9 No. 6
The Greatness Game
Strengthening faculty distinction at Emory
“We have a distinctive institutional culture and history that is what we have to offer in the higher education world, and I don’t want to give that up in order to chase some abstract image of excellence.”
“I think in many ways some of the people who ask why this is this such a big deal are the very ones who are keeping the status quo.”
The End of Work?
Riding the Retirement Wave
Hard Money/Soft Money
The two cultures
Academic Exchange: What do you think makes Emory’s faculty distinctive?
Tom Frank: I want to advocate for faculty excellence that is distinctive to Emory—not to say we’re not interested in what other institutions are doing or where we rank, but I think we have a distinctive institutional culture and history that is what we have to offer in the higher education world, and I don’t want to give that up in order to chase some abstract image of excellence. There is a national and an international context, and there’s also this distinctive institutional context that to me is one of our core values as Emory University.
AE: How would you describe the Emory context?
TF: On a very physical level we are a compact campus, relatively speaking, with the exception of Oxford, Grady, and the Briarcliff campus. I would guess a majority of our faculty are working virtually within walking distance of each other on this campus. When you compare that with some of the other major universities, it’s really pretty remarkable. That has led, I think, to a distinct number of major, interdisciplinary, collaborative initiatives in the past that have now blossomed even further under the strategic plan. You’ve got people working together between schools and departments. So that’s a piece of it. And I think another piece of it is a desire for a certain kind of stability. People stay, develop relationships here over time, honor senior colleagues who have invested their careers here, mentor newer scholars who are coming into the mix. I think those relationships are extremely valuable.
There is very strong sentiment in the faculty to balance how we go about achieving our distinctiveness. And the balance is between bringing in established people from outside who will add needed strengths to what we’re doing, and raising our own—growing our own stars of the future and seeing that as a real priority. There are pluses and minuses to both of those: if you bring people in from outside they may contribute immensely, and we hope we don’t catch them after they’ve already made their big contribution, which sometimes happens. But they don’t necessarily know Emory’s culture. That has occasionally led to big tensions, so I think it’s important to find people who will kind of add strength to Emory’s culture, people who are disposed to look toward collaborations with others.
AE: Do you think we are doing enough to support the growth of the careers of existing faculty?
TF: We need to invest in the faculty that we have, in our programs in mentoring, research funding. I’ve heard a lot of talk about trying to devise more generous leave policies—I think those things will help a lot. I’d like to see us have an atmosphere where we appreciate the contexts of the various disciplines in which we are all working, and realize that there are strengths and weaknesses in all of them and that different groups will make different kinds of contributions.
What is missing is something that I actually think Candler’s traditions could help with. We have a longstanding tradition of peer review that is not related to promotion. It’s not an evaluation. It is a collegial conversation, disciplined and pointed, every seven years. I’ve had mine, and I always squirm; it’s not a conversation that as faculty we’re used to having. The dean of the faculty assigns two colleagues; you try to assign people who will ask good questions and who might get that person off the dime on some of their projects. I’ve sat with colleagues who have been wrestling with a project for years and can’t seem to get it moving, and we’ve had great conversations. The three people sit down and talk, then the chair writes it up, runs that write-up past the person who’s being reviewed, and then they bring the write-up to the faculty executive committee just for discussion. That’s followed by a conversation between the person being reviewed and the academic dean and the dean of the school. That’s the way it functions here. Whether it would fit with the culture in other parts of the university, I don’t know.