The Greatness Game
Strengthening faculty distinction at Emory


Vol. 9 No. 6
May 2007

Return to Contents


The Greatness Game
Strengthening faculty distinction at Emory

On leave

“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.”

Faculty in Flux
Opportunities and challenges

The End of Work?
Riding the Retirement Wave

Hard Money/Soft Money
The two cultures


Endnotes

 

To some, it’s a cautionary tale. Lured by promises of ample funding, administrative autonomy, and an edgy new kind of interdisciplinary program, four respected members of the Johns Hopkins French department migrated south to Emory in the early 1990s. Josué Harari, who had chaired the department at Hopkins, was soon leading Emory’s department. Within a year he had recruited another four international rising stars to create a renowned cohort of thinkers in anthropology, literature, philosophy, art history, psychoanalysis, political science.

It took less than two years for the new faculty to begin leaving in disillusionment and the program to lose its national cachet. Harari, who stayed and is now Candler Professor of French Literature, told Lingua Franca magazine in 1993 that the administration had not supported the department’s calls on tougher graduate standards and promotions “because that’s not the way it’s done at Emory.”

Fifteen years later, Harari says the problem was—and remains—that Emory is simply “too concerned about collegial decorum to be intellectually on the cutting edge.

“Civility at Emory is wonderful, but it is also an oblique way of never addressing real issues. Collegiality and politeness, things we wrongly conflate, do not exclude being intellectually aggressive. Change comes through strong criticism, not polite acquiescence, so living in a bubble of self-congratulatory collegial nirvana is not the road to greatness.”

As the university brings new vigor to “strengthening faculty distinction,” similar debates are resurfacing. “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,” says Tom Frank, professor of religious leadership and administration in the theology school and chair of the Faculty Council this year. “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 kinds of relationships are extremely valuable. Another model is you bring in the high-powered researcher, give them a special deal on their teaching load and a few hundred thousand dollars to set up their lab, and they might as well be in New York or L.A.”

Professor of Biomolecular Chemistry David Lynn agrees. “I think that’s one of the unique things that Emory has created for itself—a collegial, interdisciplinary focus. I came here because I sensed that spirit, and I think it’s very positive. We have the potential to recruit people who want to be a part of a vibrant, cooperative research community.”

Others argue, however, that there’s a quality of collegiality—or perhaps congeniality—that may actually prevent Emory from taking real intellectual risks. “There is this tension between the Southern, liberal arts teaching college and the notion of a global, integrated, major research university,” says Gregory Waymire, Candler Professor of Accounting. “The idea that we value collegiality I think is a good thing. I wonder, though, if it keeps us from hiring quirky people, people who are hard to deal with. We need to make an effort to hire faculty members that will really infuse a jolt of electricity. It’s good PR to have the teaching council and all that, but the reality is as soon as you say that you can do both, people will say, That’s a really nice thing, but it also signals that you don’t hire people who are going to stir the pot.”

This special issue of the Academic Exchange explores the question of what “strengthening faculty distinction” means for Emory. In this designated “Year of the Faculty,” Provost Earl Lewis gathered information by talking with faculty in each academic unit and numerous faculty groups. Simultaneously, the “Faculty Distinction Fund” of $35 million, plus a $10 million equipment supplement, was established to recruit and keep leading scholars. The $525 million buyout of Emory’s royalty claim to Emtriva, a component of the HIV/AIDS treatment “cocktail,” is funding major hires in the computational and life sciences. Under the cryptic code-name “N16 Project,” the university also launched an effort to recruit eight to ten more leading scientists to its faculty in several yet-to-be-revealed areas. And the university made headlines recently with Salman Rushdie’s five-year appointment as Distinguished Writer in Residence and the Dalai Lama’s appointment as Presidential Distinguished Professor.

Despite these impressive steps, some worry that Emory is missing out as competition ratchets up nationwide for faculty in hot fields. At the same time, faculty who have long labored here under heavy teaching and service loads wonder if the riches being poured into “superstar” appointments, program building, and cluster hires will be denied those who crave a sabbatical and a few extra research travel dollars. Can Emory both draw superstars from elsewhere and cultivate its own from within?

A sense of urgency

When the Faculty Distinction Fund was announced, faculty leaders of the university strategic plan’s “cross-cutting” initiatives sat up and took notice. Ken Brigham, professor of medicine, describes joint plans for a “Predictive Health Institute” with Georgia Tech, which will unite researchers from the basic sciences, the health sciences, religion, business, sociology, anthropology, public health, and other areas under one roof. “We anticipate that the Faculty Distinction Fund will be the source of some support. There will be ten or fifteen Emory faculty and a similar number from Tech, and the majority will be new faculty. The opportunity to bring distinguished faculty from the outside has the potential to enhance the quality of faculty at all levels.”

Alongside the excitement, however, there is some urgency, even anxiety, running through these ambitions. “Neuroscience at Emory is outstanding because we have a very large, phenomenal, and collaborative group of faculty across the university who are internationally recognized, says Allan Levey, professor and chair of neurology. “But the neuroscience community needs investment by the university to maintain and develop this opportunity. Other institutions recognize the huge opportunities in the basic and clinical neurosciences and are investing hundreds of millions of dollars. Emory is fortunate to be a current ‘destination’ for top neuroscience trainees and faculty, and to have unique resources like Yerkes that competitors can’t match. But because neuroscience is one of the most exciting frontiers in science, other institutions can and will soon catch up with Emory if we don’t invest. We’re at huge risk of losing our advantage; the top tier [of faculty and trainees] is easily plucked off.”

David Lynn and Dobbs Professor of Computer Science Vaidy Sunderam, co-leaders of the Computational and Life Sciences Initiative, are now involved in a search for a director of the initiative, the first of ten new searches to take place in that area in the next five years. “The resources are there to kick this into motion,” Lynn says, referring to the Emtriva proceeds. Two floors of a new addition to the chemistry building will accommodate offices and labs for the new faculty. “Time is of the essence,” says Sunderam. “A lot of people understand that these are going to be the transforming technologies in the sciences over the next ten to fifteen years.”

Lynn adds, “If you look at [other institutions’] strategic plans, they’re all about finding ways to steal someone else from somewhere else. We’re all playing the same game.”

Growing our own

For many, though, simply having a more functional and equitable work environment is the priority, and that means better research administration, faculty development, sabbaticals, and a teaching center—to name a few. “The faculty is wildly overextended between teaching, research, and service commitments,” says Associate Professor of History Judith Miller. “One of the deepest problems for morale is the concern that we have shifted to a two-tiered faculty. Colleagues often express that they are demoralized because there are some who come in, do little undergraduate teaching, [and have] few expectations that they need to do any service. If those colleagues do service they often don’t do it in a meaningful fashion. Then others, especially but not solely at the assistant and associate rank, often end up doing much of the work behind that person. We must address the teaching and service imbalances if we are going to reach our research ambitions.”

A related problem is salary compression: when a junior faculty is hired at a market-competitive salary, often the disparity between the new hire’s salary and the salary of a senior faculty member in the same field seems inexplicably small. In some cases, the junior faculty salary is greater than the senior. “Not only does it alienate a lot of people who know they don’t have to take this,” says Candler Professor of English and Women’s Studies Frances Smith Foster, “but in some ways it makes everybody have a skewed sense of purpose when the biggest and the best go to the newest and least experienced.”

Nadine Kaslow, professor of psychiatry and chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, is working with Senior Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Faculty Development Claire Sterk on an examination of gender inequities. “[One] issue is whether women get hit disproportionately with service responsibilities—and ones that don’t count
all that much for promotion and tenure, such as serving on lots of little committees and mentoring lots of people, while the more powerful committees are still more populated by men,” Kaslow says.

Dobbs Professor of Anthropology Bruce Knauft adds that unbalanced service commitments fall not just on women. “There’s some perception that the people who do a good job at service become a victim of their own success and get reappointed.” He points to the number of faculty at the rank of associate professor for seven or more years (see chart on opposite page). “The initial assumption is that too many associate professors means deficient research, and it’s possible that’s part of the equation. The question of whether this stems partly from Emory’s strong emphasis on teaching and service remains open.” That emphasis also may be the dark side of collegiality. “Maybe Emory fosters a greater sense of personal identification with your unit, and the onus of leadership done badly weighs heavier on an individual,” Knauft says. “If you were at a school where people float in and out and they’re an intellectual star in their own universe, you wouldn’t worry so much.”

But perhaps, says David Lynn, feeling chronically overburdened is just a condition of being at an ambitious institution. “It’s what you have to do if you want to ride this horse. The flip side is feeling stodgy and stuck and immobile and divisive. Not to slight the fact that people are overextended; I think they are. But it’s part of where we are right now in our
evolutionary history.”—A.O.A.