100 Semesters:
My Adventures as Student,
Professor, and University President,
and What I Learned Along the Way

William M. Chace, President Emeritus and Professor of English
Reviewed by Luke Timothy Johnson, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of
New Testament and Christian Origins

Vol. 9 No. 5
April 2007

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Purchasing Power
Managing Emory's endowment for the present and future

What is an endowment?

Asset allocation of Emory's endowment

“I tried to think of issues that the faculty might bring to the investment committee, and it's difficult to find one.”

“We want to spend today and benefit the students and faculty of today, but we don't want to do that at the expense of the next generation.”

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Tsunamis, global warming, and other film disasters

Unpopular Culture
Graduate students, risky topics, and professional cachet

Further reading

100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way
William M. Chace, President Emeritus and Professor of English


Bill Chace left the presidency of Emory in 2003 to return to his first and enduring love, learning and teaching in the classroom. During the sabbatical following his nine years of service as Emory’s president he wrote this memoir of his “100 semesters” spent on college campuses.

A good memoir is something less than history and something more than a chronicle. At its best—and I think Chace’s is very good indeed—the memoir is a form of witness to one’s own life in the context of a specific culture. In this case, the life is affectionately defined as a fascinating passage through a
set of American colleges and universities. Every form of witness is necessarily selective. Chace’s witness to his life in academia selects for special consideration the lessons he has learned about what is good and bad in academic culture and the dangers confronting schools such as Emory.

Local readers will undoubtedly be tempted to skip to the last three chapters dealing with Chace’s tenure as Emory’s president:
what does he say about us, or about me? What is his view of the rocky patches many of us traveled in his company? Does he make us look good or bad?

Chace does have much to say about his time at Emory, but he provides no fodder for scandal. Consistent with the tenor of the book as a whole, he speaks candidly about his personal experience and perception and actions, successful and not, managing to describe the stuff of academic politics sine ira et studio. He does not use the book to settle scores. Instead, he uses both positive and negative experiences as the basis for reflecting on some of the issues pressing upon universities today.

In “A School with Aspirations,” he sketches some of Emory’s
history, his first impressions of it as among those schools that were good but struggled to gain the “reputation of abiding, long term excellence” enjoyed by the “apparently unmovable entities
of the Ivy League, MIT, Chicago, and Stanford;” some of the steps he took to create uniform standards of academic excellence
(for example, the Presidential Advisory Committee) and a more coherent campus culture (for example, campus planning); and the pleasure he experienced at Emory’s acceptance into the American Association of Universities and the university’s providing domestic rights for faculty and staff in same-sex unions.

Chace’s second chapter on his Emory years (“Being a Proprietor”) touches on some of the moral ambiguities of the
university and the president’s role within it. He examines the ways the contemporary research university comes to resemble a commercial enterprise: the trustees envisaging the president as a ceo (including competitive salary), medical research becoming
entrepreneurial, parents and students thinking and acting like consumers. He is grateful that Emory actually has student-
athletes of a remarkably high caliber without ever succumbing to the seductions of big-time athletics. He reflects (with genuine compassion) on the psychological stresses experienced by contemporary students, and how as president he sought to comfort parents whose children committed suicide while at Emory. The commercial/competitive atmosphere—exemplified by widespread cheating—makes modern research university a less than successful shaper of students’ moral character.
His final chapter on Emory (“Real Power and Imaginary Power”) is perhaps the most revealing of Chace’s distinctive perspective on the president’s role. He expatiates on the president’s ostensible power as illustrated by his salary and marks of privilege but then suggests that the real power of university presidents is severely limited. He discusses four examples of presidents who had great visions for their respective schools only to discover intractable resistance among trustees, students, and above all, faculty.

Chace suggests that the real power of the president lies in creating and coordinating efforts toward finite but real goals. One example was the resolution of the thorny problem for the Methodist church caused by the blessing of same-sex unions; another was the appointment of effective deans and provosts. Chace did not undertake great fundraising efforts, but he points proudly toward his personal involvement in making possible the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, and gently observes that the years of his presidency were marked both by decisive steps toward creating an architecturally coherent campus and by the construction of some 1.3 million square feet of new space and 53,000 square feet of renovated space.

Those who read only the Emory chapters, however, will deprive themselves of a genuine reading treat. Chace writes remarkably well, and the way he tells of his life in academia is sufficiently lively and charming to be read simply as a classic American tale. The young boy who was sure he wanted to go to West Point because he was good at high school math ended up at Haverford, only to be dismissed mid-way through for an ill-conceived prank. He repented over a long year of manual labor and returned with enthusiasm to the place of liberal learning from which he never again wanted to be separated. His academic path led from one excellent school to another. Haverford of the ’50s gave way to Berkeley of the ’60s—with a formative year off teaching at Stillman College in Alabama (including a spell in jail for civil rights activity)—then to the newly emergent Stanford, where, after attaining his professorship as an expert in Joyce, he entered administration, becoming a dean and then provost at Stanford, president at Wesleyan (“Diversity University”), and finally president at Emory.

Beyond a well-told, often witty, story with which any scholar/teacher can identify, Chace provides a vivid sense of what the academic culture was at each of these institutions, a survey of the changes in university life over the course of the decades, and a circumstantial account of the ethical and political quandaries that arise within the academy. His reflections on all of these make the book more than a memoir and something of a witness concerning the fragile and precious game of scholarship. Chace has been more than a privileged observer; he has been a passionate participant, and the long perspective gained by his diverse experience bears marks of wisdom that command attention.

He is by no means happy about every development. He regrets the loss of moral formation that was so gracefully accomplished at Haverford. He misses the coherent canon of literature—indeed, the very love of literature itself—that has been eroded by theory and ideological criticism. Indeed, those who have experienced first-hand Chace’s infectious joy in academic life might be a bit surprised by the notes of sadness in his account. But what is perhaps most moving in his book is his passionate witness to all that has been good about the academy for his own life and for the lives of all the thousands of faculty and students with whom he interacted across those quickly passing 100 semesters.