Investigating our Strengths and Weaknesses
A progress report on the Commission on Research at Emory

By Claire Sterk, Professor of Behavioral Science and Health Education


Making the Most of Our Intellectual Passions: The Commission on Research at Emory
February/March 2002 Academic Exchange

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We all know research universities are incredibly diverse, rewarding places—or we wouldn’t be here. They are also filled with various tensions—some creative and stimulating, others discouraging and leading to burnout. These tensions can be found at most complex universities; Emory is by no means alone. The mandate of Emory’s Commission on Research, which began in spring 2002, meant diving into these tensions head-on.

The work of the commission has become even more relevant with the announcement of President Bill Chace’s retirement. For faculty it is an opportune time to lead in the work of shaping Emory’s future. The voice of the faculty across the campus, aided by students and staff, must assume a central role in shaping the direction, intensity, and quality of Emory’s intellectual community. Some of you might recall the faculty forums in the early 1990s that led to the guidelines in the Choices and Responsibility report and which also coincided with Emory’s search for a successor to President Laney. Just as Bill Chace embraced that report’s finding when he first came to Emory, we feel strongly that the principles and recommendations from the research commission’s report should resonate deeply with the next president, as well as with individuals filling other key administrative positions such as the provost, dean of Emory College, and the chief financial and operating officer.

In the first phase of our work, approximately 450 faculty and staff from across the university contributed to a document that was used in the Southern Association of College and Schools (SACS) reaccreditation process. This document, containing sections on investigation, discussion, and recommendations, serves as a starting point for feedback across the university.

Currently, the commission is holding open forums with faculty members, posting materials on the web and using other means to discuss the commission’s findings with Emory’s stakeholders. These conversations will continue through late spring 2003, when the Research at Emory report will be revised and submitted to the community by early fall 2003.

Time, money, and knowledge

Thus far, the commission’s investigation has yielded an illuminating articulation of the conflicts inherent in our research environment. As commission member said, most problems faculty face can be boiled down to time and money. Indeed, a certain amount of tension is unavoidable when the faculty is supposed to be 100 percent dedicated to teaching and 100 percent dedicated to research. The meaning of committed research time needs to be clarified across campus.

Some of the key related issues that faculty would like to address in the commission’s recommendations center around sabbaticals, protected time for research, assistance from graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, competition for time between teaching and research, goals set by scholars that lead to evaluations, and the university’s responsibility to set priorities and secure resources to meet those priorities.

Money may not be the root of all tensions, but it is central. Research funding, for example, is one way to quantify a university’s status in the world, but it also can lead to unfair comparisons among the various research cultures: while Emory’s health sciences bring in extensive external funding, the humanities bring in smaller amounts. This monetary difference simply reflects the varied nature of the research enterprise—not the prestige of these different research areas. All outstanding research and scholarship are vital to the university’s core mission, independent of the funding source. Emory must continue to grow as a competitive research institution, while remaining a sanctuary of knowledge that values all members of the intellectual community.

As universities increasingly seek out externally sponsored research, we also identified tensions between research driven by the passions of scholars and research that is driven by interests of funding agencies. Scholars face the challenge of linking their interests with the availability of funding sources.

Yet another tension concerns the university’s role both as a custodian-distributor of knowledge and as an agent for change. The university must balance the needs for faithful transmission of existing capacities and skills with those that introduce new, innovative capacities and skills. This dual need influences the hiring of new faculty as well as the rewarding of current faculty.

Ranking collegiality at Emory

During our comparisons of Emory’s research cultures, an interesting observation came to light. Traditionally, Emory has always emphasized a sense of collegiality and civility, raising the possibility that the university has missed out on a more vibrant, edgier research environment. The commission’s survey of department chairs shows that, insofar as hiring practices are concerned, the quality of the candidate’s research emerged as the most important consideration in choosing new faculty across all disciplinary clusters. Following research quality were collegiality, publication record, reputation in the field, area of research specialization, the candidate’s potential regarding graduate level teaching and mentoring, current and prospective extramural funding, and teaching and mentoring at
the undergraduate level.

Emory may thus be moving into a more intense time intellectually, as research quality is being deemed more important than collegiality.
At the same time, however, the survey reveals that collegiality has only moved to second on the list and not further down, suggesting that Emory still highly values its tradition of intellectual community across the entire university.

Preparing for the next steps

Understanding the research enterprise across the many departments and disciplines at a twenty-first-century research university remains a daunting task because the shape of research varies so widely across campus. Part of our work has been to classify this variety as much as possible so that we can share this understanding with one another as well as other stakeholders such as trustees, administrators, students, and staff.

Both the current and future academic climate requires that Emory build an even stronger, more vibrant intellectual community that values the creativity and strengths of individual scholars
and groups across campus. Broad and deep improvements will take hold here, however, only if they evolve from serious and focused consultation among all those who hold a stake in Emory’s future.
The commission’s report and its recommendations offer a way for members of the university and its leaders to consult and shape the future together. To new leaders especially, these recommendations bring a unique opportunity to understand our issues as well as
to assess the evidence that supports possible solutions.

We urge all faculty to learn more about the varied research at Emory—its complex strengths and weaknesses—and share in the
discussions that will take place during spring 2003.