From the President

Welcome erosion of the status quo

By James Wagner, President, Emory University

President James Wagner

The status quo in American higher education since World War II has familiar features: the dominance of American university-based research over research elsewhere in the world; the assumption that higher education should be available to anyone; an understanding that the public has a stake in higher education and should help pay for it; and a commitment to academic inquiry that sometimes has no immediate payoff in view.

All of these features have eroded in the past decade. Universities in Asia are on the rise; access to higher education is increasingly at risk for many in the United States; federal and state budget deficits have wrought deep cuts to university support; and payoff in a job, more than intellectual preparedness, seems to be the return most people want for investing in a degree.

The status quo thus is in danger of disappearing. Perhaps we should let it go. I say this because of concerns raised here in recent months—concerns specific to Emory, but representative of higher education and pointing to a need for radical change. Let me give an example.

In a recent exchange with faculty, Provost Earl Lewis fielded a question about the perceived “corporatization” of the university—not just of Emory but of universities in general. More than ever, the past three years of financial collapse, recession, and slow recovery have driven administrators’ attention toward business efficiency, solvency, and the need for new income sources. Likewise, “consumers” have raised questions about affordability, access, and the usefulness of a degree. The faculty—and students, for that matter—might well wonder whether academics are being overlooked in favor of the bottom line.

Add to these pressures the mandate to grow certain nonacademic functions of the university—offices that monitor compliance with government regulations, or respond to more-complex accreditation requirements, or enhance internal checks against fraud and waste—and you find not so much a corporate ethos as what Provost Lewis calls growing “bureaucratization.” We may not like the bureaucracy, but we might understand its purpose: to protect the most important activities of the university—teaching, research, scholarship, and, at Emory, patient care.

Added bureaucracy is intended to maintain business as usual—to preserve what we have known and feel comfortable with. Perhaps what underlies concern about corporatization is the suspicion that this status quo itself might disappear.

I say let it go. Let’s build a more vibrant, but different, institution.

I look to three arenas for answers about what that institution—our university—will look like. The first arena to turn to is the deliberative gatherings of our faculty. To the extent that society has changed for the better across the decades, we can thank men and women who have pushed beyond the comfort of customary thought and practice. Most of these change agents have worked outside the academy—journalists, artists, activists, community leaders, inventors—but many have been academics: historians, chemists, theologians, physicians, anthropologists, philosophers, legal theorists, business thinkers. At Emory they have guided institution-changing symposia, developed groundbreaking programs, and mentored students who in turn sought to improve society. These faculty leaders need to be in conversation with each other and with the administration—keeping an eye on the end of this century, not the end of this year, and keeping a finger on the pressures flowing through the institution’s arteries.

Second, I look to the arenas where our other stakeholders come together—the University Senate, the Student Government Association, the Employee Council, the Emory Alumni Board, the Board of Trustees. Each of these bodies is charged with stewardship of the long-term success of Emory’s mission. Notice that I said “Emory’s mission,” not “Emory.” Of course we want Emory to flourish. But Emory exists not for its own survival (the status quo); it exists to serve humanity by creating, preserving, teaching, and applying knowledge. All of us have a stake in this mission, and no one body has a secret formula for keeping it healthy. We must be in dialogue about leaving the status quo behind and claiming a way forward.

The final arena I look to is beyond our campus—individuals and leaders who understand the good that universities can provide to society. Enlightened philanthropy—the foresight and generosity associated with names like Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Hopkins, Stanford, Candler, and Woodruff—helped establish higher education and keeps it running. In a time when human need is overwhelming and the clamor for philanthropy is multiplied, universities and donors must engage in ever more imaginative discussion. Dollars and brains should leverage each other to bring greater power to bear on the world.

It is a challenging time for higher education, but an enormously exciting time as well. I’m grateful to be in conversation with you about it.

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