GW has and deserves a top-notch faculty with superb academic credentials and, frequently, experience in the professional realm that few schools can match.
But when seeking faculty, we need to leaven the academic bread more than we currently do, and more than most institutions do.
At GW, faculty perform research, they seek knowledge and they provide services. But that isn’t all they do. Mostly, they teach. We stimulate the transfer of knowledge from generation to generation. By our example, students learn discipline and character and the ability to inspire loyal service.
Faculty at most institutions prefer to hire people like themselves – people with what are known as “terminal degrees” in their discipline, most often a doctorate of one sort or another. Practitioners are often regarded as second-class citizens, no matter how sparkling their achievements or how exciting their teaching.
But hiring only people with terminal degrees would mean that Erik Ericson – the man who coined the term “identity crisis” and a founder of the social development theory – would never have been hired as he was at Harvard University or Yale University or University of California, Berkeley. And Saul Bellow – a Noble Prize-winning author – would never have been hired at the University of Chicago. If GW were to hire only those who hold terminal degrees, it would not hire Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg as teachers in our business school. Would we offer a professorship in the Elliot School to Colin Powell? Not if we only look for people who hold terminal degrees.
My point is that we need to educate the whole person. That’s not anti-academic or anti-intellectual: it is pro-human. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we shouldn’t hire faculty members with terminal degrees who have demonstrated their research prowess by contributing to the store of the world’s knowledge. I’m merely suggesting that those aren’t the only sorts of people we should hire.
We need professors of practice, people who have demonstrated their intellectual and personal skills in demanding professions or jobs. We need law professors who have practiced law with skill and success; we need practicing physicians and poets and musicians and artists and writers. We need people like Honey Nashman, people who don’t hold doctorates but who exemplify the human qualities: imagination, empathy and genius. We need them as an institution and you need them as students and as colleagues.
We should cherish people who kindle excitement in the classroom, who awaken us to the charm of discovery for a universe filled with diverse wonders. Some of those people will hold doctoral degrees; others won’t.
Surely we can distinguish between those who teach well and those who teach poorly; surely we can honor the public intellectual as well as the scholar; surely we can recognize the talented vocalist and the writer and the painter who will develop the latent talent our students bring while enriching us all with the mastery of their art.
And we can recognize and honor faculty members who are an inspiration to students because of the time they take to understand and encourage them, to model the habits of mind we seek to inculcate, who shape their extracurricular passions.
The academic bread should be multi-grain and chock-full of nutrients for the whole person.
The writer was the 15th president of The George Washington University.
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