The Liberal Arts Research University

Investing to claim Emory's identity

Claire Sterk

Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Public Health

Emory is defined from many perspectives and on many fronts—for instance, by its strong liberal arts programs within a distinguished research university, its outstanding professional schools, its large health system, and its vitality as a member of the metro Atlanta community. In all of these areas, when we make financial decisions, we must be aware that those decisions shape and fine-tune the identity of the university. This essay will explore claiming one aspect of Emory’s identity in particular—Emory as a liberal arts research university.

The question, What defines Emory? resonates especially at this moment in Emory’s developmental trajectory. In a way, we are experiencing “growing pains.” Emory’s 1995 invited membership to the Association of American Universities (AAU)—a highly respected group of sixty-two North American research universities—represented a major milestone. At the time of the announcement, the AAU president cited Emory’s “major contributions to the advancement of the nation’s research base and to the education of the nation’s next generation of scientists, scholars, and teachers.” But we must bear in mind that this happened less than two decades ago. Only five other institutions have been admitted to the AAU subsequently. 

With this recent history in mind, it is important that we recognize the strengths that make us thrive, such as our remarkable interdisciplinary research and teaching, our translational research, our literary assets, and the residential experience for our students. Nevertheless, much room for improvement remains. But rather than aspire to be “more like” other great institutions, why not invest our energies and resources in response to that question—what defines Emory?

In a world where institutional rankings hold sway, it is natural to want to respond to that question by focusing on external perceptions of Emory, both in the realm of higher education and in the broader social context. I would argue, however, that we must also focus on our internal understanding of ourselves and our aspirations. A strength that we can embrace as central to who we are is our powerful identity as a liberal arts research university. That is, Emory is not just an excellent liberal arts core in a research university, but a research university infused throughout with the liberal arts. This, I believe, fundamentally defines Emory and makes us an exceptional university.

The liberal arts mission

A liberal arts education is intended to instill critical and creative thinking skills, excellence in written and oral communication, quantitative and informational literacy, knowledge of human cultures and diversity, a commitment to the common good and social justice, engagement on both local and global scales, ethical reasoning and action, and the ability to integrate and apply learning.

This list of foundational aspects of the liberal arts, though incomplete, nevertheless highlights key components. And in the setting of a research university the impact of those components intensifies. Through teaching, learning, research, discovery, care delivery, service, institution-building, and public scholarship, we benefit from one another’s knowledge and expertise, perspective and insight, innovation and creativity. Our understanding of human cultures and the natural world is deepened in an environment of original research and scientific discovery. Our grasp of integrated and applied learning is strengthened in professional contexts such as law, business, and the health sciences. What if we were to declare that those opportunities are the hallmark of Emory’s identity? That the goals of the liberal arts infuse the entire academic experience of this outstanding institution? 

Almost everyone involved in those endeavors at Emory cataloged in the above paragraph already benefits from the fact that we are a research university with the liberal arts at the center. Many of those discipline-transcending qualities we consider key to a liberal arts training are already integral to the curricula of our graduate and professional programs. Here undergraduate students have opportunities to work closely with scholars and researchers who define and transform their fields. Rather than the image of a “core” surrounded by “circles,” I thus envision the relationship between the liberal arts and graduate and professional programs not as distinct, but as interdependent, mutually enhancing, and expansive for the entire educational endeavor. 

Emory is not just an excellent liberal arts core in a research university, but a research university infused throughout with the liberal arts. This, I believe, fundamentally defines Emory and makes us an exceptional university.

Not that multi-disciplinary and cross-school endeavors are effortless or seamless. There still remain structural barriers to cross-listed courses, dual degree programs, joint faculty appointments, and university-wide courses and programs. Such obstacles may stand in the way of creative collaborations and the development and distribution of knowledge, even when all parties would benefit. Again, we have the opportunity to ask, how can we strategically invest our resources to bolster such efforts as part of what defines Emory? As the work of the Commission on the Liberal Arts continues this spring, we as a community have the opportunity to deepen and refine our notions of how our own identity as a liberal arts research university might become richer—and in so doing, have an impact on higher education in general. 

Shared responsibility

It is challenging to balance the multitude of requests and proposals for growing and shaping Emory. They inevitably exceed our resources. The members of the Ways and Means Committee—which shepherds budget management in support of institutional priorities (see the box below) must be strategic and creative, while operating within the framework of our mission, aspirations, and resources. The great challenge is to make decisions based on input from all key stakeholders and to identify our unique path for advancement, while we also recognize the lessons of the past and the need to preserve what is outstanding. In other words, to name for ourselves what we aspire for Emory to be, grounded in its trajectory to this point.

Going forward, it is difficult to imagine having any of these conversations without the meaningful participation of all who are Emory. A recent example of such engagement is the faculty’s renewed interest in their role and responsibility for determining our collective plans and priorities. There is a growing conversation about a greater structural role for faculty governance in appointment, tenure, and promotion processes, perhaps with a university-level voting body. Another initiative includes shared governance regarding our Faculty Handbook, a document that defines the reciprocal relationship between the faculty and the university—what it means and what we can expect from one another. 

Collectively, we need to continue to ask how our investments—of time, energy, and other resources—ensure that the academic mission finds expression in fiscal processes. At the same time, we need to give voice to defining Emory’s identity, including input from faculty, students, staff, administrators, alumni, board members, and others. These efforts will help us better serve students, become a more robust incubator of original research and innovative ideas, and improve the human condition of our world.

Emory Ways and Means Committee

Claire Sterk, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs (Chair)
Wright Caughman, Executive Vice President for Health Affairs
Michael Mandl, Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration
Charlotte Johnson, Senior Vice Provost for Administration
Edith Murphree, Vice President for Finance
Ronnie Jowers, Chief Financial Officer, Woodruff Health Sciences Center