The Intellectual Community

Bringing the Big Questions to the Community
Re-imagining the Gustafson Seminar

Leslie Real, Asa G. Candler Professor of Biology

Vol. 9 No. 4
February/March 2007

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Drugs and Money
Pharmaceutical companies, academic medicine, and the flow of funds and favors

Reviewing conflict-of-interest policies

Funds flowing in

"We accept money because we need to do clinical trials, and that's where the rubber meets the road in this conflict-of-interest business."

"I'm not under any illusion that [drug companies] give money for the sake of neuroscience. They won't do a study if the potential is there for the outcome to have a negative impact on marketing."


Bringing the Big Questions to the Community
Re-imagining the Gustafson Seminar

Multiversity or University?
Pursuing competing goods simultaneously

On the failure of roots and the strength of weak ties



When I came to Emory eight years ago, my specific aim was to help build a group on the evolution and ecology of infectious diseases. As I got involved in this work, I realized how easy it is for academics, as we get more focused and established in our disciplines, to move further and further away from the shared intellectual activity that created university life in the first place.
I missed that activity. I like general intellectual discussions—seeing how other people think about the same problems—and I’ve always been interested in the university as an intellectual entity. So when an announcement first came across my email some seven years ago about the Gustafson Seminar for faculty, it whetted my appetite.

The Gustafson Seminar emerged from the annual Luce Seminar, funded by a multi-year grant from the Henry Luce Foundation and led by Luce Professor of the Humanities and Comparative Studies James M. Gustafson from 1989 to 1996. The Luce Seminar allowed nine to twelve faculty members a spring semester free of administrative and teaching responsibilities to come together to examine connections among a disparate variety of disciplines, from the natural and social sciences to the humanities. Gustafson would select a topic, such as “nature” or “responsibility,” and the group would meet twice weekly to discuss readings and present papers.

Later studies based on archival records, annual reports, and feedback from seminar participants showed that Luce Seminar participants generally found the experience transformative. Some began co-teaching classes with colleagues from other disciplines or drawing on materials outside their fields. Others found their research and writing changed. The studies concluded that three qualities were key to the seminar’s success: a reservoir of goodwill among scholars across the schools and disciplines, generous release-time that allowed sustained and intense involvement in the course, and the structure and “intellectual space” for exploring knowledge “for its own sake.”

When Gustafson retired in 1998, several faculty members saw the value of the Luce Seminar and lobbied for its continued life in some fashion. The provost’s office renamed it the Gustafson Seminar and selected Mikhail Epstein, Dobbs Professor of Russian and East Asian Languages and Culture; Laurie Patton, professor of religion; and Walter Reed, professor in English and the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts to serve as “Gustafson scholars” and lead the effort with a lower budget and time commitment. That year, faculty participants met six or seven times during the semester, rather than weekly, since they no longer received the leave time to participate.

I first participated in spring of 2000, the second year of this new phase, when the topic was “The Disciplines in Disarray, Knowledge All in Order: The University at the Turn of the Millennium.” I appreciated the experience enough to participate again in the spring of 2004 for “Creativity and Academic Freedom at the University Multiplex.” A number of faculty members, from the college to the business and medical schools, have served as “Gustafson scholars” over the nine years since Gustafson’s retirement, leading seminars on other stimulating topics such as “The Locus of Our Discontent: Place in Academic Discourse” and “Scholarship, Entrepreneurship, and the Corporatization of the Academy.”

Recently, Maria Carrion, associate professor in Spanish and Portuguese and a Gustafson scholar since 2005, joined with others in the provost’s office to invite me to become involved as well. I agreed to sign on as a Gustafson scholar—but only on the condition that we might change some of the mission of the seminar.

After his retirement, Jim Gustafson himself admonished Emory faculty in an October/November 2000 essay in the Academic Exchange to “Avoid ‘interdisciplinarity’ . . . as a process which is its own end.” He elaborated:

The best “end-in-itself” reason I ever gave for our work here was the sheer intellectual joy of expanding our reading beyond our fields, and of engaging other minds which had been honed by different interests and different training. . . . The end is not, except perhaps for the very, very rare genius, some grand synthesis at whatever point or level the genius can make all abrasive things friction-free, all incoherences cohere. . . . Limited effective outcomes based on rigorous and sustained interactions of disciplines at points where they address the same or similar phenomena, texts, or events, is preferable to breezy, oily (note the differences in my adjectives—suggesting a bias) breakthroughs that cannot sustain severe critical analysis. . . . Imagination is valued, highly valued, in interactions across disciplines. . . . But so is critical rigor that comes from training in the methods and procedures of a traditional discipline.

What interested me was the notion of faculty standing, as Gustafson himself would have us do, with a firm hand at the helm of a critically rigorous, community-wide intellectual voyage that navigates not so much toward a “grand synthesis” but perhaps into the “abrasive things.” It is unfortunate that here at Emory, we don’t have much in the way of general intellectual discussions. We have seen it occasionally, such as with the “Classroom on the Quad” events in the past few years, but there is a lack of sustained, coherent “big questioning” that brings the entire community together to challenge itself.

Which brings me to the new phase in the life of the Gustafson Seminar. It is not much of a deviation from its original intent to use it as an opportunity to form a core group of faculty who take on the responsibility of stimulating intellectual discussion across the broader university community. In order to do so, this core group must prepare itself to lead that discussion. And we should focus on issues that are of broad interest to the whole university. We should train ourselves, steep ourselves in the debates, the writings, the issues of that topic, then figure out ways of taking our training and bringing it back to the community in public forums and discussions.

With that approach in mind, the topic of this year’s Gustafson Seminar is “The Purpose and Future of Liberal Education,”
The concept of liberal education is central to our mission, yet some people feel it’s being eroded, some feel it’s being challenged, some feel it’s being subverted. Others feel it’s just fine. We will take that topic and discuss its history, its definition, its place in the university. We will meet four times this spring and another four times next fall with the intention of becoming deeply educated about those issues. The readings will include books, essays, and research articles (for example, Derek Bok, Our Underachieving Colleges, and John Carey, What Good are the Arts?, as well as a host of materials from the American Association of Colleges and Universities and the Chronicle of Higher Education) covering such topics as the history and definition of liberal education and the sociological data evaluating the importance and merits of liberal education in the lives of students.

In the spring semester of 2008, we intend to organize and arrange a series of public discussions around these topics, bringing in public figures from outside the university to engage in conversation and debate with the wider university community through a number of public fora. The Gustafson participants for this seminar and the associated planning for our intended university-wide discussion include Steve Bowen (dean of Oxford College), Bill Branch (Carter Smith Sr. Professor and Division Director, Medicine), Sheila Cavanagh (professor of English), Dwight Duffus (Goodrich C. White Professor of Mathematics),
Vicki Hertzberg (associate professor of biostatistics), Kent Linville (dean of academic affairs, Oxford College), Rosemary Magee (vice president and secretary of the university), Thee Smith (associate professor of religion), Karen Stolley (associate professor and chair, Spanish and Portuguese) and Leslie Taylor (associate professor and chair, theater studies).

What has changed the most with this new approach to the Gustafson seminar is an added sense of responsibility—to bring that sustained, intense intellectual exploration back to the community. In some ways, however, it is an expansion of Gustafson’s original vision, an invitation to others to take part in the “sheer intellectual joy” of the shared intellectual enterprise that enlivens the university.