Three years after he came to Emory from the University of Michigan, University Provost Earl Lewis talks with Emory Magazine about books, basketball, and the year of the faculty / interview by Paige P. Parvin 96G
Tell me about your background and experience growing up. You grew up in the segregated South, is that correct?
That is indeed correct. I was born in Virginia, Norfolk, in 1955, and grew up in an all-black community in Tidewater, from about 1955 until about 1969, 1970, when I would go to my first desegregated school. I was a sophomore in high school by the time schools desegregated. My mother was an elementary school teacher. My father died when I was five years old. I had a brother, so it was the two of us and my mom and immediate family members, grandparents, maternal grandparents, and aunts and uncles and cousins. It was part of being not only the segregated South, but also the transitional South. So I was part of that first generation of kids who actually went to desegregated schools in the South.
How do you think that shaped your approach to your career and also who you are today?
Immensely. I came to understand that I could do whatever I wanted to do. Inside that community, the sense of possibility was always great, and so one understood that there were barriers presented by state-sponsored segregation, but you weren’t defined by those barriers or limited by those barriers. I was part of a group who took advantage of the new opportunities in terms of what I could imagine I could become. I had no idea when I graduated from high school that I was going to get a PhD and would become a provost at Emory University. That was way beyond my ability to imagine. But I did know I was going to get a college degree. I double majored in undergrad in psychology and history and got a PhD later on in history.
And tell me just a bit about your scholarly work as a historian.
I’m an American historian. I write about the American South, about African-Americans, primarily, but not exclusively. My first book was a book dealing with the African-American urban community in Norfolk, from the end of the Civil War through the civil rights movement. My second was a book of documents on black workers, African-Americans in the Industrial Age. The third book was part of a larger project. I ended up being the co- editor of an eleven-volume history of African-Americans for young adults. We subsequently reedited those down into a single volume, To Make Our World Anew, which is listed now as the best history of African-Americans in the country. Then I turned to from general to social history—a love story. I’ve written for a popular audience the history of this young woman, a child of British immigrants who marries a New York socialite and becomes part of a sensational trial in the 1920s about race, class, and sexuality.
The University’s strategic plan has identified attracting and developing faculty members as a primary objective for the future—surely a worthy goal for most, if not all, ambitious institutions. So what is special about the way with which Emory is going about that and what is your particular role?
This is The Year of the Faculty, and we have been talking to the faculty in each of the schools and colleges, asking “What are the issues that you think we should be concerned with as we look to the near future?” What we ended up deciding is that we need to hire well from the outside, which is a constant. But we need to also spend more time developing the faculty that are already here. Over the next ten years, Emory, like a number of universities, faces the possibility that upwards of 50 to 77 percent of the faculty will opt to retire. Somewhere between five hundred and 1,200 faculty members will be eligible to retire between now and 2015, which is a sizeable number. And it’s important for us to begin to think then about how we replace the faculty, always attending to the issue of quality and the pursuit of faculty excellence.
Emory has committed $35 million to a Faculty Distinction Fund. In your view, how will those funds best be used?
The Faculty Distinction Fund is designed to allow us to go and hire new faculty a little sooner than we would have been allowed to do otherwise. The fund is really a bridging fund; it allows [deans] to make a decision and to move forward sooner. It’s a real way for us to pursue excellent faculty opportunities all over the world.
Do you feel Emory is successfully balancing a commitment to teaching with our high-profile research and discovery programs?
I do. The difference between a very, very fine liberal arts institution, and an institution that has a strong liberal arts program inside a research university, turns on the difference between having students learn from a textbook versus learning from faculty who are producing the textbook. If you’re learning from faculty who themselves are on the cutting edge, it means that the students are always up to date and perhaps even ahead of the trend. The faculty here have an abiding commitment to fine undergraduate teaching, as well as fine graduate and professional school teaching. Teaching here does count and it counts in a very serious way.
A faculty member once said to me, “Would you agree that arts and sciences is key to the life of the institution?” I said, “Absolutely.” He said, “Are you prepared to say that the college is the most important college at the University?” And I said, “Absolutely not.” This is a system, and strengths in one area lead to strengths in another area.
What are the strengths of Emory’s current faculty?
They’re bright. They’re accomplished in many different areas. A number of them are recognized as experts worldwide in their respective fields. A good number are also willing to challenge themselves and others and that, I think, is key to developing a faculty of distinction. If I have one hope and wish for the faculty, it’s that we create opportunities so they get to see and understand colleagues across the institution. Right now, too many of our faculty only know about what goes on in their department or school to college and hence, don’t get the full benefit of being at a major research university.
You mentioned that your day is often booked with meetings from as early as 7:30 until sometimes late in the night. What do you do to relax?
I do three things to relax. I play pickup basketball and am in a church league so for me going out and playing on a basketball court is a way that I relax. I watch old movies or programs with my wife. And in rare moments, I will pick up a novel and use that to relax, more when I’m traveling than when I’m in town.
What is at the heart of what you do as Provost?
I became an academic administrator because it was a good balance. So much about academic life is about deferred gratification. Being a provost means that I can sometimes reach decisions in a matter of hours or days or weeks, and I know that the decision I’ve reached will have significant consequences for students, for faculty, for alums, and others. For example, I chaired a committee that resulted in the creation of the Emory Advantage Program. That brought great joy because the students, in the end, will benefit—both those who qualify and those who don’t—because they now will have much more diverse class in their mix. On the faculty side, it’s the ability to help a faculty member underwrite a conference or support an idea. Those small pieces, as well as the big projects—from new buildings to the Faculty Distinction Fund—are all important. And on the alumni side, it’s being able to say to people all over the world who are attached to Emory that we continue to, in the language of business, increase the value of the brand. By the end of the day when I go home I think, well, we made some tough decisions, we did the proper things, and we made the place better.