The Test of Time

Because it’s an emergent property of the people who
are here, a program can respond to and provide the most cutting-edge intellectual environment at that moment.

—Paul Lennard, Director of the Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology


The Test of Time
Programs, departments, and the changing landscape of knowledge at Emory

Every program does not necessarily become its own field or discipline or department. The test really is time.
Mark Sanders, Professor of English and African American Studies and Chair of the Department of African American Studies

Because it’s an emergent property of the people who are here, a program can respond to and provide the most cutting-edge intellectual environment at that moment.
Paul Lennard, Director of the Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology

“There ought to be something in Atlanta.”
How a program became a school

Departments and programs featured in this article

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Academic Exchange What is the strength of being a program versus being a department for NBB?

Paul Lennard The strength of a traditional department is that it can become a tenure home and actively recruit new faculty. And the weakness of a department is that it’s a tenure home and can actively recruit new faculty. The university has a limited set of resources, and they have to be used across the whole community. If you structure an interdisciplinary program so that it provides a minimum workload and a maximum scholarly interface, you can build a very large, dynamic organization that does not compete with the traditional departments. All interdisciplinary approaches really borrow from the strengths of the traditional disciplines. The faculty who form the NBB have made it clear that our evolution is not toward becoming a department.

AE Did you ever consider moving toward departmental status?

PL We weighed what you could get if you start looking for the space, tenure lines, and start-up money. We’d have a very small department that would take a very long time to grow. nbb is now as far as we know the largest neuroscience undergraduate major in the world. We have three hundred and fifty majors and sixty-five faculty from six college departments, four medical departments, and the school of public health. We have tremendous cooperation and diversity. If we contracted to a department, we would slide way back. If we give faculty choices between being in the program and being in another department, suddenly there’s competition.

Also, I have a fundamental belief that there’s less inertia in a program. On a year-to-year basis, we can get the very best people that have an association with this field at the university. Over time those people change, the interests of the faculty evolve. And because it’s an emergent property of the people who are here, a program can respond to and provide the most cutting-edge intellectual environment at that moment. And not resist changing to something else as the academic tides shift.

It’s interesting that a lot of the corporate and biotech environments have taken what I would call a more forward-thinking approach to solving problems than the academy: if they want to develop a drug for something, they put together a working team of all the experts in all the fields that seem to be appropriate for that, and they’re together for that time. Then they disperse.

AE Why don’t you think the university does that more easily?

PL I think the university has this rigid structure around departments. If you think of what the job description of a professor is for tenure or something else, to a large extent, every faculty member at Emory has the same job description. If you talk to somebody in corporate personnel about that, they’d be astonished, because in fact everybody has something slightly different to offer. And one wonders if forcing everybody to come up with the same job is the best way to do it. Ultimately one wants to evaluate all programs, as one wants to evaluate all traditional departments over time, because things do change. But that’s a difficult thing to do because of territoriality, space, commitments, history—there can be acrimony. So it’s better to have an organizational system that can move fluidly. And I think that’s the strength of interdisciplinary studies in general.

AE Would you say NBB is a discipline unto itself?

PL Absolutely not. It is very broad. If neuroscience is the study of brain, thought, cognition, memory, and also how the central nervous system controls body function, and if behavioral biology is the study of how organisms interact with the environment and each other, there isn’t anything that I can’t make relevant to NBB.

I think perhaps the other side of being plastic and dynamic is the threat of not being particularly robust. One or two people have to be there to make it all work. It doesn’t run on its own. What you’re doing is trying to be a good citizen in a larger academic community while at the same time utilizing those resources the community has to offer. But that means that at every moment, you’re kind of reinventing the program. Perhaps that is as good a litmus test as any of when the program has gotten too old or is not in the right place, because nobody steps up and it dissolves.

I honestly believe that the program structure, at least in our case, has absolutely unlimited potential. I don’t have to worry about running out of room, tenure-track lines, support staff, or set-up money. And if I run out ideas, the program shouldn’t have me, or it shouldn’t be there.