The Emory Magazine Interview
Fostering a Lively Intellectual Community
New provost Rebecca Chopp assesses the University's progress and its prospects
by Andrew W.M. Beierle
As provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, Rebecca Chopp is the principal academic officer of the University and is responsible for all academic divisions, the libraries, and information technology. Chopp served as interim provost from June 1997 until May 1, 1998,when she replaced Billy E. Frye, provost from 1988 until his appointment as chancellor of the University. Chopp joined the Emory faculty in 1985 and was named Charles Howard Candler Professor of Theology at the Candler School of Theology in January 1996. She served as dean of faculty and academic affairs at Candler from 1993 to 1997 and chaired the University's Commission on Teaching from January 1996 to September 1997. This is her first interview with Emory Magazine since her appointment.
Emory Magazine: What personal and professional qualities do you bring to the position of provost?
Chopp: I bring a commitment to and passion for our intellectual life combined with curiosity and flexibility--an openness about how we might cultivate intellectual community in different ways in the future. As provost, it's important to listen to the suggestions and ideas of other administrators, faculty, staff, and students about what Emory's mission is and ought to be. The intellectual community to which we all belong draws its strength from recognizing that a good idea is a good idea no matter where it originates. So in many ways a provost is, as much as anything, a facilitator of ideas at a university. The provost helps to put good ideas into practice and to see connections among the ideas that arise in different areas of our community. Because I'm a good listener, I'm open and attuned to the ideas that are offered, which helps me to facilitate our intellectual community.
Probably the second quality I bring is my recent experience on the faculty. I think a good provost is someone who comes to the job right out of the classroom, first, because the teacher-student interaction is the heart of our community. But also I think it's similar to teaching because you're helping people to achieve their own goals. In other words, the provost, like a good teacher, is in a leadership position, but here again, it's leadership by facilitation.
I think the third thing I bring is a history with Emory. I came here in 1986, and I have been part of the longings and energy and interests and frustrations of at least the past twelve years on this campus. I understand how Emory is ready to--and must now--enter into the next stage of its identity and growth. One of the things I heard time and time again during the interviews for the provost's position was a deep desire among the faculty for Emory to reshape and think through its identity. One person compared it to an adolescent who now needs to grow up. I'm not sure I agree with all the implications of that metaphor, but I would agree that Emory has experienced tremendous growth since the late seventies and early eighties, and we now have the ability and resources to move into our next stage of growth, [to create] a new sense of identity, and to take some real intellectual leadership within American higher education.
Emory Magazine: At the time of his appointment in 1988, Billy Frye talked about the need to reverse a trend toward fragmentation and move toward a more interdisciplinary model. How successful has Emory been in the intervening years, and where do we go from here?
Chopp: I think we can say that we have been successful in the past ten years; many of our disciplines and all of our professional schools are already interdisciplinary to a good extent. Now we are facing new opportunities to expand and refine our efforts. We have some significant issues to address in terms of how we engage in these cross-school conversations. There are major infrastructure problems such as funding and class registrations for students between schools. There are what I would call "cultural differences," for instance, between the School of Medicine and the College. . . . Our faculty members don't know one another and have difficulty finding out what sort of research is being done [by their counterparts in other areas of the University]. But as the disciplines and professions enter common territory, we also face wonderful new possibilities for our research, teaching, and service.
This means we will need to do some careful planning in terms of what the frontiers of knowledge will look like in major universities in the years ahead and how Emory can contribute to and take a leading role in those areas. In the world of knowledge--if we understand knowledge as a process of discovery--there are always going to be new opportunities before us. It's an ideal time for us to enter into a universitywide discussion about where scholarship is headed in general and what kinds of opportunities we see here at Emory. We need to be creative and innovative about what we might be able to achieve. And this is a conversation in which we all need to participate, if we want to continue fashioning this interdisciplinary vision.
Emory Magazine: Can you be more specific?
Chopp: Some of these interdisciplinary oppor-tunities are internal to Emory--in other words, what our faculty members are interested in and studying can lead to new discoveries and approaches to knowledge--and some are gener-ated by responding to the needs of the larger society, beyond Emory.
One example is the transformation brought about by the tremendous expansion of information technology. What does this mean for our teaching and research? What does it suggest about the kinds of resources we need to provide for our faculty and students? We still don't know the full impact of technology on our work, but we know it's going to make a big difference and we need to use it to our advantage.
[One might also ask] what are the resources already present at Emory that could provide for exciting interdisciplinary opportunities? For example, Science 2000 represents a commitment between the College and the School of Medicine to share their faculty and space and pool their resources in the basic sciences. Or the proposed Institute of Law, Business, and Medicine, which is another great example of using our small, connected campus as a resource for addressing issues of research, teaching, and service not only at Emory, but also to society at large. And this highlights that we also need to look at our resources in terms of what kinds of programs we can provide to address needs existing beyond Emory, in our city and the world.
Another opportunity arises from the dramatic changes we've seen in our faculty members in terms of sheer numbers, in diversity, and in the wide range of their research interests. We need to improve our awareness of the scope of resources within our faculty and what programs we might develop in light of these strengths. And related to this, as provost I want to make sure that every faculty member has opportunities for engaging in rich conversations with other faculty members and students. Cultivating a lively intellectual community in which the faculty can pursue their research and teaching makes for a great university.
Emory Magazine: Emory is ranked in the top ten universities in the country in the size of its endowment. Where does it rank academically compared to its peers?
Chopp: I would say that, academically, we are not yet consistently viewed as being in the top percentile, even though our endowment demonstrates we have the resources to achieve that level of excellence. But we can achieve it. And we are making absolutely tremendous progress. Compared to where we were when I joined this faculty, we have achieved a great deal of academic success--in our growing reputation both in this country and in international circles, in the quality and diversity of the research our faculty is undertaking, in the excellence of the students we're attracting to Emory. But I don't think we need to inflate our sense of ranking--since we know such measures can be somewhat arbitrary--and I don't think we do. . . . Most faculty members have an accurate sense of where we are academically. We can certainly grow and improve and enrich our intellectual community--and we should do this--but we also must celebrate the great improvement we have already experienced.
Emory Magazine: Can you provide some recent, specific benchmarks of academic achievement?
Chopp: Our sponsored research has grown to $165 million this year. That's a quantitative measure, a clear sign of success.
In terms of undergraduates, the number of entering students who have taken advanced placement courses in high school has increased, as have their SAT scores and GPAs. Some of our graduate programs are now competing with the best universities in the country for Ph.D. students--not all of our programs, but some of them--and I don't think we were doing that fifteen years ago.
Our faculty members are getting more and more research awards, more and more awards for their scholarship, more Fulbrights and similar grants, which is an important indicator. And faculty citations in leading professional journals have increased, as well as faculty leadership in professional organizations. These are signs of Emory's growing academic reputation.
I also think of the invitations that members of our faculty are receiving to lecture and participate in forums at Harvard, Stanford, and the like, and our ability to recruit our faculty from Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, and so forth. We didn't see much of that fifteen years ago, and we are seeing a lot of it now. Unfortunately, the other side is also true--we have become a school to be raided; others are interested in recruiting our best and brightest. Every time I visit another university, people talk to me about that; they are keeping an eye on our faculty. So, it's another good measure of our success.
Emory Magazine: In recent years, Emory has placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of teaching. Where does teaching now fare in the traditional tug-of-war between teaching and research?
Chopp: The report of the Commission on Teaching advocated a "both/and" model instead of an "either/or" model and announced early on that we simply don't agree with the myth that one values either teaching or research. That's an outdated concept, as is the concept that the only kind of teaching that counts is the classroom lecture. Those are two central myths that we set out to dispel in order to offer a much richer understanding of what teaching means and what it means in relationship to research. I think that in the time between when the commission began and completed its work--and the commission represents just one activity among many focusing on the enhancement of teaching and learning at Emory--there has been a great level of awareness within the faculty about the importance of both teaching and research. There is an awareness that in our tenure and promotion system and our hiring practices a commitment to both is expected. It's expected that our professors will be excellent teachers as well as researchers and scholars. So I think there is a growing awareness among many--though not all--of our faculty members that teaching and research are, in fact, intertwined.
I can also point to administrative and institutional commitments to both areas. The resources the deans, the schools, and the University are providing for teaching have increased. For example, we now have a teaching fund to which the faculty can apply for grants. We have a strong teaching center in the College, and we have established a University--level advisory council on teaching. The Presidential Advisory Committee, which started in the spring of 1997, now requests a teaching portfolio from every faculty member-they don't have strict criteria for what represents excellence in both areas, but it is intended as a way to provide evidence of one's ability to teach and to do research. . . .
I don't think Emory has ever had the problem in this regard that other research universities seem to have had and still have. We have a long history of valuing and emphasizing the quality of our teaching--which is the side of the equation most often neglected in research universities. We maintain a basic commitment to that long tradition, and I think one of the ways we've remained loyal to it is that--to paraphrase one faculty member quoted in the report--the Emory faculty cares about the craft of teaching. Young scholars who come to our faculty understand this ethos. It's not perfect, but we haven't struggled with this dichotomy of teaching or research to the same extent that some other research universities have.
Emory Magazine: As Emory approaches the new millennium, what are its most significant strengths and greatest challenges?
Chopp: I think that our most significant strengths are our resources, our faculty, our students, and our administrators--our people resources--and our financial resources. Again, I don't want to inflate any of that, but I think we can say, accurately, we have a very promising faculty and a very promising student body. Although we don't have all the financial resources we would like to have, we do have considerable resources to draw upon. And we have a good infrastructure, physical resources, in our buildings. Again, we need to make some improvements in this area, but we don't have millions of dollars in deferred maintenance, as some schools do. Clearly, one of our greatest strengths is that we have a solid set of resources in place.
We also have a strength that comes from our geographical context. The compactness of our campus, I have always felt, is a tremendous resource. Our ability to undertake creative intellectual programs because of the proximity of the schools is an asset. And I think it is a strength that we are located in a city and an area that is growing rapidly and has a cultural environment which is international in focus, believes it can be better, and brings in and assimilates new people and new ideas--without forcing them to sacrifice their identity. Atlanta and the Southern region are still in a time of great growth and viability and excitement, and that's a good environment for a university. It sets a broader context which stimulates and encourages our intellectual community.
Another resource is our strong leadership team. Many of our administrative leaders, our deans, have a new vision of what it is to work together to provide opportunities for the whole Emory community. They are setting the example for our community. That is, I think, one of our greatest strengths. I guess the one area that I would point to as both a strength and a challenge is that we have such tremendous opportunities. The world is really open before us. We have tremendous resources in our people and tremendous financial resources. We have a world and a society which need to understand research universities in new ways, and we can take a leading role in furthering and shaping that understanding. All of these things provide us with incredible opportunities.
But I have heard others say that it is also our greatest challenge . . . that we might not come together as a community, that we might not seize those kinds of opportunities, or that we might not seize them in ways that will also develop our basic academic foundations--the teaching and research that goes on in our various departments and disciplines.
Emory is such an interesting place. We have expanded and grown remarkably, but we still need to shore up some of our basic foundations, we need to focus on particular departments and disciplines to raise the bar of excellence in them and across the University. We have a fabulous library system, but we still need to improve the collection and resources--for our graduate programs, but also for some of our professional programs and the College. Really, our primary challenge is to bring to reality some of these many possibilities, while continuing to shore up our basic day-to-day practices of research and teaching. As we move forward, we will need to work together to accomplish both.
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