The School of Foreign Service announced former World Bank Chief Institutional Economist Joel Hellman as its new dean in April 2015. As Hellman, who officially took over the role in July, reaches the end of his first year on campus, The Hoya sat down with the dean to look back on his achievements and challenges of the past year, discuss the future of the school, which will celebrate its centennial anniversary in 2019, talk technology on a day the Internet failed, and explore the dean’s eclectic musical taste.
This interview has been edited for length and condensed for print.
What are your reflections on the past year?
It’s always great to join a school at the top of its game, but it’s a little daunting to join a school at the top of its game because the question is, where do you go from here?
But what’s really been unique about coming to a school at a period of such strength is, because the school is heading to its centennial anniversary in 2019 and 2020, there’s a real openness on the part of the faculty and alumni and students to think about what we’ve achieved in the past and what we need to do to address real challenges in the future.
What are the broad goals that the School of Foreign Service’s centennial vision is trying to achieve?
One of the things that has marked the school from its inception is that it takes an interdisciplinary approach to educating people about the challenges they will face. It takes a liberal arts approach because it tries to educate the whole person by giving them deep skills to think critically, read critically and present. It focuses on the relationship between policy, practice and big ideas.
Those trends and those aspects of the education are still as relevant today as they were 100 years ago when they were created. But I think there’s a lot we can do to build and strengthen those key fundamental aspects of who we are.
On the curriculum side, first, it’s allowing for greater flexibility. We can’t anticipate over the next years what the combination of skill sets will be. We know there are some core things like history, economics and politics, but increasingly students are coming to us and saying they’re interested in public health, human rights, journalism, media and communications, business. They want to combine the skills they get in business with SFS, in the [School of Nursing and Health Studies] with SFS, create different combinations of security studies and development. We need to create a much more flexible program that allows students to craft their program in a way that suits their goals and what they think they’re going to be doing in the world. Bottom line is, even though we’re the School of Foreign Service and everyone thinks we train diplomats, less than 2 percent of our students become diplomats. Most go on to do remarkable things with their SFS education, and we want to give them a little more flexibility — not throw away the core but create more opportunities to do that.
Second, science, quantitative skills. These are things that aren’t an add-on any more in education; they’re core to all global issues. We want to think about how do we bring those aspects into the educational program?
Third, a lot of our students study abroad. We want to see if we can integrate that as an integral part of every student’s program — not only semester abroad, but summers, vacations. Being in SFS encompasses some form of global engagement so that you’re actually trying to do something in a different environment. We’re seeing how we can support more and more of our efforts by students to do that.
The last thing is, the thing that has always distinguished our school being in D.C. is the link between practice and theory. I think we can do more to give undergraduates access to policymakers and practitioners. Not only big talks in Gaston Hall, which are great, but also informal talks to make them understand how they’ve built their careers, how they’ve made decisions, what attitudes and approaches they take.
Related to the greater flexibility, this week, the SFS announced the language minors program. Are there steps to build off that and perhaps include other minors as well?
There’s a lot of interest from students in minors and to build up expertise in different disciplines, different skill sets that are not in the traditional SFS framework. We’re looking for ways to make that happen. If minors are the best way of doing that, I think that’s something we should think about.
Minors are not the only way. The thing that drives people in minors is they want credentials, they want a stamp that says, “Hey, I did that.” We want to enable students to do that.
I would also say that, if the curriculum becomes more flexible, and there’s a little bit more room built into the program for student choice, then that would also enable us to think more seriously about minors.
When we talked last year, one of your immediate goals was to reach out to various parts of the school and plan the future in a collaborative process. In that process, what surprised you about things that parts of the community told you were a problem? What points did they emphasize?
I think that it is more difficult than I anticipated for students to work across schools. Students have a lot of concerns about that. I know the provost and the deans are all interested in creating more opportunities for students to reach across different parts of the school.
I hear a lot, within SFS, of students not being able to take advantage of all of the resources within SFS. We have over 20 programs and centers: Those are great things because they give students the chance to work with smaller groups of people who are deeply interested in what they’re doing, but often they’re interested in thinking about linkages.
You talked about teaching; I remember that was one of the first things you wanted to do last year. How has the process of getting into teaching a full course been?
I didn’t know that this year was going to be a bit crazy. I did an enormous amount of travel this year: It’s really important to me to reconnect the school with our alumni. We haven’t been strong enough in reaching out to our SFS alumni, so I’ve been pounding the pavement going to big markets where we have SFS alumni to introduce myself to them, hear from them and then reconnect them to the school so they have a stake in the school. That’s taken a lot of time from the classroom.
What I have done is a series of lectures in lots of different classes, talking about my area of expertise — which is fragility and conflict and the relationship between conflict and development — in different parts of the school, which has been great for me because I’ve been interacting at the graduate level, undergraduate level, in big government department classes as well as small Russian studies seminars. And finally, I was faculty teaching on a one-credit course on the history of the SFS with [government professor] Anthony Arend and [Dean’s Office Chief of Staff] Emily Zenick.
Next year, I’m planning with [SFS assistant professor] Ken Opalo, one of our young faculty here: We’re teaching a course on conflict and development, and that’s going to be a formal, proper course. But I must say that I’m really glad this year that I took this approach: I must have given a dozen lectures on campus in different courses, as well as the history course, so it just gave me a great introduction.
I wanted to talk a little bit about technology.
On the day that our Internet is down?
Nicely ironic! International affairs — just like every subject — face the opportunities and challenges that technology provides, and in all my courses, we talk about technology as well, but, at the same time, our curriculum does not necessarily focus that much on technology or science. Including the curriculum, but also including research and educational style, how does the SFS integrate itself more with advances in the 21st century?
It’s such a critical question. It really is very high on our priority list as we think about the centennial and the vision. I’m really pleased to see that science, technology and international affairs is one of the fastest-growing majors in the school; it’s clear that students are voting with their feet. Investing in that will be an important priority going forward. We’ve got such incredible faculty there that are showing what you can do with students: [professors] Joanna Lewis on energy policy, Mark Giordano on water. Sarah Johnson is studying life on other planets; who would have thought 100 years ago that there would be an SFS professor who thinks about life on Mars?
We also have alums who are really engaged and we’re really trying to engage them. One of our new board members, for example, is the general counsel of SpaceX, Tim Hughes (SFS ’94).
We are — on the part of the curriculum reform — seriously moving towards integrating a science requirement of some sort, as part of an overall university effort to ensure that science becomes a part of everyone’s program. We’re talking through what that might mean for SFS.
We’re also talking about how to ensure quantitative literacy at SFS.
We have four economics courses: The question is, is that the right combination of skills that gives students enough of an understanding of quantitative literacy so that they can function well in different environments, whether that’s the private sector or public sector?
In terms of the SFS becoming more global — I know that is another big push — you travelled to India to unveil the GU India Initiative. What was the impetus behind that initiative, and what kind of similar things are you trying to implement elsewhere to create those connections with other countries?
Having a diverse international student body is absolutely critical to SFS’ own identity. This is not a luxury. As a school of international affairs, if we don’t have a diverse representation of views in the classroom, when we’re discussing the toughest issues, then we can’t really make the claim to be a top-ranked global school. I think we can do better on that score at SFS.
I don’t think we’re keeping pace with the best schools in the world — not just the U.S. — in terms of attracting that globally diverse and socio-economically diverse student body: globally, bringing more international students in, and a socioeconomically diverse group of students. Because of financial aid and federal funding, we have a differential: We have 62 percent of domestic SFS students who are on financial aid, but we have a very small percentage of international students on financial aid. We’ve got to address that imbalance. One of my highest priorities is to build the financial strength of SFS in order for us to do so.
Second is the relationships. That’s where you get to the GU India Initiative. That’s why I traveled to India, Hong Kong, Europe. I’m going to go to Africa next year. I’ve lived in eight different countries over the last 20 years. I have a college-age daughter; we’ve mentored a lot of college-age kids coming to the U.S. It is a bewildering system for someone coming from outside the United States. There are thousands of colleges to go to. How do you start to think about that? We need to start building relationships so that we get the word out, not just about Georgetown, but also about SFS. What is SFS? What does that mean?
When the early admits were given, we called all of the international students. I talked to one father in Singapore, and he said, “I’m glad you called. I have a question for you. Why should I send my son off to study foreign service so that he can join the U.S. Foreign Service?” People need to understand better about what we do.
One of my friends told me that you are very much into jazz. What is your favorite jazz record or musician?
You know, I have very eclectic tastes, and so on my own, when nobody else is around, I listen to what my wife would describe as “unlistenable music,” and that ranges from the avant-garde era from the mid- to late 1960s to contemporary challenging classical jazz. There’s something called the Bang on a Can music collective in New York that is really interesting — sometimes unlistenable, but I like to call it challenging.
When other people are in the room, I love classic jazz, from Louie Armstrong up through Bennie Goodman and Duke Ellington and the great jazz orchestras, and I’m a great fan of the bebop era. How about yourself?
I love hip-hop.
Oh, I just went to see “Hamilton.” That, I think, was one of the most remarkable things that I’ve done in a very long time because this notion of taking the story of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers and reclaiming it with hip-hop and rap and recasting the whole story — it was in some ways the most natural thing you can imagine. It really reflected the very spirit of the Revolution and the Founding Fathers, and I thought that was great.