Continued Conversations

Who "Owns" the Intellectual Life of a University?
Faculty, administration, and governance

By William M. Chace, President of the University


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Advise and Consent: Taking faculty governance seriously
October/November 2002 Academic Exchange

Let me set forth my own thoughts on the issue of “faculty governance” by quoting three professorial colleagues speaking in the October/November 2002 issue of the Academic Exchange (“Advise and Consent: Taking faculty governance seriously”). Here is the first of them, Luke Johnson, Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins: “When it comes to teaching, research, programs—our intellectual life—I strongly feel that the faculty role goes beyond simply advice. In these matters, I think the faculty is the university, and governance should enable that.”

Here is the second, Frank Lechner, associate professor of sociology: “Faculty governance is a concern right now because we are in a critical period—we have made significant advances, but how are we going to get past this plateau? . . . there is some work to be done in setting the university’s academic direction: what does it mean to be excellent these days, and in what areas can Emory be excellent? In principle, I am in favor of strong faculty involvement. But I also think if we want a greater role, then we must take the role much more seriously than we have so far—doing much more careful research, making more careful arguments.”

And here is the third, coming from Joe Labianca, assistant professor of organization and management in the Goizueta Business School: “The administration should not be in charge of the intellectual vision. . . . Vision is an emergent property of the faculty’s interaction, and as faculty and circumstances change, the vision changes. Administrators should interpret that emergent vision for external stakeholders to garner the resources necessary for our continuing work.” And yet Professor Labianca goes on to say, “Having the faculty try to articulate a unified vision is an enormous waste of time.”

So who is in charge of the “intellectual vision” of a university? Who is to announce when that vision has been established and made secure in the minds of all who make up the life of the university? Professor Johnson is admirably clear in declaring that the faculty is the university, and while Professor Lechner agrees that this is so, he notes that the Emory faculty has not done all the work to make sure that indeed the ownership of the intellectual life of the university has gotten into the hands of the faculty. And Professor Labianca, who studies these matters, believes that the faculty’s time would not be well spent in trying to state a unified intellectual vision.

Coloring all of these statements and others like them is the strong feeling that the faculty is the single most consequential presence in the intellectual life of a university and that the “administration” should recognize and respect that fact. I do. Soon I will be returning to the faculty, and I would regard it as profoundly offensive should any Emory administrator impose on me a “vision” of what I should
be doing when I was conducting research on, say, a given writer
and a given book or should that administrator seek to tell me how
I should teach a given course.

What, in fact, should I as a professor want from the administration as I was going about my happy and singular academic life? I think I would be of the collective mind of my colleagues—Johnson, Lechner, and Labianca. I would want “us” to be in charge of intellectual life, and I would want the administration to honor that ownership. One way the administration might do that is to interpret, and then to describe accurately and persuasively, that life to the community beyond the campus. One other request I would have of the administration: use all your means of information to tell us where we stand, with respect to quality and resources, vis-à-vis our comparable and competing institutions. As we struggle, we want to struggle against the best. Still, it is the faculty that must regularly respond to and report on the priorities and needs of the university’s intellectual life; the administration must recognize and respect those priorities and needs by giving them voice.

I would want this to become quite specific: I would want the administration to encourage us—all of us, the faculty—to concert our energies and to report upon the following: what kinds of support (financial and otherwise) are needed at Emory to forward the most important fields of intellectual endeavor; what kinds of interdisciplinary work are likely to make a genuine and substantial difference to the life of the mind in the next ten years; what disciplines need a stronger complement of graduate students to assure the successful completion of crucial research undertakings; what is the proper mixture of seasoned full professors and promising junior professors to guarantee the balance of power and promise in a field; and what areas of endeavor can now be allowed to lie fallow for a while?

These, I think, are the sorts of questions faculty are best prepared to answer. This is what might best be meant by faculty ownership of the life of the university. But those questions, all of them, are tough ones to answer. They can be dealt with capably only if the faculty—
of this or of any strong research university—is willing to put in
the time, do the work, and agree to split differences, respect others, and shoulder the duty of being both patient and resolute in
coming to conclusions.

I am very happy that progress, genuine progress, is being made
in all these respects by the Commission on Research chaired by Claire Sterk and David Carr, of the Rollins School of Public Health and the Department of Philosophy, respectively. The report and
findings of the commission are due several months from now. From what I have seen thus far, the commission has dug deep and hard into the questions I air above. I look forward to reading their conclusions. We just might find that these colleagues will have taken a step of enormous consequence—affecting both “vision“ and “faculty governance.”