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