THE BLOG
09/29/2014 11:28 am ET Updated Nov 29, 2014

Academic Roundtables to Benefit Colleges and Universities (and Religious Institutions)

Academic roundtables should be considered by top academic leaders as a very useful way to inspire, challenge, and encourage a younger generation of scholars, exposing them to a range of top and senior scholars and their ideas. Academic roundtables of different sorts already do take place using varied formats in multiple countries and different cultures. However, they are quite often underutilized as an important strategic method by academic leaders (university and college presidents, chancellors, rectors, and deans). Academic roundtables can be utilized more by top academic leaders to benefit the intellectual life of colleges and universities and also the personal careers of research and teaching staff as well as other notable persons. Roundtables can facilitate connections between academics across the spectrum of arts and sciences, with other notable persons in industry and government, and also with other scientific and cultural sectors. Done properly, academic roundtables can be useful for the academy generally. Roundtables are also applicable for inter-faith and intra-faith dialogue: this could involve a college or university chaplain or similarly esteemed persons. (Roundtables can also be utilized to benefit various religious institutions.)

Compared to other university staff, top academic leaders are often better able to plan and use academic roundtables as they have a better perspective on what the potentials and needs are in their institutions. With their top-down perspective on local potentials and needs and in consultation with key people in their academic organizations, top academic leaders can consider using academic roundtables effectively to expose research and teaching staff to top research and thinking in their respective fields and to facilitate networking with notables in these and other fields.

While academic roundtables of various sorts are, of course, already being utilized in different locations, there seems to be no definite rules for what must constitute an academic roundtable. I would like to offer one description of a generic working format that can be appropriated, adapted, and modified locally as necessary. What is important is that an academic roundtable would tend to provide a more focused and rigorous engagement and discussion of the work of one scholar or notable (or would be more centrally focused on an academic subject). This more centralized focus of roundtables can be more intense than what we often see with academic panel discussions. Panel discussions and conferences by design can be, quite legitimately and acceptably, less centralized in their focus or effectively adopting multiple focuses. To be interesting and relevant, it is important that these more focused roundtable events are strategically planned and utilized by top academicians. Academic roundtables can be planned serially, i.e. in a repeated, sustained way, to achieve their benefits locally and more widely in the academy over time.

In this suggested generic working format,* an academic roundtable is a high-level academic event, preferably under the auspices of a university chancellor, president, rector, or dean, and either they or their representative would be either present or represented both in the planning of such events and at the event itself. The event would be opened and introduced by the top academic leadership and the constellation of participants would be introduced with their backgrounds presented. The event would be moderated by a person knowledgeable in the field. The main invited presenter would present at length whereupon respondents/discussants, also knowledgeable in the field, would each respond to (engage) the intellectual offering of the main presenter in turn. Afterward there should be a focused and moderated discussion amongst the main presenter and the respondents/discussants. This discussion should be a well-researched and cogent engagement and exposition of the main presenter's contribution before the discussion is opened to a wider audience. After a roundtable is formally closed, there is usually some sort of reception afterward and this is a good place to continue discussion and networking.

Top academic leaders arranging roundtables can expect to see their communal standing be advantaged if it becomes clear that the roundtable was well planned and interesting for the community. The relevant strategic planning of roundtables should achieve this. Good strategic planning of academic roundtables is a sophisticated endeavor and is best done in consultation with senior-level departmental or institutional staff members who, in addition to top academic staff, know intimately the potentials, needs and interests of their respective areas. Of course writing on strategy is available abundantly for academicians but, with whatever method of strategy formulation and selection of roundtables is used in an academic setting, the discussion amongst staff will analyze what is already being done, what needs or shortcomings exist, and what the interior constellations of roundtables might be assembled to be of interest. If more resources are available, reliance upon assistance from specialists in the field of organizational learning can be very useful in the academic roundtable planning process. The end result should be academic roundtables that are interesting and relevant.

Academic roundtable presentations can often be arranged quite economically (important to note after the economic downturn of 2008.) In reality these can also be arranged to yield even more benefits, with either no additional or minimal to moderate additional expenditure. For example, the main speaker might also be asked to make a separate lighter speech or presentation for students, typically before the main roundtable event. Importantly, the invited discussants can be not only academics from within the host institution but also academicians from another institution or notables from other sectors. This wider inclusion of external participants would increase the networking and relationship-building outside of the host institution. Academic roundtables can also produce very timely and interesting content that is interesting more widely and would therefore be worth considering for publication in various formats. A roundtable can be a very appropriate event if a "festschrift" honoring the main presenter is being planned.

Lastly, I can say that I am a little bit prejudiced in terms of what I want to see qualitatively with better academic roundtables, having attended the Nobel Prizes in 1983 and seeing such distinguished persons (like William Golding and others) receive a Nobel Prize. Top academic organizers of good roundtables should strive, in my opinion, to achieve an event which is qualitatively just a little bit comparable to the Nobel Prize ceremonies . This means that these roundtables ought to be tastefully done with a good and proper protocol and decorum, (engaging but not contentious) introducing us, the audience, to very worthwhile personalities and their intellectual, i.e. scientific and/or cultural contributions. This is some of the vision of success that we might wish for all those involved with arranging roundtables along with some interesting intellectual encounter, perhaps new ideas for research and teaching, some good networking and good new professional relationships, and a satisfied academic staff provided with more intellectual equipment.

*While multiple very fine examples of high-level academic roundtables exist already and are immediately apparent with a simple internet search under the term "academic roundtable," this suggested generic roundtable format described above draws on my own experiences with conferences and seminars in academia and also generally from the book, "Islamic Resurgence: Challenges," Directions & Future Perspectives: A Roundtable with Prof. Khurshid Ahmad, Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi', editor, Tampa, Fl.: World & Islam Studies Enterprise, 1994; reprinted by Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan, 1995; 1996.

Special thanks should go to Dr. Tom Bigda-Peyton, Managing Partner at Second Curve Systems, who also consults in the area of education.