undergraduates is dependent on such numbers. Perhaps of note then:

    Approximately 80 % of the “research expenditure” necessary for R1 status is generated by GUMC, whereas current trends suggest the bulk of doctoral recipients putting us at R1 will be generated by the main campus.

    Univ wide, there are (last time I counted) 12 PhD programs in the natural sciences, 10 in the humanities and social sciences. Those in the sciences are concentrated at GUMC, but the largest STEM doctoral program (chemistry) is housed primarily on the main campus. Yet, for the past decade, due to a shortage of research space and other issues, close to 25 % of chemistry PhD students have performed doctoral research on the GUMC campus; many of them have interacted closely with GUMC students and faculty, and have won particularly impressive national and international recognition for their work. Those Ph.D. students have been among our most valuable supervisors of undergraduate research. Ph.D. education works equally well on the main campus and at GUMC, but synergy between the campuses broadens our offerings, increases our productivity, and provides exceedingly potent research infrastructure for our undergraduates.

    GU is not unique in recognizing how doctoral education, research productivity, and efforts to engage undergraduates in R1 – level research are inexorably linked. We *are* unique in recognizing this, in having two campuses that are both absolutely necessary for maintaining R1 level research infrastructure and RUVH status, but burdened by a history and set of administrative barriers that continue to hold back better integration of those campuses. One way to assist a continued RUVH history for GU in the face of fiscal constraints, that also facilitates better engagement of undergraduates in research, relies on removing those barriers for once and for all.


  3. I’ll never forget a student telling me a few years ago: “I was reading my psychology textbook and not seeing the experiences of my community represented. The findings just didn’t ring true.” She began researching *who* was conducting and authoring that kind of work. Her findings inspired her thesis on the benefits of diverse populations pursuing research opportunities. That graduate was recently was accepted to a PhD program and will have the opportunity to do even more work on this front. I’m excited to see GU expand these kinds of opportunities; it will benefit us all.

  4. Truly an important topic to debate on. Nice post, well done. The thought was first presented at the Academic Affairs Faculty Symposium at the University of Georgia in 1994. The student centered research Universities should include government-fund, interdisciplinary, high-impact research, creative thinking, collaboration, and cross-disciplinary competencies. Student should be given proper help in completing their manuscripts.

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