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Georgetown’s Secret Report Card
Click here to download the full 72-page intellectual life report.
It’s hard to say who really runs the show at Georgetown. The Board of Directors leaves the day-to-day operations of the University to the President and his administrators, who tread lightly when dealing with faculty on academic issues. Students, the last of the campus stakeholders, occasionally make enough of a fuss to change this policy or that. Decisions are often made by those who step up to the plate. That is why a confidential report compiled by a group of 13 top faculty members last spring wants to significantly impact your life—how you study, what grades you’ll get, how and when you party, and whether or not you work or have an internship—and its proposals have already begun to make headway. Bad news: The report doesn’t think too highly of most of us.
The story begins in 1994, when then-Provost Patrick Heelan, S.J. reshuffled administrators, changed the core curriculum, and collapsed the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics into the College, along with Government, History and other departments taken from the School of Foreign Service. All of these changes were made without consulting the faculty. Incensed, the professors demanded more say, and President Leo O’Donovan, S.J. formed the Main Campus Executive Faculty, a broadly representative group of professors whose job is to make academic policy in concert with the Provost and the Deans, and to advise the administration.
Two years later, the MCEF released a report on intellectual life on campus, which lambasted students and administrators alike. “Too many students evince little interest in what is taught, are rude about appointments and deadlines, and appear to think they are entitled to breaks and high grades,” while “Administrators expect faculty to share office space, although they do not, and seem to favor some departments over others for reasons that are not transparent.” The resulting controversy prompted a Washington Post story keying in on the battle between Georgetown’s three major constituencies: students, faculty and administrators. The article’s lede couldn’t have been more damning: “Georgetown University … has too many uninspiring faculty members, many students who don’t study enough and science laboratories that are in worse condition than those of neighboring community colleges, according to a new report on the school’s ‘intellectual life.’”
Several reforms that came out of the late 90s process surely helped improve undergraduate life—a better New Student Orientation, increased undergraduate research and the John Carroll Fellows Program all arose from the report’s recommendations. But when the MCEF created a 13 member committee to revisit intellectual life in 2005, the new committee came to the conclusion that not much had changed. The Voice obtained their March 2007 report, confidential and circulated only among certain faculty and administrators. The reason for the new report? “The intellectual life of undergraduates … was at a crisis stage.” In fact, “no progress has been made in some areas identified as critically important 10 years ago, including grade inflation, number of hours students study in courses, and the amount of time spent partying at Georgetown.” (Read the entire report at www.georgetownvoice.com).
The MCEF report is not a policy-making document, though the MCEF can make their recommendations policy as the main campus governing body. The report contains advice and research from a committee of 13 faculty leaders, and carries enormous influence for that reason alone—members of this committee include Kathryn Olesko, Chair of the College Curriculum Committee, Robert Cumby, the Chair of the MCEF itself, Charles King, Chair of the SFS Faculty and Todd Olson, the Vice President for Student Affairs. The committee “to a person was dissatisfied with the quality of the intellectual life of undergraduates at Georgetown.”
Following the report’s completion last March, the MCEF adopted a number of its recommendations without public consultation, ranging from the symbolic (that diversity goals include socioeconomic diversity) to the tangible (the development of new research workshops). One recommendation was that the University address the problem of drinking on campus and, soon after, controversial changes in the alcohol policy were made. Two others were to establish new curriculum and learning initiatives, and in December Provost James O’Donnell, who declined to be interviewed for this story, announced the formation of two new working groups—without mentioning the report’s content. Other recommendations, on issues from grade inflation to faculty mentoring, are being considered by the MCEF over coming months without student input. The report has set an agenda for change at the University—but most of the University hasn’t even seen it.
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“We are not talking about fixing this or that problem, but rather overhauling nearly the entire structure of the intellectual life of undergraduates.” Page 7
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The report’s critical tone contrasts sharply with the largely positive public statements made by top administrators. Provost O’Donnell’s two new intellectual life committees were introduced with a mission statement noting that “our ambitions as a research university together with our modest size and our ancient tradition of cura personalis have combined to enable us to do many things very well indeed, enviably well . . . we regularly challenge students to achieve beyond their own and indeed any expectations.” Last week, President Jack DeGioia told reporters, “I think [Provost O’Donnell] and I are in complete alignment in that this is an exceptionally strong institution and the efforts that he’s engaged in right now in re-evaluating the curriculum are really designed to ensure long-term enduring success.” Is the University proud, or dissatisfied? The answer to that question seems to depend on whether the answer is public or private.
Or it might depend on who you talk to. Student Association President Ben Shaw (COL ‘08) has read the report.
“If you ask students about intellectual life, they’d have a different take,” Shaw said. “It seems to me that a lot of things in the report try to make Georgetown into a carbon copy of what we perceive as an Ivy League University. This report is taking a very narrow view of what constitutes intellectual life.”
And what, exactly, comprises intellectual life? Classes, certainly, but also outside research, student-faculty interaction, reflection and a “culture of engagement . . . [T]he preparation and opportunities for the cultivation of inquiry and independent learning.” Georgetown’s image is that of a Jesuit institution that emphasizes service and participation in Washington political life as well as academia. Though Georgetown was founded in 1789, its modern beginning was in the 1980s, as it grew out of its reputation as a regional school and became a national University. It’s easy to forget in 2008 that Georgetown was only recognized as a top-tier research institution by the Carnegie Foundation in 1994. The University has always carried a chip on its shoulder about being compared to peer and near-peer institutions in the Ivy League, leading to something of an inferiority complex.
It shows in the report’s analysis of Georgetown’s public image, which, according to a section of the report written by King, projects “an image of the university that is sometimes at odds with both intellectual life and academic excellence.” The University’s prospectus says that “knowledge is never pursued for its own sake, but to effect a change in the world”—a section that the report recommends be changed to reflect that knowledge can be its own goal. The report, which goes so far as to analyze the content of the pictures in the prospectus, wants more faculty say in the image of the University, down to working with students to script student tours.
Including the section on Georgetown’s image, the report is divided into nine categories, ranging from student experience, “Life on Campus: Study, Party, Work” to Academic Standards (read: Grade Inflation). The MCEF approved 15 recommendations last spring, according to Cumby, and has been working steadily to address the rest, a process he hopes will be finished by March. And though many of the recommendations are non-controversial—who would object to alumni interviewers being kept up to date on faculty research, or to improved facilities on campus?—others, especially those that want to monitor faculty grading and teaching practices and influence student life, will inspire more debate.
Cumby, a grey-haired man with a tendency to raise his right eyebrow as he makes a point, dismissed the language about a “crisis” in the report and focused on the need for improvement, and the lack of progress since the 1996-97 report, whose language is much more incendiary. The data in the report does suggest change is needed: Though Georgetown’s current standard for academic work is two to three hours of work outside class per credit hour (about 30 hours outside of class for a regular course load), only 24 percent of seniors graduating in 2006 report studying more than 16 hours outside of class per “typical week” in the annual survey of the senior class. 20 percent reported working for pay 16 or more hours in a typical week, and 17 percent reported partying 11 or more hours in a typical week. All this occurred even as percent of A grades awarded rose to 54.8 percent from a proposed goal of 30. Cumby concludes that “we as a faculty need to challenge you as students.”
Another faculty member disagrees: “I think of it as old man complaints about the younger generation.”
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“[A] peer culture that prizes social interaction and frantic activity.” Page 29
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But the data, drawn from student self-reporting, doesn’t always support assumptions held up in the report. For instance, the idea that partying and internships hurt academic life seems less credible if fewer than a quarter of a senior class—a demographic seemingly more inclined towards both those activities than other classes—spends what the faculty sees as too much time partying or working. And is the student tendency to work much longer hours during midterms and finals periods reflected in the “typical week”? Indeed, faculty members both on and off the committee question the reliance on quantitative data to measure the qualitative experience of 6,000 undergraduate students. Though the recommendations of the report are driven by that data, it notes that “the principal message of this report is not in its quantitative findings.”
Randy Bass, a professor in the English Department and the Assistant Provost, was a member of the MCEF’s intellectual life committee and now heads the Student Learning Committee established by the Provost. Noting that quantitative data doesn’t present the best picture, his committee will try to determine how to assess the success and failure of the University’s goals for student learning.
“Adding up As and Bs doesn’t really tell you how students are doing intellectually,” he said. “There are a whole lot of things we don’t have data on.”
What if a majority of students are successful in doing their academic work and not over pursuing other opportunities to the detriment of their course load?
“The nature of our typical student is one who is more engaged with political and social issues,” Cumby said. “It would be stupid to think that was a bad thing.”
But he remains concerned with the reverse correlation between student studying and their grades. The response that the committee suggests is monitoring of faculty grading habits, and the study habits of their students, based on the end-of-semester evaluations that, anecdotally, many students don’t take seriously. Similar to a successful program at Princeton, faculty whose grades are too high or whose students don’t meet studying standards would be held accountable in individual and departmental reviews. Despite the notorious prickliness of tenured faculty being told what to do, Cumby is confident that faculty will support the idea.
“This is not a business that is filled with a lot of top-down directives,” he said.
Many professors are concerned about the way the MCEF has been handling its project. Professor Francisca Cho, who teaches in the Theology department, objects to the report’s recommendations on faculty monitoring.
“When it comes to a complex subject like effective teaching and learning, I think the best thing that a university can do is to get out of the way and let faculty and students do what they are here to do,” Cho said. “There are a lot of us who feel that Georgetown has been moving more and more towards a corporate business model. It’s not really respecting the freedom of thinking that a university is supposed to stand for.”
And even Cumby concedes that the MCEF’s report needs to be concerned with more than grades.
“No one controls what their students do,” he said. “In classes that I have where I know the students are working hard, it’s not just the grades that make them work hard.”
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“By a culture of engagement we mean the immersion of students and faculty alike in the search for new knowledge.” Page 7
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Questions about the transparency of the MCEF’s process, and the involvement of University stakeholders, including students and the broad majority of faculty, have been raised across campus. While no one begrudges the faculty their right to independent deliberation, many wonder why the results have taken so long to reach the campus community. Although the Provost’s two committees were publicly announced, contain student as well as faculty representatives, and plan to lead a public discussion next year, the report that created the committees has not been broadly seen on campus. Bass, the Assistant Provost, noted that faculty were supposed to review its findings in their departments throughout the fall term, but concedes that many have not yet had a chance to see or comment on the report.
“People want to be ambitious on Georgetown’s behalf,” Bass said. “Departments were supposed to be able to see the report and discuss it . . . This was the transparency period.”
But circulation was limited to administrators, department heads and a few student leaders, all of whom were instructed not to circulate or copy it. Some but not all departments considered the report’s conclusions.
“It doesn’t seem like this is a broad discussion,” Cho said. “I don’t know that it has been distributed to the faculty. There’s been a lot of hearsay reports about its contents. It is difficult, to be sure, to get everyone involved in a discussion.”
“Any time a single document is going to be driving University policy, it should be a public document,” Shaw said.
Ironically, the gulf of transparency mimics the creation of the MCEF in the wake of the 1994 campus reorganization. Even more ironic is the report’s emphasis on the separation between faculty and students outside of class, and how to remedy it. One way might be to ask students what they think about it. (Only one part of the report included a discussion with students, a focus group with freshmen in the class of 2010 held last September).
The recent and controversial changes in the University alcohol policy fall into this pattern. Although Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson authored the “Student Culture” section of the report, which recommends that his own office “continue to implement ways of best addressing the problem of drinking on campus,” he says that there is “little” connection between the report and the policies, which were widely criticized for lacking student consultation. Their public rationale has been “a general sense that things have been out of balance.” But it is hard not see the policy changes as an answer to this question from the report: “How can we redirect student energies away from the drinking culture—which often reigns from Thursday evening through Sunday, and consumes much of our students’ energy and focus, as well as time?”
“Students feel disconnected from the faculty,” Shaw said. “In some of the bigger majors, this is a real problem. The way to improve intellectual life is to connect students and faculty outside the classroom. I don’t think you cultivate intellectual life through cracking down on parties or giving students miserable grades.”
Shaw and other members of GUSA proposed an extension in the University’s add-drop policy last fall in the hopes of making sure students have the opportunity to join classes they are enthusiastic about—a key indicator of a student’s future effort in that class. It’s especially vital when many class syllabi aren’t posted during pre-registration. Though Shaw had support from various administrators, the MCEF didn’t approve the resolution.
“The primary reason for the opposition to doing so was that many faculty believe that doing so would delay the effective start of the semester,” Cumby wrote in an e-mail.
“Any time it comes to meeting the students half-way, there’s tremendous resistance,” Shaw said. “If you’re going to try and change culture on campus, that culture comes from students.”