Reconciliation

The problem of defining Emory's most elusive year


Reconciling Faculty Roles A conversation with John Banja, clinical ethicist at the Center for Ethics in Public Policy and the Professions

Reconciling Campus Conflict
A conversation with Bob Agnew, professor of sociology and past director of the program in violence studies

Intellectual Contents on the Conference Table
An overview of symposium topics

Return to Contents

It's on our calendars. Its icon flashes from computer screens in every public space on campus. It's splashed across myriad Emory publications and burning up our e-mail cables. Yet even some faculty working on papers to give at January's Reconciliation Symposium are at a loss when asked: what is the Year of Reconciliation really about?

The Year of Reconciliation web site describes the "core" of reconciliation as "the resolution of differences through an honorable search for truth and understanding." But "truth" is as hard for professors to agree on as "resolution" is rare in academic discussions.

According to its organizers, the Year of Reconciliation was not designed to smooth over recent controversies concerning tenured faculty who were dismissed or racial conflicts among students. "For a number of years now, the whole Emory community has been interested in fostering interdisciplinary work," says Billy Frye, chancellor of the university and symposium chair. "The Year of Reconciliation, like the interdisciplinary Luce seminars that took place a few years ago, was created to do that."

Yet some panels of the Reconciliation Symposium focus on race, gender, and tensions among faculty roles and between faculty and administration. While the symposium and other events of this year were not designed as "a fix" for any set of problems, reconciliation events coordinator and visiting assistant professor of English Karen Poremski hopes "they may offer a space for us to reflect constructively on the nature and sources of tension on campus."

Real reconciliation, however, is not about harmony or even tolerance, says Frye. "Harmony may be a necessary condition, but reconciliation also requires conflict because it involves a struggle to find the truth." Too often, he adds, scholars "just agree to disagree and be silent. We don't engage the contradictions in our work. That may be great for co-existence, but it won't lead to the progress the human race is capable of making."

 

SCHOLARLY APPROACHES

While one of the major aims of the Year of Reconciliation is "showcasing" the diverse talent of Emory faculty, the primary audience is the Emory community. The goals include "fostering a sense of community among people to stimulate interdisciplinary research and teaching and provide opportunities to discuss Emory's future direction," says Bob Agnew, professor of sociology and co-chair of the symposium.

Agnew offers the panel on "restorative justice," which he is organizing, as a classic example of reconciliation in action (see page 4). American criminal justice currently focuses "on certain and severe punishment that ultimately further alienates offenders from the larger community," he says. Emory professors Thee Smith and Arthur Kellermann will bring perspectives from theology and public health to bear on an alternative approach commonly called "restorative justice." Restorative justice couples punishment with efforts to help the offender understand the harm caused, repair that harm to the extent possible, and play a positive role in the community through work and volunteer activities.

"Bipartisan reparations," explains Smith, "is an important part of my approach to restorative justice. This principle flows from the fact that the selection of targets for injustice is shaped by the conditioning children receive as part of their earliest socialization." Smith offers as an example generations of South Africans, who, he says, were shaped by the church and state's white supremacy. "Are not those institutions also culpable for the persecution, state terrorism, and genocide? And are not the perpetrators, along with the victims, in need of apologies and reparation from today's representatives of those institutions-such as schools and congregations?"

While that panel looks beyond the university to probe the meaning of reconciliation, other events take on conflicts within the academy. Workshops scheduled for this spring, for instance, will apply some ideas discussed during the symposium to the Emory community.

 

RECONCILING FACULTY ROLES

Though intellectual engagement across the disciplines is a basic goal of the year, organizers recognize the barriers to successful interdisciplinary work. "While there's a global tendency toward fostering interdisciplinary work, it has not yet been reflected in any real change in major administrative structures," concedes Frye. The philosophical incompatibility of some fields of inquiry is another barrier and will be examined in the symposium panel "Reconciliation
in the Academy," organized by Steven Kraftchick of the theology school.

Time constraints can also discourage faculty from interdisciplinary work. "It is astonishingly simple for junior faculty, in particular, to allow their lives to be totally overwhelmed by the desire to be good teachers, be highly productive scholars, and give outstanding service to the university," notes John Banja, who led a recent faculty seminar on the ethics of professional development (see page 4). "Faculty seem less and less to have a life outside the university. The conflict among those personal and professional roles is part of the cost of caring about academic excellence. The concern is that their caring not become pathological."

The very system for assuring excellence, adds Frye, may be "a runaway dinosaur." The tenure
system is like "the trait which develops because it has survival value, but gets exaggerated. When the environment changes, it's no longer adaptive." And that may be the case with the pressure to publish so extensively in a narrow field that interdisciplinary research sometimes becomes a hindrance to achieving tenure.

The tendency to count the numbers of publications rather than evaluate their quality compounds the problem. Faculty often doubt their ability to fully understand work outside of their own field of research. But Frye argues that this "is a problem that needs to be reconciled. When are we going to stop talking about this and really have some universities say, 'submit your best five papers or your best book manuscript?' When are universities going to take a risk based on our judgment rather than some stereotypical criteria?"

 

THE LIMITS OF RECONCILIATION

Despite the breadth and pliability of the theme of reconciliation, can it really impact all of the types of scholarship in a system as diverse as a university? Some faculty have questioned its applicability. "It just doesn't seem to affect my work," says physics professor Robert Chen.

Agnew and others admit that reconciliation is not possible or desirable in all cases, pointing to Dorot Professor of Jewish Studies Deborah Lipstadt's legal battle with a Holocaust denier. But even when reconciliation is possible, how can we measure its success? Where is the line between politically correct conversation and authentic reconciliation?

Ultimately, the meaning of this mercurial term may differ with each would-be reconciler. Yet Agnew suggests an ideal for reconciliation: an active discussion of areas of disagreement, an exploration of ways to resolve disagreements, and a solution all find satisfactory. The most compelling definition of reconciliation within a university, however, is likely to emphasize process over product. As Provost Rebecca Chopp says, "this topic allows us to do what we do best: inquire, produce knowledge, and critique the production of knowledge." A.B.B.