Autumn 2010: Letter from the President
Thinking again about the university’s purposes
By James W. Wagner
Society depends on higher education to provide a great range of services—training (and re-training) men and women for careers; discovering new technology for improving and extending life; preserving the record of human achievement; partnering with cities to nurture vibrant and sustainable communities in various ways—the list could go on at some length. These are things society expects of universities. They are also things society needs from universities.
I would suggest that society also needs something more, something that “Society”—that big, multifarious, and hard-to-pin-down abstraction—does not always articulate well. Here is an example.
Since last spring I have had the privilege of serving as vice-chair of President Barack Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. In the words of the executive order that created the commission in 2009, it serves to “advise the president on bioethical issues that may emerge as a consequence of advances in biomedicine and related areas of science and technology”—advances such as “synthetic biology” and genetically modified organisms and brain-computer interface, just to name three examples.
In pursuing its work, the commission aims to identify and promote “policies and practices that ensure [that] scientific research, health care delivery, and technological innovation are conducted in an ethically responsible manner.”
The commission chair, President Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania, has had a distinguished career as a political scientist and advocate for a more civil discourse in America. Commission members include academics from Harvard, Penn, Vanderbilt, Duke, and other universities. At our inaugural session, in July, we met with President Obama in Washington. In September we convened on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, and I’m happy to report that our November meeting (16–17) will be held at Emory.
Some might ask—why are universities and university leaders, rather than, say, policy experts and political leaders, so heavily involved in the work of this commission? After all, academics love pursuing questions down whatever rabbit holes those questions fall into. Some commentators have suggested that the work of the commission will be weighted too strongly in favor of academic questions alone and not enough toward pragmatic solutions—more toward what we at Emory refer to as the “courageous inquiry” side of our vision, and not enough on the “positive transformation” side. At some point the president of the United States is going to want a homework assignment turned in on time, with recommendations that call an end to some of the inquiry-driven process.
In response, it’s worth considering that the kind of deliberation that took place in Philadelphia in September—and that will take place again at Emory in November—is one of those essential services to society that universities do very well. Such activities are part of our makeup, even part of our marrow. They are also something society needs, without always knowing where to turn for it.
The experts who have testified before the commission to date include molecular biologists, geneticists, immunologists, biomedical engineers, legal scholars, philosophers, theologians, and health care analysts. More than two-thirds of these men and women hold positions at universities ranging from Stanford and Berkeley to the Universities of Michigan and of Chicago, to Harvard and MIT, to the University of Regensburg in Germany. Others are associated with organizations like the Hastings Center and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. One is a Nobel Prize winner whose postdoctoral students have won Nobel Prizes of their own.
These scientists, scholars, and academic leaders, who have lent their expertise to the framing of important policies and guidelines, may or may not be an “elite,” in the unfortunate pejorative sense used so frequently in media these days. They are, however, surely among the best minds in the country, blessed with talent, knowledge, and skill, and willing to use these gifts in service to others. They represent a response of the best minds to a virtuous task—the task of preparing and engaging other good minds to bring the best of human thought and spirit to bear on further virtuous work. This, too, is a great service that society needs from the academy, and a service that we can celebrate.
In the work of the Presidential Commission, as in so much of what the university undertakes in behalf of society, it is gratifying to see academics called upon to serve the nation in a forward-looking, responsible enterprise that seeks to shape a healthy, safe, and sane future. I believe our nation will not be disappointed.