At the Millennium: Hitting the books

With the millennium approaching, it is a time for many people to look at where they have been and where they are going. Throughout the school year, The GW Hatchet will be exploring different aspects of the University community, how it is changing and what the future holds, through a continuing series: “At the Millennium: GW in Perspective.”

All you have to do is look through some of GW’s promotional materials to tell that academics at GW works a little differently than at many other schools. The University stresses the quality of the academics, but practical experiences offered by the Washington D.C. area are often presented as another compelling a reason to come to GW.

A mailer to prospective freshmen highlights this balance: “Our reputation for high-quality academic programs is based on strong curriculum, specialized fields of study and the interconnection between scholarly theory and real-life experiences.” The mailer also talks about the faculty in several departments, details about where GW students get internships and where graduates often get jobs.

“The Elliott School of International Affairs can provide you with the professional training, hands-on skills and practical experience you’ll need to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” the school’s Web site tells prospective students.

The site goes on to say the school offers “classes taught by a dynamic and world-class faculty who link theory and practice.”

Theory vs. practice

Many of the disciplines at GW are designed for professional careers and are structured accordingly, says Donald Lehman, vice president for Academic Affairs.

“We’re always paying attention about how to professionalize the curriculum, especially at the master’s level,” says Barbara Miller, associate dean for Curricular Affairs for the Elliott School. “It’s a basic liberal arts education, but it has more of a touch of skills-based and real-world learning.”

Similarly, students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science need to know science as the background of their knowledge, but they also need concrete skills that they can use when they become engineers. The School of Media and Public Affairs within the Columbian School of Arts and Sciences trains its students for careers as journalists and political communications experts, among other things.

“All of our literature advertises us as a program that links theory and practice,” says Jean Folkerts, director of the school. “Both are important to us. You need a theoretical understanding, and you also need to have experience.”

Where the line between theory and practice gets a little blurry is the Columbian School, where educators want to provide a liberal arts education to give their students a good grounding for any endeavor, says Columbian School Dean Lester Lefton.

But getting practical skills and know-how, both in the classroom and in the field, has been a central part of GW for a long time.

“GW’s always been that way,” Lehman says. “It’s one of the attractions, ever since I’ve been here, of coming to GW. It’s the opportunity the location presents to students.”

While recruitment materials emphasize the real world component of the GW educational experience, it seems more attention is directed toward the academic end.

“Practical experience on an internship is a useful tool but it shouldn’t be the primary event of the undergraduate experience,” Lefton says. “Our goal isn’t to train you for a job, our goal is to train you for life.”

“To my way of thinking, GW is at the point where we’re a strong enough and good enough institution to move in the direction of a little less selling of the Washington location and a little more attention to the academic side,” political science Chairman Jeffrey Henig says.

Selling the city

It wasn’t that long ago that GW was largely a commuter school that had little national recognition in academics.

“GW wasn’t always a residential university, it was mainly a commuter university, and that’s still the case today at the graduate level,” says Lehman, who has been at the University for nearly 30 years in several capacities. “This was an opportunity for people to work in the federal government and the organizations and so forth in the Washington area, and to get an education.”

Today, academics at GW deserve and are gaining more of the spotlight and are constantly improving, GW administrators and faculty say.

Lehman stresses that GW was a quality academic school when he first taught physics here in 1970. However, he says he has seen improvements in nearly all aspects of GW’s academics – the quality of faculty, the quality of students and the productivity of staff in scholarly pursuits.

“I think the academic quality of the institution has risen significantly, both in the activity of faculty and also from the quality of students entering GW. I hear that all the time,” Lehman says. “Especially the new faculty. They are always very impressed with the quality of the students we have here.”

Yet the emphasis on the practical aspects of GW that have been its hallmark is not being thrown to the wayside. Administrators and faculty know the importance of internships and practical knowledge in the minds of many who come to GW.

“These days students who come to a private university and their parents are hopeful at the end of four years and 130 grand that they’re going to be able to get a job,” Lefton says.

Because of these concerns, helping students get the very best practical knowledge and experience is an important corollary to the liberal arts education provided at GW.

“What we call experiential education – internships, cooperative education, part-time jobs – is a really important part of life at GW for students,” says Jennifer Seile, communications director for the GW Career Center. “A student who is going out into the work force with some kind of work experience has a better chance of landing that dream job than someone just going through college with school work.”

Michele Billups, a junior in the Elliott School, says her experiences in the field and in school have reinforced each other. She worked at the U.S. embassy in Ghana this summer and now has an internship with former National Security Advisor Gen. Brent Scowcroft.

“I love working because it’s a practical application of what I learn in the classroom,” Billups says. She took a class in African politics at GW but says she learned a great deal in the field.

“In Ghana, I learned a lot about cultural aspects from working there,” Billups says. “I was learning about things culture-wise that you wouldn’t pick up in a classroom.”

A statistic that seems to be on the tip of the tongues of many GW administrators is that 84 percent of GW undergraduates have been involved in at least one employment experience by their senior year. Students who work even tend to do better in school that students who don’t, as long as they don’t overdo it, Lefton says. Of course, some students overdo it.

“It’s still the case that students are not as focused on academics as I would like,” says David McAleavey, director of creative writing for the English department and faculty co-chair for the Joint Committee of Faculty and Students. “That’s going to happen as long as students are working as many hours as they are working.”

However, internships are usually considered to be a supplement to an education at GW by faculty and administrators – not the main thrust.

“Our attitude is being in Washington is the icing on the cake,” Henig says of the political science department. “Our students, by their very nature, bring with them an unusual interest and enthusiasm for practical politics – we don’t have to instill that in our students. What we have to do is balance that experience with understanding of historical trends and deeper knowledge.”

Floors and ceilings

There are several forces that seem to be driving the trend toward placing more emphasis on academics. First, administrators and faculty say they feel the students coming to GW are constantly improving.

“I think there’s no question there’s more good
students now proportionally than there were 20 years ago,” says Henig, who chairs one of the largest departments on campus. “We’ve raised the ceiling, we’ve improved the middle. We can now, I hope, with the healthy enrollments we have and the visibility that we have, raise the floor a little too.”

The Office of Undergraduate Admissions points to a dramatic increase in the academic standing of the incoming class. Ten years ago, 22 percent of the freshmen were in the top tenth of their high school class, with 43 percent in the top fifth. Now, 45 percent of the freshmen are in the top 10 percent in high school, and almost three-quarters of the GW freshmen rank in the top 20 percent.

“That’s a pretty good change. You can’t do that overnight,” says Kathryn Napper, director of Admissions. “Some universities out there have improved a little. But for us, part of it is what we’ve done to improve. The whole experience (of going to GW) has improved, academically and socially, and that’s helped us immensely.”

Napper says that the number of applications has gone up drastically in the last few years – more than 100 percent since 1988. That has allowed GW to admit a lower percentage of applicants, which has allowed GW to be more selective and admit higher quality students, Napper says.

However, Student Association Vice President of Academic Affairs Elizabeth Cox tempers some of the enthusiasm for the quality of students coming to GW, saying our case isn’t special.

“It gets harder and harder every year to get into college,” Cox says. “Every university is attracting better students.”

Not just better students

Many at GW seem to feel the students are not the only thing that has improved at GW.

“At the same time the faculty is better,” Lefton says. “We have been able, as GW’s reputation has risen over the last decade, to attract outstanding faculty.It’s clear this is not your father’s GW,” Lefton says.

Vice President Lehman says he thinks one of the most important trends in academics at GW has come in the faculty’s realm.

“When I first arrived here at the University, the faculty was more oriented toward teaching than it was oriented toward research and scholarship,” Lehman says. “And if I’ve seen anything in the 28 years that I’ve been here, it’s a shift back toward higher activity levels of research and scholarship. And of course I think that has a tendency – and a very positive tendency – to spill over into the academic arena and benefit students.”

Lehman says the faculty “took it upon themselves” in the late 1970s and early 1980s to raise the standards for promotion and tenure, which meant requiring an increased level of scholarly activity. One example of this activity is the approximately 65 chartered research centers and institutes at GW right now, all of them started since 1986 and many of them originated in the 1990s.

Lehman says GW has the goal of becoming a recognized “research one” institution, the highest classification for scholarship that exists in higher education. He says he believes that GW should gain that recognition when reclassification takes place in 2000.

Putting it together

Better students, improved faculty, more research and a wealth of opportunities for practical experience are all combining to craft GW’s present and future.

“If you take (students’) ambitions and their drive and their family environments, and add a GW education, they’re extremely well-prepared, and you can see that when they get into the job market,” Lehman says.

And Lefton says that all of these things, taken in tandem, mean GW should not rest on its laurels. He says the University needs to challenge itself to continue to improve in the future.

“The truth is as students get better, it is easier to raise the bar and to have a more sophisticated approach, whatever the topic is,” Lefton says. “I have been pointing out to the faculty that our students are capable of more than we’re asking for, and we should raise the bar because they will rise to that bar and be better for it.”

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