Faculty panel considers ethical dimensions of striving for
academic excellence at Emory

Achieving academic excellence has been a prominent conversational theme among Emory faculty for some time, but most especially since the publication of Provost Billy Frye's Choices and Responsibility in 1994. Recurrent themes in such conversations have included not only the issue of defining and visualizing what improved academic excellence at Emory should look like, but also the ethical implications involved in taking steps aimed at achieving that excellence.

These issues were addressed in depth at a Feb. 18 faculty luncheon forum on "Excellence at Emory: Ethical Considerations in Determining Our Goals." About 40 people attended the event sponsored by the Ethics Center.

Jon Gunnemann of the Candler School of theology faculty was one of three seminar panelists. In a presentation that established a context for considering the ethical dimensions of striving for academic excellence, Gunnemann stressed that "excellence must be achieved in relation to something" and that it cannot be pursued in a vacuum.

Gunnemann said the University community must ask itself what it wants to pursue and how that aim is achieved most fully. "What goods and ends does the University pursue that permit us to define excellence?" he said. "A modern university has multiple goals and aims, preventing it from adhering to one single definition of excellence."

Universities exist, Gunnemann said, in a complex social order that defies rational control and direction, and market forces are constantly establishing and rearranging priorities for educational institutions and society as a whole.

Functioning effectively in such a complex environment, Gunnemann said, requires Emory to focus on establishing and supporting spheres of excellence. "We have different spheres of learning and research with different levels of integrity," he said. "Each of these needs to be supported and protected."

The pursuit of excellence in a university, Gunnemann said, requires articulation of the goals of the colleges and schools. "We must articulate what it is that we are pursuing and what excellence means in relation to those pursuits," Gunnemann said. "We don't do so well in articulating the spheres of excellence involved in what we do."

Panelist Rebecca Chopp echoed Gunnemann's point. "What narratives do we understand as being the context for excellence at Emory?" Chopp asked. Chopp said that narratives afford Emory an open-ended process that allows the institution to go back to its history, find meaning for its present and imagine what it wants its future to be.

"Excellence has to be understood in an individualized context," Chopp said, "not reduced to mechanical ratings. We need to spend time together telling our stories, in the schools and in the University as a whole."

Chopp also quoted the philosopher Spinoza in asserting that "Excellence is as difficult as it is rare."

"We must avoid the Lake Woebegone strategy of announcing that all of our children are above average," Chopp said. "It's so easy to throw out the term 'excellence.' In the past 20-25 years, we have followed the philosophy, in both education and parenting, of telling our kids they are superb at everything they do. Now many experts are telling us that this leads to low morale and a lack of trust in the classroom. We must be honest with our students. But at the same time, we must avoid being scared of excellence. Excellence is possible. Don't assume that your students can't reach for the stars. We must remember that an important part of teaching is setting the standards a little higher than what students are accustomed to."

Panelist James Curran, dean of the Rollins School of Public Health, took Chopp's theme of raising standards as a way of achieving excellence and applied it to faculty. "As a dean, I have to judge excellence and then take the heat for judging excellence," Curran said. "Excellence implies the existence of a standard. Standards can cripple us, but without them we can't be fair. These standards are set inside and outside of the University. Excellence is about recognition outside of one's self. It's more about performance than internal values."

A persistent problem Curran and other deans face is the effect of raising standards on faculty who are already here and who joined the community under a different set of academic standards. "That can be frightening," Curran said, "but raising that bar implies that we have standards, which implies fairness."

Curran also cited the rewarding of individual excellence as a building block for achieving institutional excellence. He encouraged the rewarding and recognition of "nontraditional risk-takers," who embody the innovative ideals of Choices and Responsibility and help move the University forward in its pursuit of excellence.

-Dan Treadaway

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