Learning in Community

The lessons we don't ask for

James Wagner

One of the hallmarks of Emory that I admired before interviewing for the job of president was the willingness, even eagerness, of this community to seize on “learning moments.” Those are the usually unbidden, sometimes unpleasant episodes in our life together that force us to take stock of ourselves. Whether it was debating investments in South Africa back in the 1980s or the use of chapels for same-sex commitment ceremonies at this Methodist university in the 1990s, word travels about Emory’s willingness to confront issues that come its way. More than just confront, Emory often uses these moments as opportunities to learn and change and even lead.

In my nine years at Emory our community has been—I dare say—blessed with several more such moments. Frankly, in the flush of controversy they usually have not appeared as blessings. But the hard work they require has made them so. 

When a regrettable racial incident nine years ago forced us to examine personal and institutional commitments to nondiscrimination, that moment of introspection led to the inception of the Transforming Community Project, which in turn had broad personal and institutional impact.
Two events—the first conference on slavery and universities and Emory’s statement of regret over its early entanglement with slavery, initiated by the President’s Commission on Race and Ethnicity—stand as intellectual and moral legacies of the TCP. 

Similarly, two years ago, student protests over contract labor on campus led to wide-ranging, thoughtful, and extended conversations that have grown to involve faculty, students, and staff members from every corner of the university. Through the Committee on Class and Labor and the Task Force on Dissent, Protest, and Community, we are learning a lot about how we perceive and behave toward each other. We are also learning about our community’s capacity to absorb and grow from profound disagreements while continuing to respect human rights and dignity. 

This past spring some faculty members objected to the choice of Dr. Ben Carson as our commencement speaker, fearing that his faith-based questioning of Darwinian theory and some comments taken out of context represented opposition to Emory’s principles of inquiry and ethical commitment. One result of that questioning is an ongoing exploration led by Professors Jaap de Roode and Arri Eisen into the nature of knowledge, truth, and belief systems—a conversation that I would suggest is essential in our time of ideological entrenchment. This exploration began in October with a lecture from Joel W. Martin titled “God or Darwin? A Marine Biologist’s Take on the Compatibility of Faith and Evolution.”

I expect that we will gain from all of these conversations a deeper sense of community as well as a stronger commitment to what makes a university excellent.

Other learning moments—also unbidden and unwelcome—sometimes come from beyond our campus. All of us were riveted last year by two quite different dramas playing out on the campuses of two great universities—Penn State and Virginia. No one involved directly or watching at a distance could possibly have found either situation welcome. But we can learn from them, even from afar.

It is the first situation, at Penn State, that seems to me vitally important for us at Emory right now. That campus is struggling through the blow to its reputation because of inattentiveness to the actions of a football coach. Its football program has been among the bright spots of that university, touted as proof that a research university can maintain institutional integrity while balancing academic excellence with athletic prowess. But when incidents and circumstances threaten an institution’s professed ethos, a blind spot can develop, and that university is now paying a huge price for its blindness. Our aspiration toward virtue can often be our undoing, unless we ask a critical, self-reflective question: what is the blind spot that makes us vulnerable to human error or misguided intentions? 

We know that Emory will never be blinded by its football program or its football boosters. But there are other facets of our university life in which we invest heavily, and from which we earn the justifiable right to be proud. Our very-high-profile and far-reaching healthcare network is among the best in the country. We believe our commitment to diversity to be second to no one else’s. Our achievements in drug discovery have outpaced those of any other single university over the past four decades. Some of our academic programs are very highly ranked, among the best of their kind. We have put in place a national model in enterprise risk management that aims to safeguard our institution.

I am not suggesting that anyone believes that any part of Emory is too valuable, too big, too important to be held accountable, or that we are not at risk for failures of integrity. Quite the opposite. An institution like Emory is especially vulnerable. Emory traditionally has prided itself on education of the heart as well as the mind, on ethical engagement, on wrestling with the hard questions. The aspiration for goodness is continually a work in progress. What hurts most is when aspiration for one kind of good—say, the good of desiring to make the strongest claims about the excellence of our students—undermines a better kind of good—say, the recognition that the institution operates always out of a commitment to integrity and transparency.

To preserve integrity, we need reason, systems, careful discipline, and watchfulness. But these can carry us only so far toward fulfillment of “the good life.” Some degree of moral luck is also necessary. Our 2011 honorary degree recipient Martha Nussbaum reminds us of what she has called “the fragility of goodness.” Goodness continually stands vulnerable to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” The integrity of an institution is equally fragile. It can be broken without warning, and once it is broken the repair work carries an enormous cost in terms of morale, pride, momentum, and trust. 

We have been reminded of the fragility of our institutional reputation for integrity by the discovery that persons responsible for speaking on behalf of Emory had been misreporting admissions data for more than a decade. (The details of this story are not the point of this article, but those who may have missed the full narrative can find it here:

Importantly, though, once our new dean of admissions learned of the problem in data reporting, he did everything to get to the bottom of it and make things right. That in itself is a valuable lesson—the reminder that the only way through bad news is to recognize and acknowledge it and deal with it. When our integrity is damaged, we must respond with renewed commitment.

I have no doubt that we have learned from this latest episode three other valuable lessons that will change us for the better. The first is that we must have a process of data review that offers checks against misreporting. That process we have put in place. 

The second lesson is that our vulnerability to fortune makes humility all the more imperative. We do not need to give up our aspiration for excellence; we should recognize, though, how much it depends on vigilance and good fortune as well as talent.

Finally, we can learn to continue imbuing our community with the soundest ethical principles lived out through good practices, making the habit of integrity a daily part of our individual and communal life. The human condition might make the betrayal of trust inevitable, or at least unsurprising. But our regard for each other and our accountability to each other make it more difficult. The habit of caring about our own integrity and each other’s can make the goodness of this place less fragile. That seems to me a lesson worth keeping, even if unasked for.