EARLY SPRING is palpable at Emory, a blooming and buzzing of classes held outdoors, professors eating lunch al fresco on Caffè Antico’s balcony, clusters of T-shirt-clad students laughing and chatting as they cut across the grassy Quad.

President William Murdough Chace, whose office overlooks the heart of campus, has stopped resisting this glorious April day.

“Do you mind if we go outside?” he asks.

And with that Chace, sans suit jacket, takes leave of the confines of the Administration Building and crosses over the Mizell Drive bridge behind the Carlos Museum, pausing briefly to consult his schedule on a modified Blackberry.

Chace, the University’s eighteenth president, is planning to step down this fall once a successor is seated. He is preparing for his final State of the University address and is in a relaxed, reflective mood.

Choosing a picnic table by the stream that runs through the cool, dappled shade of the Baker Woodlands, Chace admits to taking special pride in these verdant spots on Emory’s campus.

Upon his arrival in 1994, he saw an urgent need to reduce the number of cars on campus and to protect the shrinking green space. “We owed it to ourselves to have the most attractive, workable campus we could,” he says.

He oversaw the creation of a campus master plan in 1997 by Baltimore architectural firm Ayers/Saint/Gross that relegated private vehicles to the outskirts, linked buildings with brick paths and wide sidewalks, created piazzas with benches and fountains, and maintained natural areas of wooded hills and deep ravines.

“We must create an oasis of learning and conversation,” he said at the time, “a sacred place wherein the intellectual life of the University can be enhanced, and a perimeter to the campus so that one knows when one has entered upon Emory and when one has departed from it.”

Senior Vice President for Institutional Advancement William H. Fox ’79PhD, a close friend and colleague, recalls Chace encouraging everyone from senior staff to students to rely more heavily on “bicycles, shuttles, and shoe leather” to get around–as does Chace himself, who bikes or walks to his office many mornings from his Lullwater home.

Protecting the physical integrity of Emory’s campuses, both in Atlanta and Oxford, has remained a priority for Chace during his stewardship of the University, even as crews worked almost nonstop on nearly a billion dollars of new construction over the past nine years.

Buildings completed under his tenure include the Cherry Logan Emerson Center for Physical Science, the Goizueta Business School, the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, the Whitehead Biomedical Research Building, the Mathematics and Science Center (one of the “greenest” buildings in the country), the Winship Cancer Institute, Oxford College’s Tarbutton Performing Arts Center, and the long-awaited Donna and Marvin Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.

More than a few highly accomplished faculty members have been attracted by these state-of-the-art structures, with their impressive array of high-tech features and space enough to sprawl out in. “These are very important, very good buildings,” Chace says. “Not a bad legacy, coming as it does from a president who, in his inaugural address, vowed to cut down on new buildings!”

Still, as Chace explores the grounds this spring day, he appears to appreciate the Chairs Project–an artistic exhibition of benches, swings, and other creative seats showcased around campus– as much as the millions of dollars in new bricks and mortar.

“It’s little things like this that make such a huge difference to the feeling of a place,” he says, gesturing toward a musical chair with wind chimes that jangle in the breeze. “You can’t have too much wit or sense of fun.”

FOR ALL ITS SOUTHERN CHARM, Emory is an expansive enterprise. With more than 19,000 employees spread across nine schools and its broad network of clinics and hospitals, it has become Atlanta’s third largest employer.

The University itself has more than 2,300 full-time faculty and 11,000 students, and the groundbreaking research and expertise found at Emory as it heads into the twenty-first century–in disciplines as diverse as genetics and African-American literature–rival the best in the world.

Even though Emory has had substantial losses in its portfolio during the economic downturn of the last several years, it remains one of the most well-off private universities in the country, with a $4.2 billion endowment and an annual budget of $1.86 billion.

During Chace’s tenure, sponsored research at Emory has risen from $118 million to $277 million, funding vital study in areas from immunology to bioterrorism. Emory was admitted to the Association of American Universities in 1995–a prestigious group of the nation’s top research universities.

“That is our destiny. Not as a liberal arts college, but as a thriving research university,” Chace says. “Look at Yerkes; it is the single best example of incandescent productivity on our campus. When I arrived here, it was almost entirely a primatology center. Now it’s one of the world centers for vaccine research. That took hiring, it took imagination, it took strong leadership. It might be the place where we will create an AIDS vaccine. If we had decided, ‘Oh no, better not do that, better not enlarge that, better not hire those people,’ what a big mistake that would have been.”

Chace has had a strong hand in selecting Emory’s current leadership: he has hired every sitting dean as well as two provosts.

“One of Bill’s legacies will be his appointment of the strongest cohort of deans we’ve ever had. In a couple of instances, he started the search over when an appropriate candidate was not found or worked very hard to woo the applicant desired. His personal involvement made all the difference,” says Gary S. Hauk ’91PhD, vice president and secretary of the University.

Chace also established the Presidential Advisory Committee, a group of senior faculty elected by their colleagues to assist the president and provost in determining tenure and promotions. This peer-driven process, says Hauk, has “standardized tenure review across all schools and raised the bar for faculty recruitment.”

The complications of owning and operating two hospitals, a clinic, geriatric and pediatric facilities, as well as staffing a veteran’s medical center and a public, inner-city hospital can sometimes add up to a “splitting headache,“ says Chace, caused by “malpractice suits, hurried and harassed doctors, too few nurses, insurers who do not want to insure, a federal government stingy with reimbursements, and more and more expensive therapies with no one who wants to pay for them.”

But the cure, he says, is in knowing that “the research conducted at Emory will give life where life has been in peril and that tireless doctors are exploring the innermost recesses of scientific knowledge to lessen pain, cure diseases, and offer balm to those in extremis.”

If Chace’s predecessor, James Laney, who served as president from 1978 to 1993 before becoming U.S. ambassador to South Korea, led Emory’s rise to national prominence, Chace may be said to have guided the University to international stature.

He expresses pride in the University’s increasingly diverse student body and faculty: a third of Emory’s students are ethnic and racial minorities; an active overseas study program sends almost half of undergraduates to study in other countries; Emory’s students now come from more than a hundred countries; and the Class of 2007 will likely include one international student in every seventeen.

Much has been done to advance tolerance among Emory’s diverse populations, as well. “I think Bill’s finest hour was his steadfast determination to protect freedom from prejudice in matters of sexual orientation along with our already established openness in matters of race, gender, religion, and ethnicity,” says Emory College Dean Robert Paul. “Emory is a more accepting community now than it was, and Bill deserves much of the credit for that.”

Chace firmly believes that unlike universities of old, which took pride in being self-contained ivory towers of intellectual elitism, a modern university must reach out to the world beyond its gates–especially during such volatile times.

Indeed, Chace was called upon to lead Emory through days of stark terror and grief. In the hours following September 11, 2001, he addressed the Emory community with characteristic eloquence: “The worst of public and private tragedies has come at last to us. Once it inhabited only our nightmares; today the nightmare pierced our waking lives. . . . What we do now in the face of that danger will prove a great test for us all, for us within this sheltered community and for us all as American citizens. . . . Institutions like universities must never tremble in the face of adversity, no matter how severe; and we must forever find the way to love, for love alone will at last shelter us.”

And a few days after American forces bombed Iraq, Emory organized a nonpartisan forum for faculty, staff, and students at Chace’s urging. A crowd of fifteen hundred gathered on the Quad, listening respectfully to speakers with varying points of view about the hostilities. “It was truly one of those public moments where a university fulfills itself,” Chace says.

Emory’s faculty and students, he says, have performed many good works through travel abroad, exchange programs, and international field work, as well as their affiliations with other agencies and institutions such as The Carter Center and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Two former CDC directors–Presidential Distinguished Professor Emeritus William Foege and Jeffrey Koplan, vice president for academic health affairs–joined Emory after leaving the agency. Many Emory students have internships and subsequent careers with The Carter Center and the CDC, and Emory professors work closely with the staffs of both institutions.

The Chaces get together with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter about once a month (President Carter, recipient of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, has been a University Distinguished Professor since 1982) and the talk routinely turns to Emory and The Carter Center’s joint efforts to help the destitute and ill around the globe, from the Guinea Worm eradication program to safeguarding elections. “One of Emory’s unique features is that, as a research university, it enjoys a strong relationship to an institution–The Carter Center–based wholly on activist and moral principles,” Chace says. “The relationship is mutually beneficial.”

Chace feels strongly about Emory being a good neighbor in Atlanta as well. His presidency was bookended by two Habitat for Humanity homes, one built in 1995, the other in 2003. “We want to make it very clear that we care about the community in which we live,” says Chace, who worked on both homes, hefting a hammer and gluing insulation alongside his wife, JoAn. “It is a gesture both real and symbolic, and is also a good way to get to know colleagues.”

Conflict, controversy, and criticism are inevitable in any high-level management position, says former Provost Billy Frye, who worked closely with Chace for many years and eased his transition into the presidency.

One of Chace’s strengths, Frye says, is in “listening to all the heterogeneous voices” and trying to find outcomes that are fair to all parties. “Bill’s good humor, his tolerance for openness and differing points of view, have served him well,” he says.

While Chace proved to be a popular president among many faculty, who viewed him as accessible and witty with an intellectual bent, he also received criticism–most strongly in response to employee benefit cuts announced in 2002 after Emory’s endowment lost about a billion dollars in the bear market.

In a March letter to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Professor of English John Bugge, Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology Melvin Konner, and Professor of History James Roark criticized the cuts: “This broken promise has undermined trust and demoralized our faculty. It bodes ill for Emory’s future. As a result, we have lost excellent colleagues and retention and recruitment of quality faculty is now more difficult.”

In an interview with Emory Report, the faculty and staff newspaper, Chace said a reduction in fringe benefits was preferable to other, more drastic measures later, such as layoffs. “We haven’t had to discuss unpleasant financial decisions for quite some time at Emory,” he said. “We now have to deal with unpleasant realities. We will do so, and we will come out of this all right.”

Chace seems to view all such internal squabbles and discontentments as dimming before the greater good.

“I believe what holds a university together, finally, is a common pursuit of the truth, that elusive, never-ending quest,” he says. “A university is an unusual place, where people are being educated, where there is learning, and where there are young people maturing. It is not a profit-making institution, but one where a good deal of time is given over to reflection–where you have a library, and a big green sward, and people conversing.

“It is a grand, collective enterprise.”

One of the perks of the Emory presidency is having use of Lullwater House, a 1920s Tudor-Gothic mansion surrounded by 185 acres of woods and a lake.

The Chaces enjoy practicing T’ai Chi on the back lawn in the morning, an Eastern martial art form that combines meditation and exercise, about which JoAn Chace has written a book, Ride the Tiger to the Mountain: T'ai Chi for Health. In the evenings, they take walks with their Jack Russell terriers over grounds where Cherokee and Creek tribes once hunted.

JoAn Chace, who also has a doctorate in literature and is a senior lecturer in Emory’s Department of English, spearheaded the development of Friends of Emory Forest to reestablish the canopy of native hardwoods on campus, trees like white oak, hickory, tulip poplar, and loblolly pine. The campaign has had a recent, tangible success. “The bluebirds are coming back to Lullwater,” she said.

The Chaces have enjoyed family time at Lullwater with their two grown children, Kate and Will, who live in Atlanta and join their parents for dinner most Sundays.

The house and grounds also provided the Chaces an elegant space in which to host dinner parties and receptions for small groups of students, colleagues, and honored guests, including the Carters, Irish poet Seamus Heaney, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama.

Nobel Laureate Heaney, during a visit in the spring of 1997, watched with the Chaces from Lullwater’s roof as Hale Bop comet “sailed brilliantly and silently above the summer night.” Heaney recalled the moment during this year’s Commencement, where he gave the keynote address: “Our sense of wonder remained as innocent and wide open, as if we had been carried back among the astronomers and astrologers of ancient Babylon.”

But, as enjoyable as it has been to live in, the grand house “has never been truly ours,” said Chace–in that it belongs, always, to Emory.

After he steps down, Chace will take a year’s sabbatical, and plans to spend much of it in a cottage on Long Island Sound in Mystic, a quaint fishing village in Connecticut, with JoAn. “During the eighteenth century, ships would set sail out of Mystic and go to China, or on whaling expeditions,” he says.

After the sabbatical, Chace–who holds a doctorate in literature from the University of California at Berkeley, and is the author of two books, The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and Lionel Trilling: Criticism and Politics–plans to return to Emory one semester a year to research, write, and teach literature courses.

Teaching is familiar territory: before becoming president of Wesleyan University in 1988, Chace was a literature professor at Stanford for twenty years. He also had a tenured appointment in English at Emory during his presidency, teaching undergraduate courses on James Joyce, Shakespeare, Melville, and modern fiction and nonfiction.

In fact, it was during a class trip to Dublin and Belfast in the fall of 2002 with the fifteen students in his freshman seminar on Irish literature and history that Chace realized he was “ambitious to recover the person I was decades ago.”

Ultimately, he says, the decision to leave the presidency wasn’t a difficult one.

“I’m sure there will be some interesting existential moments. For a long time, my schedule has been dictated by the demands of the University,” Chace said. “But I haven’t felt any regret. I’d worn myself a little thin and I really want another good chapter of teaching and writing.

“I feel like Odysseus, coming home again to Ithaca. My Ithaca is the classroom.

>>> Colleagues talk about Bill Chace



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