William M. Chace

Come, Let Us Be Unreasonable

The prophet Isaiah offers an exhortation that should warm the hearts of a university community. "Come, let us reason together," he says.

For those of us who claim that our lives are about reasoned search for truth, the prophet's words are an affirmation of our purpose. Yes­by all means let us talk, show evidence for our claims, debate in a civil manner, and thus push back the boundaries of darkness and ignorance.

A prophet of another sort, George Bernard Shaw, remarked in a different vein: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

This quotation, like Isaiah's, sounds like something we can endorse; it has a ring of truth to it. But Shaw's comment seems ambiguous. It suggests that perhaps progress isn't all that rational or even desirable. On the other hand, it also suggests that the martyr for justice, the champion of rights, the soldier for freedom, the adamant defender of the defenseless­all of these have unreasonably insisted that the world change, and in their unreasonableness they have made the world better in some way.

So it might be possible to say, for the benefit of humankind­"Come, let us be unreasonable together." This may seem a strange proposition coming from a university president. But being unreasonable is, in a way, exactly what we are doing right now at Emory. And our alumni are as involved as anyone. Let me explain.

Last spring, the Board of Trustees charged the administration to build upon Provost Billy Frye's broadly visionary document Choices and Responsibility and to develop a comprehensive strategic plan to lead the University into the next two decades. This is a reasonable charge, and it calls upon all of our collective powers of reasoning and civil discourse to develop such a plan. At the same time, it calls upon our unreasonableness-our intuition for ferreting out the genius of Emory, for defining the principles by which the University will live or die, and for describing the "progress" that we wish Emory to make in behalf of herself and the world. Formulating a strategic plan requires us to articulate, finally, what it is that we will champion, defend, and insist on as the proper aims for this extraordinary institution.

As you might imagine, this task must involve many people--faculty, students, staff, and administrators. And this past November the alumni became engaged in a significant way. Let me describe to you what they did.

On November fifteenth and sixteenth, with the very able preparation of Associate Vice President Jack Gilbert and his staff, we convened a hundred forty alumni to help us reasonably determine what we should be unreasonable about. For a day and a half, these alumni--members of the AEA Board of Governors, alumni trustees, and alumni representatives from every region of the country--met in groups of fifteen or twenty to discuss Emory's past and present and to voice their hopes for Emory's future.

Each of these groups was led by eminent faculty members and focused on the topics of "good teaching," "interdisciplinary studies," "addressing our environment," "Emory in service," "building a stronger community," "the question of excellence," and "Emory in the world." The alumni worked hard, the senior administrators and deans who were there listened carefully, and a great deal of newsprint absorbed a lot of Magic Marker ink. Aspirations, frustrations, dreams, complaints, observations, reminiscences­all of these made their way to the fore.

By the end of the day, our facilitator had listed countless recurrent themes and no fewer than 158 "Big Picture Ideas," ranging from the suggestion that Emory become more involved with the Atlanta community to the plea for intercollegiate football to the reminder that we must continue to husband Emory's natural beauty. Distilling all of these ideas into a coherent strategy that clearly spells out Emory's priorities and frames a schedule of aspiration for the University will be no easy job.

In due course, the senior administrators will have to take on the responsibility of presenting a "finished" strategic plan, though no good plan is ever finished. And the trustees have the final authority to approve any plan that we might propose. But with the help of the alumni who offered their time and resources to make our Alumni Strategic Planning Conference work, we have taken a big step in incorporating the thoughts of our most important friends­you­into our planning process.

We cannot stop here, of course. There will be follow-ups to build on the success of the November conference. A lot of work remains. I encourage you to share your thoughts with us as we refine our planning. The trustees will receive and discuss a final report on strategic planning in June. That will not be the end of our work, however. It will mark the beginning of our reasoned attempts to put in place those things we unreasonably believe must be done to make Emory a great university serving the world.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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