Winter 2009: Letter from the President

President James Wagner

James W. Wagner, President, Emory University

Ann Borden

Between a Rock and a New Place

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By James W. Wagner

In the new economic climate, where saving has greater urgency than consumption, where streamlining may be essential for survival, and where industries from newspapers to automobile manufacturing are having to retool and reinvent themselves, it is not unusual for leaders in higher education to note that hard times offer opportunity along with challenge.

The search for opportunity amid rapidly changing circumstances is nothing new, but the danger lies in the process by which change occurs. Finding themselves caught between the proverbial “rock and a hard place,” university leaders may be tempted to opt for opportunism rather than opportunity, or to yield to distortion of their mission rather than ensuring desirable change.

It is a bit like the way metamorphic rock is created. Under intense pressure, heat, and chemical exposure, shale, for instance, is transformed into slate, or limestone becomes marble. No thought required. Between a rock and a hard place, the “protolith,” or original rock, becomes whatever it must become, dictated by external factors alone.

At times in American history colleges and universities have metamorphosed like those rocks, seized by an unconscious kind of reactive process to the environment. The challenge for universities in our current hard place is to move toward the transformation of our own choosing.

An example or two may illustrate what I mean. In one remarkably intense period, the late 1940s and 1950s ushered in new ways for higher education to partner with governments, both state and federal.

The GI Bill, for instance, offered a safety valve when the return of GIs from World War II threatened to push unemployment upward and plunge the economy back into depression. It also ushered in a metamorphosis of American campuses, which embraced the growth in enrollment and expanded programs commensurately, providing fuel to the economic expansion of the 1950s through the training of engineers, scientists, and business leaders.

On the other hand, the bill fostered a concept of higher education as an “entitlement,” making college not only a necessary stop on the way to greater social mobility but also a passage for which students had some right to government assistance. Whether or not one agrees with these assumptions, the metamorphosis occurred without anyone’s considering longer-term consequences.

Similarly, the postwar years witnessed the acceleration of federal commitment to research through collaborations among the academy, private industry, and government, in laboratories housed at universities. This commitment essentially launched research universities as we know them; they welcomed the new research dollars and built great programs in engineering and the sciences, including the health sciences.

On the other hand, federal and state commitment to the humanities paled by comparison. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities—created only in 1965, fifteen years after the National Science Foundation (NSF) and three decades after the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—had nowhere near the resources of the NIH and NSF, leading to an imbalance in emphasis and perceived value between the sciences and the humanities. This distortion took root in the universities, and the question remains whether it reflected the outlook of society at large or, conversely, contributed to the current state of our culture.

American higher education continues to be strong in part because of these developments, if not in spite of them. But much of this historic transformation has been unplanned and reactive. If a new funding stream presented itself, universities drank from it; if a new suit of clothes was offered, universities donned the new outfit without always considering whether a tuxedo was best for a cross-country hike.

The current strains imposed by our economy not only will force business and government to restructure but also present an opportunity to re-form higher education. The challenge is to seize this opportunity thoughtfully and courageously. The exciting prospect for us at Emory is to ask how to restructure in such a way as to lead a national conversation during this latest period of reinventing the academy.

If we can do it right, we might be able to avoid metamorphism and take advantage of neomorphism—not simply being squeezed between a rock and a hard place, but engaging in a more deliberate and thoughtful progress from a rock to a new place. Stay tuned.

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