The Springtime of our Discontent
Were last semester’s debates on the future of the arts and sciences a turning point?


Unprecedented is the word many have used to describe the events in Emory College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences last spring—never had an issue so galvanized the faculty.

It was a bold administrative stroke on the part of President Bill Chace and Provost Rebecca Chopp to have thought of appointing Bobby Paul, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, to the newly created position of Executive Vice Provost for Arts and Sciences in March. The impending departures of both Chopp to the deanship of Yale Divinity School and Emory College dean Steven Sanderson to the presidency of the Wildlife Conservation Society at the close of the academic year ushered in a season of change. The new, unified office of the executive vice provost would help solve “key structural problems inherent in the dual structures of the separate college and graduate school systems,” said the president and then-provost in a March 20 letter to the faculty. These problems, they added, “diminish or block our capacity to achieve our ambitions for excellence in the arts and sciences.” They also announced a strategic planning process that would involve faculty in determining “exactly how we should fashion that [new] structure.”

Some faculty members immediately voiced concern about the process leading to the decision, which seemed abrupt. Others questioned the structure itself: What would be the relationship between the college, the graduate school, and the new executive vice provost? Who would make tenure decisions?

With these issues in mind, Harvey Klehr, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History, took action. He recruited twenty-three co-sponsors, twenty of whom hold named professorships, for a resolution arguing that a “fundamental change has been implemented without meaningful consultation with the faculty” and that “the new structure has diminished the status of Emory College in the University.” For the first time in living memory, a faculty meeting was called by the chair of the college’s Executive Committee, rather than by the dean. The proposed resolution was the sole item on the agenda. After more than an hour of debate in an April 11 meeting of some 300 faculty members, the resolution passed. All the proposed amendments, including one separating the matter of process from the critique of the substance of the change, were voted down.

Meanwhile, another group of faculty drafted a letter emphasizing their concern about the process yet stating their favor for the new structure itself. They expressed support for “a comprehensive vision of Arts and Sciences, without undermining the autonomy and uniqueness of either the College or the Graduate School.” They also encouraged an extended, inclusive, faculty-led exploration of that issue. The open letter, with forty-seven faculty signatures, addressed the Executive Committee of Emory College, which comprises the chairs of all the college’s standing committees, in addition to several members-at-large and ex officio members.

Following a subsequent series of meetings from mid-April until early May among the Executive Committee and the president, the provost, and the designated interim provost, Howard O. Hunter, the new position of executive vice provost and Paul’s appointment were rescinded. The Executive Committee and the administrators formulated a list of criteria for the selection of an interim dean for Emory College. The committee then reviewed and deliberated nominations and applications for the position in conjunction with the administration. After formal interviewing, in late May Paul was appointed Interim Dean of Emory College for two years, during which the arts and sciences will undergo a planning process. Gary Wihl, whom Paul had recently hired as an associate dean, was appointed Acting Dean of the Graduate School for two years.

Sea changes

By some accounts, that anxious spring marked a shift toward a more united and powerful faculty. But pressing questions remain: how will faculty be involved in governance, and what should be the shape and organization of the arts and sciences?
“Many more people are engaged and interested in the state of the university,” says Judith Miller, associate professor of history and member of the Executive Committee. “I think the next discussions are going to be very good.”

Others aren’t as sure, however. “We’ll have to see whether it was a one-time thing,” Klehr says. “I was surprised, but not stunned, by how many faculty were concerned.”
Klehr adds that he doesn’t see the need for new structures to aid faculty governance. “We’re overgoverned, in a way. There are all kinds of structures that were available and could have been used, both as to making the decisions the administration made, and then once this whole thing blew up, as to how it was resolved. Some faculty members have said they don’t know what the Executive Committee of the college is or what it does, but it’s there, an elected faculty committee.”

“The Executive Committee had not been terribly active” until last spring, says Miller. “When this issue arose, we engaged in a learning process, trying to take care with any text we drafted and distributed, trying to figure out the best formats for meetings, what the ground rules should be. We tried to stay focused on having transparent, inclusive, democratic processes, rather than any particular outcome.”

But Miller believes there is a need for new governing structures. “I would like to see some sort of elected, representative body for the college, and perhaps the arts and sciences as a whole. One of the odd things about the present Executive Committee structure that makes it appear less representative is that each of us was elected as the head of a standing committee. I’m not sure many faculty understood that when they cast their ballots for chairs of the various standing committees in April, they were also electing the Executive Committee.”

Dennis Liotta, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Chemistry, identifies a different set of flaws in the present system. “The committee structures we have are really not appropriate for the kinds of discussions we need. Given the inherent lack of forums that would enable us to interact, we are necessarily conflict averse. When all you can do is confer with a limited subset of colleagues, addressing complex issues becomes quite challenging, and in the extreme, the faculty involved can be perceived as a group of malcontents.”

Liotta adds that he hopes the planning process this year and next for the arts and sciences broadly involves the faculty. “I’m concerned that we’ll get a small group of faculty, say ten people--probably very fine and well-intentioned people--who will try to formulate some recommendations. I would like to see a process that involves every faculty member in arts and sciences, including people in the public health and nursing schools who supervise graduate students. We all need to understand the issues and have a clear perspective about how they impact education and research.”

Teaching and research redux

Other anxieties about the planning process circle back to the relationship of the undergraduate and graduate programs. “I signed that resolution because I love the college, and I didn’t think the new structure really took into consideration the danger of creating a two-tiered faculty,” says Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy
Tom Flynn. “I don’t like the idea of our even having the possibility of someone in the position I’ll call ‘superdean’—someone who has no real deep involvement in the college, especially as we’re entering this new phase with a stress on research.”

Flynn suggests improving faculty leaves to strengthen both undergraduate teaching and research. “When faculty are here, they would teach, but they would get a chance every few years—not just every seven—to pursue a research project. If you have a two-tiered faculty, it’s the researchers whose opinions count and who pull the weight in the department. As somebody once said, teaching awards are like Confederate money. They’re only good at home.”

But Paul insists that undergraduate teaching and graduate training and research exist on equal footing. “It’s not a question of privileging one or the other,” he says. “They cannot be separated. Graduate students do a vast amount of our undergraduate teaching. We have the tatto [Teaching Assistant Training and Teaching Opportunity] program that teaches graduate students how to be teachers. That’s one of the great things we have that no one else does.

“We don’t, however, do a good enough job of valuing and supporting faculty research. An arts and sciences reputation is based on the visibility of faculty research—who won the Nobel Prize, who’s winning the Guggenheims and the Fulbrights, whose book is being read. Those kinds of faculty members come to and stay at a place where they can do that kind of work, train top-notch graduate students, and have access to exciting undergraduates. We have to support all of these.

“I am committed to keeping the arts and sciences moving forward at a pace comparable to the medical school, the public health school, the business school, and the other professional schools. All of them have clearly stated goals, and they can use them to persuade the administration and make presentations to the trustees. Perhaps most importantly, they have been very successful at using them as a guide to fundraising. I want the arts and sciences to be in as strong a position as possible within the university. Because in the long run, university reputations rest finally on the reputation of the faculty of the arts and sciences.”

Laurie Patton, associate professor and chair of the religion department, views all of these conversations as an opportunity for positive change in faculty culture. “Part of what makes good academics is that they see hidden agendas, what’s underneath. But in human relations, that can lead to a certain kind of paranoia, and faculty tend to thrive on hidden resentment. And the only way to change that is to declare our interests openly and work with them, which is something we haven’t done.

“We don’t have the habits of thought and citizenship to handle this well. I think we have to have a group of people who disagree with each other and who are intensely loyal to each other at the same time. You state your interests straightforwardly, but easily and warmly. And it’s very hard for academic faculty to be open to negotiation and not suspicious. It takes saying you’re going to hang in there over the course of the conflict. In some rare instances, I have experienced academic cultures where disagreement can be a form of making collegial relationships, not breaking them.
I think Emory can be that kind of culture, if it works hard at it.”