Faculty assess impact of Choices & Responsibility

In the 18 months since its publication, Choices & Responsibility (C&R) has prompted a great deal of faculty discussion and reflection, and has been adopted by the Board of Trustees as Emory's "value platform" for planning. To assess the faculty's attitude toward C&R, the editor of Emory Report talked with three faculty members--the University Senate president, a former department chair and the director of an interdisciplinary studies program who bring unique perspectives to the issues C&R addresses. While they could never represent the array of attitudes held by the entire faculty, these three voices resonate with the themes of a document that has become an integral part of Emory.

Institutional strengths and weaknesses

The three were cautiously optimistic in their appraisal of Emory's strengths and weaknesses and of its standing among other major universities. "Emory is extremely well placed to achieve at some point institutional greatness. It's not there yet," said Woodruff Professor of New Testament and University Senate President Luke Johnson. He said that Emory does have "charismatic greatness in pockets--that sort of chemistry of interesting minds and interesting questions and interesting technology coming together for a moment and flaring. But institutional greatness is the capacity to replicate excellence generation after generation. Emory is not in a position to replicate Harvard or Yale or Stanford at this point. It is poised to do that. But it needs to develop what I would call a psychology of excellence, which is difficult to define but easy to recognize."

Johnson noted that Emory is hampered by a lack of depth in what he characterized as "the infrastructure of learning. We have truly excellent sections and divisions and departments," he said, "but we don't have the kind of ancillary resources or network of strengths that enable the sort of great leap forward, if you will. In these ways, our capacity for moving much further are limited by things that simply can't be bought, and can't be created quickly."

Professor of Anthropology Peggy Barlett echoed Johnson's analysis. "Emory is disjointed at the moment with sectors of vitality and cutting edge thinking and sectors of stagnation and mediocrity." She also commented on the lack of a coherent community, which she attributed in part to the large number of new faculty members and poor communication outside of departments. "If we can build a collective culture, we will be in a better position to excel in the future" she said.

Rudolph P. Byrd, associate professor in the Institute of the Liberal Arts and director of African American Studies, compared Emory favorably in terms of the strengths of the faculty and the excellence of the student body with "Duke or Harvard or any other institution. The difference, of course, is institutional resources," he said, "and the ways in which those resources are distributed. But I certainly think that we as a faculty are as distinguished, as able to provide leadership. Those institutions in some ways have a longer history, and are a little farther ahead of us."

Aspirations and expectations for Emory

"I have very clear aspirations for my little part of Emory, and I have aspirations for Emory as a whole, or I wouldn't be a part of faculty governance," Johnson said. "I want the School of Theology to be recognized as the best in the country. I want the Graduate Division of Religion to be in the top rank."

His ambition for Emory, he said, "is to help it grow into and mature within its potential. I wouldn't want to quantify that. In some ways, interestingly, the psychology of excellence is a non-comparative psychology. The clearest sign that Emory is not institutionally where it could be is the tendency to look over our shoulders. There is still this sense that we need to gain strength from without, that we know where we are by measurement over and against others, rather than the kind of maturation and self confidence that enables us, for example, to recruit from within, to enliven the rules of tenure by practicing genuine discernment for excellence that perhaps has not yet emerged, to make decisions that are not necessarily quantifiable according to the general norms, but suit our local sense of genius."

Byrd expressed his aspirations and expectations in terms of the relationship between the institution and African American Studies. "I would like for the University to continue to see African American Studies as central to its intellectual life," he said. "It's very clear that the University is fully committed to the growth and development of African American Studies. This commitment is reflected in faculty appointments and in the level of support from the College to mount symposia and interesting programming. African American Studies is one way to emphasize the University's commitment to excellence, and also to emphasize the importance of education as preparation for living in a multicultural society."

Changes since Choices & Responsibility

"Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the last couple of years," said Johnson, "is that we've begun to see actual concrete results from this long process of luncheon meetings, priority meetings, Senate meetings, Faculty Council meetings and discussions--genuine initiatives, concrete initiatives in a remarkably short time and in a very powerful way." He pointed particularly to the Commission on Teaching, which he characterized as "a bit unwieldy in its size, but nevertheless extremely important," and the newly established teaching fund. "For Emory to put aside a significant amount of money to reward teaching initiatives, to stimulate research into teaching, to support alternative modes of teaching, is extraordinarily forceful," he said.

Barlett, who has recently returned from sabbatical, said that she is seeing a shift in the ways in which teaching is assessed. "One thing I could point to as evidence of this change," she said, "is that faculty in many departments now submit teaching portfolios when they come up for promotion or tenure. David Edwards led a committee that presented a thoughtful series of recommendations about how to assess teaching, and I think that more of these kinds of creative suggestions wil be used as we pay more attention to the teaching process."

She remarked on the new teaching fund as well. "Almost every day I'm on campus," she said, "someone mentions to me an idea they would like to pursue using the new teaching fund." She said that despite that enthusiasm, the results of such initiatives will be several years off, because of the backlog of most faculty member's previous commitments. That kind of lag time in the process of change "is why academia often seems so conservative," she said.

Changing the academic culture of Emory

The three faculty members generally agreed that C&R may have the potential to bring about both short-term and long-term change, and in doing so, may even change the very culture of the University. "I think we will begin to see some different criteria for promotions to full professor, and I think we already see different criteria for promotion to associate professor with tenure," said Barlett. "I think we will definitely see support for different kinds of teaching. And I think we will see more international activities, although I'm not as clear on how we're going to be moving in that direction, given the difficulties the College is currently facing in curriculum reform."

Barlett said that the vision articulated in C&R of swimming upstream and "getting out of stride of the culture of western academe" is a refreshing one. "I think some of the ways that Emory has pursued excellence in the past have been exciting in the short run and so exhausting as to be stifling in the long run."

The process of self-reflection and self-examination that has taken place as a result of C&R has begun the process of changing the culture, according to Byrd. "In African American Studies," he said, "we routinely use C&R as a framework for our own planning. What I value most about C&R is that it has provided faculty members with a framework for discussing the culture of this particular institution and the ways in which we can define ourselves as an institution."

A faculty driven process

Byrd, calling C&R a "planning document," said that Emory is unusual in having this kind of "document that provides us with a framework for articulating a vision. C&R is an invitation to faculty and an acknowledgement of our role in providing leadership. It is also an acknowledgment of our strengths."

One of Johnson's research interests is in how communities make decisions, and he characterized the model of decision-making at Emory as "a really fine one. There has been a true involvement of large numbers of faculty. The faculty lunches have been an extraordinarily important part, not only for the subjects they discussed--interdisciplinary teaching, how to reward excellence in teaching, what are the impediments to good teaching-- but the related function has been to create a sense of community -- people across disciplines meeting and talking about serious issues. And quite clearly, the summaries and reports from those meetings are being read."

-- Nancy M. Spitler

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