Q&A

"I think Emory has a real opportunity to use the SACS reaccreditation review as a stimulus for redefining and rethinking the importance of a liberal arts education for American youth and Emory graduates today."

-- Sarah McPhee

As part of Emory’s reaccreditation process, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools requires the university to produce a “Quality Enhancement Plan” (QEP), which addresses a well-defined and focused topic directly related to the enhancement of undergraduate education and charts a course of action for its implementation. McPhee and Eric Weeks, professor of physics, co-chaired the effort through fall 2011. This semester, as Weeks is on leave, Rick Rubinson, professor of sociology, now serves as co-chair.

Academic Exchange: How did you decide on your approach to developing Emory’s QEP?

Sarah McPhee: Both Eric and I immediately responded to the possibility of making a difference at a fundamental level; we were excited by the idea that through the QEP you could potentially rebrand undergraduate education at Emory. We tried to engage everyone in the process and discussion. We wrote global e-mails to the entire Emory community and asked for everyone’s ideas. We received hundreds of e-mails from all constituencies—from alumni, law students, the business school, undergraduates, college professors, administrators, nurses, etc. Then with the help of a graduate student, we crunched the numbers and started to figure out what the various interests were on campus, where people thought problems were, where people thought unnoticed strengths were. 

AE: What were the ideas that rose to the top?

SM: By November 1 we had sustainability, primary evidence, worldview, ethics, quantitative literacy, community engagement/engaged learning, creativity and the arts, writing, critical thinking, increased interdisciplinarity, an engineering program at Emory, and leadership. These are the kinds of ideas that came in. Then we assembled a selection committee from around the university, and we winnowed the list to four major topics: sustainability, primary evidence, worldview, and community engagement. 

In January we approached the authors of the most detailed email correspondence on these subjects and asked them to write thousand-word proposals on their subjects, addressing a series of specific points that had arisen persistently, and including an ethical component. The authors were given access to all of the e-mails we had received; they were encouraged to contact others who had written in support, and also those who had written against. And they had to try to respond to the questions that were raised by other members of the community. 

AE: In late February and March, you hosted two communitywide town hall meetings to help select a theme from those four proposals. What was your hope for those sessions?

SM: The town halls were intended as brainstorming sessions for the four proposals. The proposal writers presented their ideas, and the community had a chance to respond. They seem to have been a success; both events were full. There will be another selection committee meeting later this spring at which two proposals will be selected to put forward to the president, provost, and cabinet, who will make the ultimate decision about what the QEP will be. That will happen around the end of April. 

AE: How do you see this endeavor connecting with the larger question of the future of the liberal arts at Emory?

SM: I of course believe deeply and passionately that a liberal arts education is a necessary part of a flourishing life. I’m delighted that the provost and president are refocusing attention on the liberal arts. I think that historically they have not necessarily received quite the infusion of energy, attention, and resources that would make them flourish to the degree they could within the larger structure of Emory University. I think Emory has a real opportunity to use the SACS reaccreditation review as a stimulus for redefining and rethinking the importance of a liberal arts education for American youth and Emory graduates today. I think one’s life is enormously enriched by such exposure. The QEP is an opportunity to reframe the liberal arts in a very concrete and direct way.