DeGioia speaks in the future tense with former MIT president

President John J. DeGioia and former MIT President Susan Hockfield (M’ 79) spoke in the second public discussion of Georgetown’s Designing The Future(s) initiative in the Lohrfink Auditorium. To heighten the excitement for the event, the University invited attendees to tweet about the event using the hashtag #FutureUniversity.

Hockfield spoke about the challenges of managing a university with centuries of history. “The human brain, in general, resists change,” she said. She believed in the importance of convening groups and faculty and puzzling them on the challenges of a university, as Yale did in her tenure as its provost. “The faculty is our leadership. What can we know in our President’s office?” she said, as the audience watched the two converse. “The last thing you want in a university is a kind of monotonicity in how you think.”

Hockfield also mused about the diversity of American higher institutions. “The freedom that each institution can imagine itself is wonderful,” she said, as reporters from The Hoya and yours truly took copious notes to write recaps for this event.

DeGioia brought up MIT’s Opencourseware and edX, the latter of which Georgetown contributes to, and asked about the tension between having a place and having technology for learning. Hockfield said that while physical places are still valuable, today’s students are born digital, and online courses help professors change the way they teach. “To imagine that [students] will be compelled by the same kinds of teaching technology for hundreds of years is wishful thinking,” Hockfield said, while the lights glowed brightly in the auditorium.

A large part of the discussion focused upon what a university should change and what it should protect as it moves towards the future. Hockfield said that while universities may not have changed much on the outside, today’s classes, degrees, and research domains are different. “What’s being taught in lecture rooms is very different from what was taught 25 years ago,” she said.

She believes that a university should maintain an open-ended approach to the future. “We must … encourage faculty to think anew about their subjects, just to maintain a culture of discovery and innovation both in teaching and in research,” she said.

During the questions and answers session, several attendees asked Hockfield how Georgetown could maintain its Jesuit traditions. “I’m a a huge fan of the past,” she said, while other audience members waited in front of the microphone to pose their next questions. “We are neglecting the past these days, so I would only encourage Georgetown to be well-anchored in the past.” 

Hockfield said that not all traditions are relevant to modern higher education, as a university should not be trapped in the past. Discussions about which traditions or departments to leave behind are difficult.

However, she reminded the audience that the university is a place where experimentation happens. “No one can deny you an experiment,” she said. “Sometimes we forget that the core of the university is innovation and discovery.”

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