Provost James O’Donnell oversees academic policy for the six main campus schools of Georgetown. Yet around campus, he is recently known for his e-mails regarding university closings during the February “Snowmageddon.” In the interview below, O’Donnell comments on his initiatives as provost, as well as past and future closing policy.

Considering university closings this semester, what will be the future snow policy?

There will be no snow in the future. The Provost has spoken.

This year was unusual – this year was extremely unusual. I have never been in an institution that shut down for four days in a row. I taught at Cornell many years ago, and we never shut down . So you know, what we do in normal bad weather, [is] we make a decision about closing usually at about 5 o’clock in the morning. Head of Facilities checks with the campus, I get a phone call at 5 a.m., which is about as much fun as it sounds.

I generally know what’s coming – I’ve left my computer on. I’ve got radar and stuff. I actually have a deck and a view of the Key Bridge so that can help me make my own estimate of what’s going on, but more important is Karen Frank from Facilities who has been talking to her people on campus who give her an idea of how it’s looking … We talk and then she generally loops in Dean Stephen Ray Mitchell from the Med Center and someone from University Services and over a course of 15 minutes we make a choice.

The law center always does what the federal government does. We’re not comfortable with that. . Again, when it’s one day, we can cope, we make a decision; we’re biased in staying open – we’re really biased in favor of staying open. We want to facilitate things. And it’s also worth bearing in mind that almost every day of the academic year, there’s something unique going on. There’s a conference, there are people coming from out of town and we don’t like to shut down the whole place leaving a bunch of people who flew in from out of town having nothing to do.

So we’re biased in favor of staying open. . In the end, we closed four days and every other institution in the vicinity closed those four days, so I think we made good choices. But we were trying to fight it off. We really wanted to get it in that Friday, at least that Friday. I’m glad we got in some of it. I don’t think we’re going to lose a week in March. You can get a snowstorm in March but I don’t think we will. Sorry, the Provost has spoken. It will not snow. [Laughs]

What academic initiatives are you working on?

Oh well, always a lot of things. You know the science building is getting ready to come up out of the ground? . Because that’s a $100 million academic initiative. So it’s a whopper. Many years in the making and a great achievement of many people, especially our great scientists who went out – I mean, they really fought. We had already approved the building when the economic downturn hit, and there were six months in the year where you just could not get credit, you just could not possibly do it. . And [the faculty] had to have really good science and do really hard work, and they got us a really nice grant. And that’s what’s making it possible.

Other areas I would point to are the Department of Computer Science where we have a new chair, professor Ophir Freider. He came in on Jan. 1, and he is doing and will be doing good stuff in that area. No question about it. And maybe [the] third thing I would say is [the] work we’re doing about creating conversation around [curriculum.]

These are driven to a certain extent by the diversity initiative that we’ve had in the last year. I’d say that it’s an important initiative in its own right and I think it’s helping us. We’ve been stuck in curricular discussions for a long time, and I think it’s helping us get off the dime and start moving forward – where in a year or two be modernizing and improving the curriculum in a variety of ways.

What’s the plan for the business minor that’s going to be added to the College?

It began with a bubbling awareness that there was renewed interest in this. It’s part of something that Dean Daly, since he came here four years ago, has been interested in. He had a bunch of stuff he had to get to, but he wanted to push it . when Dean Gillis was approved in permanently, they began having conversations. We had a meeting in here in which we talked about the board outlines on what could be an arrangement to make this work.

Because there’s obviously dollars and course capacity and credit issues and so forth that have to be worked out. I am told that they are now close to a proposal; I haven’t [seen] any yet, but that’s OK. My favorite kinds of proposals are the ones that are so well done that by the time they get to me, I don’t have to do a whole lot of work on them. So I think it would be a good thing to offer that soon, and I hope we do.

Tell us more about the diversity initiative.

Well, the diversity initiative began with people kind of looking at each other after the controversy over The Hoya joke issue last spring. So this has now gone on most of the year. There are three working groups, one in Student Affairs, one for Admissions and Recruiting and one for Academic Working Group. Admissions and Recruiting has made recommendations which we are currently implementing. Student Affairs will be doing that shortly.

Academics is the hardest area, but it’s both going to lead to some renewed work in fundraising to support areas that we have not been as strong as we could be. There is a proposal coming forward for a way to do a diversity requirement that would feed into this curriculum, and we’ll see where that goes.

At the moment, we have so many requirements that adding one more requirement will not be popular with anybody. Ideally, you’d have a long list of courses with a D next to them in the catalog, so to speak, and courses that filled your history, your philosophy, your theology or social science requirement. Many of them should be. If they’re not already addressing the diversity of human populations in the world, then they’re not doing a very good job anyway.

So the idea is that you would fill the traditional requirements and in doing so you would pick up a couple of courses with D’s next to it. And those would be chosen intelligently and some courses designed intelligently to just make sure that you had to get out of the box that you grew up in, so to speak, and do some rigorous thinking about what it’s like to live in a world where not everyone is just like you. And we do, and we’re going to.

A lot of students reacted strongly to the “snow, coping, closing” e-mail you sent out. Would you like to comment on this?

Well, I think that there were two things that we were doing. One is we wanted to be open, we wanted to ensure that the semester maintained forward progress and have as little interruption as possible. We’ve actually learned from this one that a lot of faculty and a lot of students did good stuff that kept the engine running at least through the week. It varied widely, but there were professors who distributed video lectures during that time. There were people who were keeping just ordinary e-mail contact with folks. So you didn’t just completely lose momentum, grind to a halt and have to start all over again. We knew we needed some makeup time after that. I was surprised and pleased that the faculty said that we need as little as we do. Partly it happened early enough in the semester, we’ve got time to cope. But partly people actually got stuff done. One thing we’re doing as actively as we can is encouraging faculty – we’d already been doing so this year and this is probably why we had so much luck – to have the technological tools in place and thinking about them beforehand so that if something happens – we actually have pushed hard this year because of H1N1.

If you remember all the way back to August, we thought – we were more gaming the possibility that we would have to shut down the campus for some couple of weeks for H1N1, and we wanted to be able to survive that. A mere blizzard is actually a lot easier to survive. So we wanted to keep the engine running, we wanted to keep things going and encouraging people to get together when it was safe to do so. Safety’s always the first thing. And then when it came to an end, we wanted to give them an opportunity to get back to work as soon as they could. I know that President’s Day didn’t always sound like opportunity to everyone to whom the idea [was proposed], but by the time that we actually looked through it, it turned out to be not such a bad idea. Lots of people got some stuff done that day, and that was important. And a lot of people couldn’t be here that day, and we understood and respected that. So I think that we’re in a better place than we could be. And we’re not taking back a Saturday – yet — if it doesn’t snow again. It’s not going to snow.

What is the motivation behind the Liberal Arts Seminar changes that we’ve been hearing about?

Ah, Liberal Arts Seminar. Gorgeous program. It has been taught for many years by a cavalry of extraordinary faculty, devoted faculty, who have worked together. And there’s been some fraying of that, a couple of people have retired. And it’s so personal, so interconnected, so much a team playing with each other that you can’t simply pick the next faculty member to come along, assign them to fit in and say it’s going to be the same team that it was before. So it’s an opportunity, I think we like it as a model: it’s a difficult thing to manage to get that many faculty working together and committed to it over time. I’ve said it’s a model we’d like to see extended to some other sort of multi-course packages like that. But there’s really nothing going on except looking at getting a new generation of people involved in teaching it and finding the right way for them to do it. So it will be a little bit less predictable for a couple of years while they work through that. But that’s all there is.”

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