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January 30, 2008, 08:20 AM ET

Reflective Engagement at Georgetown University

I spent yesterday evening and most of the day today at Georgetown University consulting with President Jack DeGioia, Law Center Dean Alex Aleinikoff, and a good many of their faculty colleagues about the plans for an institutional effort to support “public scholarship” (what DeGoia calls reflective engagement for the common good). Dean Aleinikoff has been leading the project to establish a Center for Public Scholarship. The idea is that the university should: support the efforts of its faculty and students to do research on subjects of importance to the general public as well as to public agencies; to promote the civic engagement of students and faculty through experiential learning projects; to communicate more effectively with the many publics outside the university; and more.

I was tremendously impressed both by the personal commitment of President DeGioia to this project (he was with us at a Monday dinner meeting and another meeting Tuesday from breakfast past lunch into a discussion with faculty at 3 p.m.), and by the obvious interest and commitment of a range of faculty in fields from law and medicine to communications and philosophy. One of the strong beliefs of the Georgetown planners of the Center is that they can and should create a space that extends across the entire campus (and that includes the Law Center, which is located in downtown Washington). They are aware that they must do more than appeal to those faculty, mostly social scientists, who are concerned with public policy in the course of their traditional disciplinary work. One of the major questions was how to attract and support those in the humanities and other fields who have skills and interests relevant to civic engagement, but who find it hard to act on their interests within their ordinary departmental confines. They are also struggling, as we all are, with the imperatives of globalization for American education.

The two other consultants were well-known and much admired experts in civic engagement programs — David Scobey (Harvard Center for Community Partnerships at Bates College in Maine) and Chancellor Nancy Cantor of Syracuse University, one of the outstanding university presidents committed to guiding their institutions in the direction of community responsibility. They were both keen to stress the opportunities for Georgetown to work in partnership with the communities in which it resides, and to restructure the university better to take advantage of its local opportunities. And, of course Georgetown is one of the leading universities in the nation’s capital, and I was impressed by the commitment of the faculty to try to find more and better ways for the University to be a better national citizen.

We discussed a great many problems in the way of such an initiative (the tenure system, disciplinary narrowness, vehicles for adequate communication, funding), and many of the exciting possibilities for new modalities of research, teaching and university public engagement. It will take some time for Georgetown to sort all of this out, but I was moved by the level of intelligent and searching discussion that I heard.

It is initiatives such as this that permit universities to publicly reflect on the breadth of their educational missions (and opportunities), and I feel pretty sure that Georgetown will act on its conclusions. At a time when much of what we hear in Washington about higher education suggests that our universities are good for little other than raising tuition and exploiting students and their parents, this was an exhilarating and hopeful experience.

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