ByGeorge! Online

March 4, 2003

GW Selects Seven Areas of Academic Excellence

University Invests in Programs to Enhance Educational and National Recognition

By Greg Licamele

The University has identified seven areas of academic excellence that will receive additional support over the next three-to-five years in an effort to focus GW’s priorities on areas that have gained or have the potential to gain national recognition.

Combined, these seven areas have received an additional $482,500 this fiscal year, with more support planned for the future, says Donald R. Lehman, executive vice president for academic affairs. The seven areas of excellence include: biomedical engineering, history, human evolution, political science, public policy/public administration, the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, and transportation safety and security.

“These seven have national and international recognition, but we want to bring them to a higher level,” Lehman says. “For example, when people think about the top faculty in human evolution, we want them to think about GW.”

Guidelines for academic excellence were presented to the schools in November 2001. Lehman says three guidelines were especially instrumental in the selection process: leveraging the assets of the University, using resources from the Washington metropolitan area, and looking at the contribution these areas have made or will make to undergraduate education.

Each interested program submitted a proposal to the appropriate dean, who then chose plans to forward to the larger Academic Excellence Committee. The deans then made presentations to the committee in support of the proposals from their respective schools. After thorough assessments, 12 out of 24 proposals submitted were recommended to Lehman and University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who consulted with the president’s senior staff to select the final seven proposals.

“Certainly, it was stiff competition and there are many high quality targets for investment,” says Christopher Deering, professor of political science and chair of the department. “We believed that recent national rankings, our success in recruiting high quality teaching and research faculty, and the centrality of public and international affairs endeavors at GW made us a logical and strong possibility. We also believed that there was a synergy to be gained with public policy, the Sigur Center, and some of the other eventual selectees.”

The seven areas have received support for additional faculty members, new graduate assistant positions, funds for staff, money for seminars, and resources for travel, among other investments (See specific support). Timothy Tong, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), says his experience has shown that a focused agenda for a school or university means a higher record of success. For SEAS, two areas were selected — transportation safety and security, and biomedical engineering — building on existing strengths.

“These areas were chosen based in part on their relevance to the current technological world and the future development that is required for the next 10–15 years,” Tong explains. “We believe that we will become a nationally recognized center of excellence.”

The financial support from government and private institutions for those two areas has grown in recent years. In fiscal year 2001–02, Tong says transportation received $4 million from external sources to support its research activity, while biomedical engineering was awarded $1 million for its research agenda.

A key component for transportation safety and security is the Virginia Campus, which houses the area’s research through partnerships with the Federal Highway Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Federal Aviation Administration, among others. Just last week, GW received a $5 million grant, the largest in SEAS history, to lead automobile child safety research.

“We would like the transportation activity to become widely recognized,” Lehman says. “We’d like everybody to know that a major center for transportation research is located at GW’s Virginia Campus.”

The transportation program is indicative of the interdepartmental, and, in many cases, the interdisciplinary nature of higher education today. The departments of electrical engineering, computer science, and mechanical/aerospace engineering contribute to GW’s transportation research. Sharing resources and ideas is common among the seven selected areas.

“The PhD program in public policy benefits from a strong and rich tradition of policy-relevant faculty research in departments such as economics, history, philosophy, political science, and public administration, as well as in the Elliott School of International Affairs, the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, the School of Public Health and Health Services, the School of Business and Public Management, and SEAS,” says Joseph Cordes, professor of economics and international affairs. “This tradition is evident both in faculty commitment to graduate teaching in policy studies, and also to an impressive volume of published and grant-supported research in a wide range of policy areas.”

“The fact that we ended up with four of the areas that in many ways are interdisciplinary I think speaks to the fact that departmental divisions are becoming less important as we look at major research activity,” Lehman says.

Deering says political science is selecting new graduate assistants for research projects proposed by faculty members. Muriel Atkin, professor of history and chair of the department, says new research will be forged through the development of new world history courses. Tong says these seven areas, individually and collectively with the additional investments, will help attract top undergraduate and graduate students.

“When you have state-of-the-art research projects, that helps to attract students who want to be associated with active work,” Tong says. “In this case, they will be a catalyst to our researchers to enhance their ability to get more grants and contracts, and thereby recruit more graduate students and researchers.”

Lehman says another academic excellence competition is likely in three or four years. In the meantime, each of the seven areas must submit annual reports of their progress. Lehman notes that input was provided to the deans regarding programs not selected and deans were encouraged to commit school funds to further advance those programs.

For some of the selected areas, the timing could not be better to receive additional support.

“Beginning just four years ago with a first class of just seven students, we currently have a total of 84 students enrolled in the (master’s) program,” says Hal Wolman, professor of political science and public administration and director of the master’s program in public policy. “The most serious problem we face is that our growth, particularly in the master’s program, has outstripped our resources.”

Kathryn Newcomer, professor of public administration and chair of the department, says the history of excellence in public administration dates back 40 years, propelling the program to its new designation as a top program. During the last 20 years, the master's of public administration program has been ranked as one of the top 10-15 MPA programs in the country. The MPA faculty provide a large part of the core faculty for the public policy program.

Ranked by US News and World Report in the top 20 nationally last year, the public policy master’s and PhD programs and the public administration department are helping to chart a course of focused growth for its six selected counterparts and the rest of the University.

“Selecting public policy and public administration as one of the seven areas of academic excellence reflects first the recognition of the excellence of our existing programs,” Wolman says. “But it also reflects an understanding of the enormous potential to take advantage of our location in the nation’s capital to move us into the front ranks of public policy and public affairs programs nationally.”


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