A message from President James W. Wagner

(V₁)(F₁) + (V₂)(F₂) + (V₃)(F₃) + (V₄)(F₄) = P

“Just the facts, ma’am,” Detective Sergeant Joe Friday, of Dragnet, is famous for saying.

Sherlock Holmes, Joe Friday’s predecessor in fiction, might have said the same thing with an English accent. Both, in their crime solving, seemed to suggest that if we only get the facts right, all will become clear.

But of course there is Dr. Watson. He’s the one who, in the familiar joke, wakes in the middle of the night on a camping trip with Holmes and is able to deduce from the starry dark sky the weather forecast, the zodiacal season, the theological mystery of existence, the finitude of humankind—everything except the fact that someone has stolen the tent in which he went to sleep.

Part of the university enterprise entails helping people to get the facts. But once they have the facts, the question remains whether they will draw the same conclusions. Of course frequently they do not, and I have often puzzled about why that is. Why, when we agree on certain facts, do some of us, like Dr. Watson, miss the obvious conclusion?

The equation in the title of this article is my way of getting at this puzzle. (This is the peril of having an engineer as a university president.) V represents “Value,” while F represents “Fact.” The value applied to each fact, added to the value applied to each succeeding fact, amounts to P—“Perception” or “Policy Position.”

Based on our experiences and predilections, we simply do not all give equal value to known facts. It is a fact, for instance, that enough students apply to Emory each year to fill several classes and still have many qualified applicants left over. This is good for the “value” of filling classes and balancing the budget, especially if (as is also true) many of those applicants’ families can actually pay the full cost of their education.

On the other hand, if one of our values is to create a diverse community on our campus—because diversity itself is deemed to have an educational benefit—then the admissions process cannot be simply about filling the class with paying students. The combination of values and facts might lead—as it has done at Emory—to a program like Emory Advantage, which makes it possible for qualified students to join our classes even if they can’t afford the sticker price.

Coming to agreement on policy decisions thus requires helping each other to understand not only the facts as we believe them to be but also the values we give to them. One way Emory has changed through this shaping of the equation of perception is in our approach to our environment. My predecessor, Bill Chace, helped Emory foster a wide-ranging discussion about the use of our limited resources of land and space. An important part of that discussion lay not only in determining the facts of the matter—how many acres Emory owned, how many might become available, how much square footage might need to be built in the next decade, how increased construction would affect neighborhood traffic, and so on—but also the principles, the values, by which to weigh the facts. The Emory community agreed that certain values outweighed others—the value of a pedestrian-friendly campus outweighed the value of convenient parking; the value of connections among programs outweighed the value of school autonomy; the value of aesthetic harmony among buildings outweighed the value of creative carte blanche for architects.

Policy making in a community as complex as Emory can never be done by formula. But understanding the way principles and facts take on relative values can lead to policy making that is less abrasive and more enlightening.

By the way—Joe Friday actually said, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” That’s a (not very important, in my view) fact.



© 2007 Emory University