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 Lynda.com 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.”