Frye offers update on Choices & Responsibility

Choices & Responsibility was published 18 months ago, and since then, commissions have been formed, committees have been at work, conversations have been held, and much debate has revolved around the issues raised in the document. Since its publication, the author, Provost Billy Frye, has had occasion to reflect upon the implications of his work. Recently, the editor of Emory Report had the following conversation with Frye.

Question: It's been nearly two years since you wrote Choices & Responsibility. What is its current status?

Answer: Choices & Responsibility (C&R) has continued to be mentioned frequently by President Chace, by deans and directors, and by others as a kind of topographical map to guide planning and setting of priorities. The president has asked that all new faculty members be given a copy of it as part of their introduction to Emory. It has been reprinted so that it can be distributed not only to new faculty, but also to alumni and others who have a stake in Emory. In short, C&R has become the basis for much of our current thinking about what we want Emory to be.

Its significance and currency has been further extended by the recent action of the Board of Trustees in adopting C&R as the "values platform" for strategic planning at Emory. The faculty, who played a decisive role in bringing C&R into being, should feel that their voice has been heard, with the potential for a lasting impact upon our University.

But if the question is intended to ask whether C&R has a place in the consciousness of every member of the Emory community, obviously that is hard to know. Many have read it, and in some schools and departments it is clearly being accepted as a guiding statement. But in some sectors there still may be little awareness of it. I continue to hope that C&R will be discussed and debated seriously throughout the campus, for the issues it raises are important, and I know of no better way to increase awareness of the questions and the choices before us than to engage them on a personal and local level.

Incidentally, if any of your readers need another copy of C&R, they should call my office.

Question: By now, hundreds of faculty, staff and students have participated in the discussions that have shaped C&R and its implementation. But, as you note, some are still oblivious to it. How would you summarize C&R for someone just entering the conversation?

Answer:I would say that it is about academic values and some of the fundamental but unexamined assumptions that shape the academic culture. To paraphrase President Chace, as we pursue the goals that we must pursue to become a great university, what are the things that we should do to be a good university? The premise of C&R is that the goals of greatness and goodness are not incompatible goals. More than that, they can augment one another.

I would also say that C&R is about attaining balance in the work and rewards of the faculty. How do we maintain a healthy balance between teaching and research; between building essential strength in the disciplines and fostering interdisciplinary collaboration; between setting nationally competitive standards of excellence and creating a humane, supportive environment in which students and faculty can grow as they work. C&R is about creating an academic culture in which both sides of these dichotomies are valued equally. 

Question: C&R is thoughtfully written, but there must be things you would say differently if you were writing it today. What would those differences be?

Answer: Yes, I would change some things. First, I would say up front and unequivocally that the imperative of Emory, upon which all others hang, must be the continued pursuit of the highest standard of intellectual excellence we can achieve. It was my assumption when I wrote C&R that its aims were to be construed within the context of our goal of becoming a scholarly, intellectual center of the highest quality. Today, because some have inferred incorrectly that C&R reflects a change in our aspirations, I would say explicitly that excellence is the foundation of everything we do. C&R is about a way of pursuing excellence, not an alternative to it.

There are some other things I might say differently or emphasize more, but that is the most important thing that I would underscore.

Question: C&R in a sense is about ideals, but does not speak explicitly to their implementation. What do you see as the biggest challenges to achieving the ideals that it advocates?

Answer: As in any institution with a history, an established agenda and an image of what it is or wants to become, I think there are some powerful built-in resistances to be overcome. First, there is the simple fact that everyone is working full time now, and the goals of C&R cannot be attained by just asking everyone to do more. That is not possible. Second, there is the intrinsic conservatism of the established interests -- one might say the disciplines or departments, in this case. Their role will continue to be as important as their hegemony is powerful, and the challenge is to show that the interests of the disciplines -- and certainly of the faculty -- are not incompatible with the values and objectives set forth in C&R. Closely related to this point is the fact that our tradition of a highly decentralized structure makes it hard to push from above for change. Fortunately, and more than at most places, the faculties and the deans at Emory for the most part seem prepared to embrace the premise that great strength can be found in the potential synergy of our parts and the collaboration of our members.

Perhaps our greatest challenge is to be willing to get out of stride, even to a modest degree, with the culture of Western academe. Universities are among the most stable and conservative institutions. I find that an intriguing paradox, given that the essential passion of the scholarly life is to continually reexamine and, where warranted, to relinquish established paradigms. The reasons for our conformity and conservatism are undoubtedly complex. Suffice it here to say that we as scholars are probably no more comfortable with change or non-conformity than anyone else.

Question: When you speak of more attention to teaching, or to interdisciplinary scholarship, you stress that you are not advocating a decline in our commitment to our research mission and reputation. Yet each of us has a finite amount of time and resources with which to work. How do you imagine that the faculty will find more time and energy to devote to teaching or to interdisciplinary scholarship?

Answer: This is a tough one. One thing for sure, as I've already suggested: it won't be by working harder. I would stress two points in response to this question. First, the effectiveness of what we do is not always directly related to how much time we spend doing it. Better teaching does not necessarily mean more teaching. The commitment and attitude we bring to the classroom have a profound effect upon our teaching and our impact upon students; and, in turn, our sense of the value placed on teaching by our peers and by the institution has a profound effect upon our commitment and attitude. By making certain that these activities are respected and appreciated, the University can assure that we will do them with more satisfaction, and probably better.

Second, there clearly will have to be some trade-offs, and I suggest that some trade-offs are possible without compromising quality. For example, most people I talk with agree that the emphasis upon the quantity of publication in some fields has reached ludicrous extremes that may, in fact, have compromised the quality of scholarship. In any case, with more reasonable criteria and with appropriate institutional support, a different work profile of the faculty might evolve, without diminishing substance and quality. I recognize that in this area, more than all others, getting out of step with national norms can be risky business indeed. But even if some of our colleagues (notably those in the hard core sciences) are caught in a trap in this regard, there may be unimagined or untried ways that teaching and research could enhance rather than compete with one another; and certainly there are times when interdisciplinary collaborations in research and teaching should be encouraged and supported as alternatives rather than additions to what our traditional departmental culture prescribes.

Overall, I believe firmly that, notwithstanding the very real external constraints that we ignore only at our peril, how faculty spend their time and intellectual energies is profoundly affected by what they want to do and whether they feel rewarded for doing it. We make choices every day. Our challenge is to create an environment where the faculty have reasonable freedom to make the right choices.

Question: What are the financial or budgetary implications of C&R? What will it cost?

Answer: Not to be glib, but I could say, "as little or as much as we want." There is no question but that the investment of appreciable resources in new initiatives, or incentive programs, that forward one or another of the objectives of C&R could have a great effect. Indeed, for starters this next year, the president and the Program and Budget Committee have committed a bit under $1 million for just such purposes. That is where the new teaching fund that I recently announced is coming from, and I expect to announce one or two additional initiatives later in the year. I hope to see significant flow of resources into the implementation of C&R continue and increase in the future, and I hope we will have opportunities to raise funds for this purpose.

It would be a serious mistake to assume, however, that progress will be made in the directions proposed by C&R only if we spend new money. The most important change will have occurred when the values of C&R have been so internalized that they affect the priorities we set in the normal annual budget: What kind of faculty do we hire? What counts in promotion and salary increases? How much do we invest in developing collaborative infrastructure and supportive services University-wide? The point is that we are dealing with a rich array of choices, some of which both promote excellence per se and support the framework for excellence suggested by C&R.

There will be a budgetary impact, and eventually we will have to develop a budget plan for implementing C&R. But mostly the impact of C&R will be upon how we use what we are already spending.  

Question: The trustees adopted C&R as the "values platform" for strategic planning. What does that mean?

Answer: A good strategic plan starts from a sense of institutional mission and a vision. The plan itself is not a blueprint, but a process that both translates the vision into reality and reconciles it with our practical limitations. For the plan to be anything more than fantasy, the vision has to be tempered and strengthened by assessment of our environment -- our strengths and weaknesses; our special history, opportunities and responsibilities. Above all, a plan must be tied to specific goals and objectives that move us toward the vision, and coupled with an evaluation of our progress toward those goals. Thus, the course will be set, and priorities over the long run will be determined by the extent to which we are committed to this vision for Emory.

Because much of the implementation of C&R will be played out in our day-to-day decisions, it could be hard to see just how our strategic plan is, in practice, connected to C&R. To eliminate this ambiguity, I have suggested to President Chace that we tie our plan directly to the six "issues" of C&R (including the new one I am writing on "Excellence"). Almost every important decision that we will make will relate in one way or another to the principles that underlie those six issues.

Question: It sounds as if we are in this for the long run. Do you really expect C&R to make a difference? What would you expect to be different about Emory in 10 years because of C&R?

Answer: To start with, I would say that C&R is already making a difference: in the language used around the campus to describe plans and programs; in questions being raised about allocating resources and setting priorities; in a rising awareness of and cooperation with one another, and the forging of new linkages -- for example, among the service units. So C&R is changing our dialogue and expectations, and that, in turn, will change Emory. The question is whether or not that can be sustained.

As a sometime scientist, I am prone to wonder: "In 10 years how could I prove that C&R had made a difference?" The short answer is that I probably could not. No "control" is possible in this experiment; and the national norms are changing, so that the points of reference themselves will not be the same. Nonetheless, there are signs one could look for. Internally, will the values we espouse be congruent with what we are actually doing 10 years from now? Will there be better teaching, more respected interdisciplinary scholarship and collaboration, more international activities, more mutualism between Emory and the community around us? Is there a more widely shared understanding of what we are about, more unity of purpose and more satisfaction with ourselves individually and collectively? Is there shared confidence and pride among us in what we have become and what we stand for?

Externally, will we have achieved a strong, distinctive and admired reputation not only for our academic strength, but also for our special qualities? Are we able to attract and retain top-flight students and faculty, competitively with other institutions? Are we able to compete successfully for funds? One could go on...

In short, I certainly am serious about C&R, and I do expect it to make a difference. For me, and obviously for many others, C&R reflects a long and important struggle between the ideal of a university and the practical reality of it in this day and time. In that sense, C&R is really asking us to come to terms with what it means to be a university, and to be a scholar and an educator. Such "coming to terms" depends utterly upon public dialogue and discourse. One of the unfortunate consequences of specialization and expertise in academe is that they have largely driven discourse about such fundamental matters out of academic life.

So, will C&R be successful? I don't doubt that we hold the values it espouses. The questions are, can we sustain the discourse, and can we act on our convictions? If so, we will be a different and better Emory than we would otherwise be.

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