Questions laid out for University’s strategic future

A policy think tank, an overhaul of tenure polices and big changes to study abroad offerings are all on the table for the next decade of academics at GW.

Those possibilities are among a group of ideas floated by administrators in a document released Thursday to guide the groups hammering out the University’s 10-year strategic plan.

The proposals are preliminary and meant to provoke debate, Provost Steven Lerman stressed, while offering a glimpse into the future of GW in the plan’s four themes: globalization, policy and governance, interdisciplinary work and citizenship.

“We need to address where we think the world is going and where the University needs to go. And, at the same time, we need to build on our strengths,” Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Planning Forrest Maltzman said. “We’re asking big questions.”

The University’s last strategic plan in 2002 took a more conservative approach by reallocating money to existing programs, but Maltzman said the four groups of administrators, faculty and students will consider questions and map out solutions for “things we could really fundamentally change and that would make a difference in everything from tenure promotions to student housing.”

The Board of Trustees – the University’s highest governing body – will weigh in on the ideas cemented by the four groups in June. Based on the Board’s recommendations, the eight-member steering committee will draft the final strategic plan to be presented to the Faculty Assembly in October.

To push GW’s reputation as a destination for policy and governance studies, University planners will consider starting a think tank that engages in research and advocacy aimed at boosting GW’s “footprint” in governance. Only four universities – Harvard, Columbia, Rice and Johns Hopkins – run think tanks that are among the top 50 in the U.S., according to a report last month by the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tank and Civil Societies Program.

“The aspiration of this plan is, when people say ‘governance and policy,’ everyone says the place to go in the world is GW,” Lerman said.

The document poses about 90 questions to the four groups, ranging from big changes to more minor considerations, like which educational experiences will help students become better leaders.

The University has seen traces of the strategic plan already springing up in initiatives this year, including a push to bulk up academic operations in China and the launch of an interdisciplinary sustainability minor.

Some of the questions charged to the four working committees will stir controversy, Maltzman said, including the possibility of determining professors’ tenure status through a University-wide committee instead of school-specific ones. The idea falls under the theme of improving the University’s innovation through interdisciplinary collaboration.

“There will be disagreement on this,” Maltzman, a tenured political science professor, said. “Faculty members grow up in a discipline. I’m a political scientist. And a skeptic of a school-wide committee could ask, ‘Why should somebody who’s an engineer have a role in the decision to tenure me?’ ”

Murli Gupta, chair of the Faculty Senate’s appointment, salary and promotion policy committee, said he remembered the idea drawing ire when it was last proposed 20 years ago. If the proposal came before the committee, he said they would examine the issue but would have to redraw the University’s faculty code.

“You don’t need a committee of five to 10 people from across the University who looks at every promotion and tenure. That would be quite unwieldy,” Gupta said. “I believe the system works right now.”

The idea falls in line with the plan’s goal to break down silos in the University and encourage interdisciplinary work. The University will also “consider a model in which all GW undergraduates belong to a single college and choose majors from across the 10 schools after the freshman or sophomore year so that they can become familiar with different areas of study,” the document reads. If implemented, the change would dramatically alter GW’s academic structure.

Maltzman said the University could also add a radically new study abroad option that would take small groups of students and professors away for one semester to participate in one or two classes – ranging from “working in a company in South Korea and campaigns in Israel or digging up fossils in Africa” – while taking other courses online.

“I think for the students who would opt for that kind of program, it’d be more of a life-transformative experience than simply going to a study abroad center,” he said.

Ideas for expanding the University’s mark on research are also woven throughout the document, but Maltzman proposed that “pop-up centers” could be a more efficient way to expand its portfolio. The research centers would maintain a five-year life span and investigate a timely issue, like food safety, he said.

“Part of the attraction is: Nothing focuses one better than a sunset,” Lerman added. “What can you get done in that period?”

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