Great Expectations

Emory's New President and the Idea of a University

Thomas G. Long , Bandy Professor of Preaching


Practical Matters
Rebecca Stone-Miller, Associate Professor of Art History and Faculty Curator


Economic Challenges and the Art of Education
Geoffrey Broocker, Walthour Delaperriere Professor of Ophthalmology

A Fresh Perspective for Perennial Problems
David Carr, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Philosophy

Teaching Versus Research: Does It Have to Be That Way?
Lucas Carpenter, Charles Howard Candler Professor of English, Oxford College

Becoming a Top-Tier Research University
Lawrence W. Barsalou, Winship Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology, and Elaine Walker, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience

Ethics, Diversity, and Teaching
David B. Gowler, Pierce Professor of Religion, Oxford College

A More Positive University
Corey L.M. Keyes, Associate Professor of Sociology

Advice from the Lighter Side
Vicki Powers, Asssociate Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science

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A savvy political commentator once observed that New York City mayoral candidates, about a month before election day, almost inevitably begin to panic. They become terrified, noted the pundit, by the prospect that they might actually win and be obliged to govern New York. One can imagine similar feelings on the part of candidates for the post of president at a major research university like Emory. The bubbles have hardly evaporated from the celebratory champagne before the hard realities of trying to lead a complex university in the current cultural climate grab hold.

Just this past summer, while many of us faculty were doing things like combing through libraries in Europe or relaxing at mountain retreats, university presidents all over the country were jumping out of frying pans and slicing through Gordian knots. Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman, for example, barely had time to rejoice over the good news from the U.S. Supreme Court concerning her university's affirmative action cases before facing faculty unrest back in Ann Arbor, where aggrieved lecturers and adjuncts are organizing for collective bargaining. Meanwhile, Miami's president, Donna Shalala, who may well have dreamt in her youth of being on the cover of The Chronicle of Higher Education, appeared instead on espn trying valiantly to explain why her school's bolting from the Big East Conference to the Atlantic Coast Conference was a noble educational move, as if it had been planned by the philosophy department. In Emory's own backyard, the politically powerful board of the University of Georgia Foundation sent out a posse to track down President Mike Adams, who had, among other things, refused to renew the contract for legendary former football coach, now athletic director, Vince Dooley. "Dooley coached Herschel Walker. Dooley's got a national championship ring. What's Mike Adams got?" sputtered a sports talk radio host, naming the obvious priorities.

In a remark that probably could have been spoken by any number of university presidents today about any number of circumstances, Shalala described her acc experience to USA Today: "It was distracting. Mostly it was goofy. It was bizarre, strange. It didn't fit any of the patterns that I know of. And I'm a political scientist."

When Emory's new president arrives on campus, all of us will surely have our hats off, aware that presidential service is no easy task. A lot of what the new president will confront will be distracting, goofy, bizarre, strange, and possessing patterns challenging even to a political scientist. Emory probably won't be tempted to join the acc, but every other issue roiling through higher education today--from tenure reform to recruitment to fund-raising to environmental concerns to cranky alumni to community politics--will be waiting. Not only that, but Emory's own peculiar campus problems will be waiting in the lobby, such as where is everybody going to park and what about those dead and buried employee benefits still clanking their chains out in the cemetery? And though we will be hopeful and reasonably patient, we will all have a personal wish list tucked away in our pockets (mine, for example, has at the top a refurbishment of Bishops Hall, which currently has the weary, spartan look of a minor government office building in a former Soviet bloc state).

But beyond the current trends, problems, and foibles of higher education and transcending all personal wish lists, what I most hope of our new president is that he will be in love with what John Henry Newman 150 years ago called "the idea of a university." Newman's lectures by that title were occasioned by the proposal of the Pope to build a Catholic university in Ireland, where Catholics, as a beleaguered minority, could well have been tempted to foster a defensive and sectarian approach to education. Newman's vision of a university is much broader and more humane, at one and the same time theological and secular, honest about human rivalries while hopeful about human prospects. A university, Newman said, is "an assemblage of [the] learned," where

zealots for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude.

In a time when much of the talk is about fragmented multi-versities, when discrete disciplines have heavily guarded borders and hardly seem to be on speaking terms with each other, when outside funding from industry and the government forms the lifeblood of higher education, when campus winners are declared to be those who pull in the biggest grants, when many campuses are regulated by negotiated settlements among constituencies at odds, Newman's dream of a free and open conversation among scholars and disciplines leading to "intellectual peace" seems as quaint as a lace doily. And yet, for reasons of history, temperament, good luck, commitment, and fine leadership, Emory University seems to be one of those rare campuses where "the idea of a university" still has currency. It is fragile to be sure, but it is still intact. It falters at times, but at its heart Emory's scholars and schools, as Newman urged, do in fact "respect . . . consult . . . and aid each other." This is a remarkable reality, and I hope our new president will nourish it and help us not to take it for granted.

What the idea of a university finally means is that among the quite diverse schools, scholars, and interests at the university, the concept of a commonly pursued truth prevails, a truth that no single discipline or scholar can obtain alone. The idea of a university stimulates many great achievements but also casts over them all the mantle of humility. The idea of a university means that a great university places a priority on teaching and honors close faculty and student interaction. The idea of a university means that the main product of the university is not a patent or professional competence, but, again in Newman's words, "a habit of mind . . . which lasts through life." This habit of mind is embodied by the faculty, supported by the administration, and acquired by the students. "[T]he intellect," said Newman, "instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study or science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object, and for its own highest culture."

Yes, I hope the new president vastly increases the endowment, restores lost benefits, coaxes marta to run a light rail line to campus, defuses the economic time bomb ticking in health services, recruits an even more gifted student body, augments the permanent faculty, strengthens Emory's growing national reputation, and even dedicates that new building at the theological school. But it is the vitality of "the idea of a university" that makes Emory a wonderful place to work. The rest is gravy.