Emory Report

April 6, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 27

First Person:

Frye muses on lessons
learned in academic career

Inasmuch as I will soon retire after 48 years as student, faculty member and administrator, I thought I might use the opportunity to reflect on what those years of university life have taught me. Most of the "lessons" I have learned are little more than my own spin on familiar aphorisms, but each of us has to learn these lessons in our own way.

Lesson #1: "Academic administrators don't get no respect." And the faculty chorus might add, "Nor do they deserve any!" I learned this lesson when my fall from the honorable ranks of faculty began about 25 years ago. I was still an honest biologist, teaching at a summer school in Virginia, when I got a call from my dean at the University of Michigan, asking me to take the job of associate dean. I went to my most valued friend, an elderly and renowned biologist, ostensibly to ask his advice about whether or not to take the job. He gazed at me over his wire-rimmed glasses with a look somewhere between amusement and contempt until he was satisfied that he had made me sufficiently uncomfortable. Then he muttered, "Humph. Associate dean: mouse in training to become a rat," and stalked away.

We academics adopt-or seem to adopt-a posture of skepticism toward administration, and we should. There must be administration, of course, and to be sure deans and provosts do have real authority. But as a very experienced dean once said to an admiring alumna who was too much in awe of his supposed power as dean: "Yes, ma'am, the dean has all the power in the world-so long as he doesn't try to use it."

Lesson #2: "Timing is everything in life." When I became dean, the University of Michigan was beginning to experience budget problems after a three-decade-long spiral of growth. A senior, highly respected member of the faculty, a classicist named Gerald Else, had some years earlier created a wonderfully innovative program called the "Center for Ancient and Modern Studies." But he was retiring, so the question of whether this center should continue under new leadership or be closed to save some money inevitably arose.

The decision was to close the program, and it fell to me to tell Professor Else. I delivered my bad news with all the grace I could. Although he was attentive, it was obvious that our conversation was not the most important thing on his mind. When I finished, he merely responded, "Your decision is quite well justified. Now let me tell you my news. I am getting married, and I want you to be the first to know!"

Thus I learned that hard decisions can be made easier if you pick the right time or can create a diversionary situation. Unfortunately, I was never able to recreate a comparable combination of circumstances to ease me through later difficult situations.

But I learned then that the things we do in universities, even the best things, sometimes have a limited window of time in which they are the right investment. Although stability is one of the great virtues of university programs, permanence should not be taken for granted.

Lesson # 3: "Don't blink." In the early years of my "deaning" at Michigan, we established one of the first programs in women's studies. Conservative academics were skeptical of the merits of such programs, so the program was quite tentative and experimental. But its proponents were aggressive; student interest was great; and the curriculum of the program quickly expanded beyond the capacity of the faculty to teach it.

Still the executive committee of the college resisted authorizing a new faculty line to teach the courses in question. Now in those days at Michigan any issue could spark a student protest, protesting-next to football and fraternity parties-being a major extracurricular activity. During this crisis I was told the students were marching on my office, demanding I talk to them. I found several hundred students crowded into the long, narrow corridor around my office, waving placards and shouting slogans. There was no way for more than a handful to get into my office, so I pulled a chair into the corridor to stand on while I tried to address the gathering throng. Privately but I hope not visibly terrified, I got up on the chair and tried to gain my composure and think about what I would say. I do not remember what happened next, except that it turned out in fact to be quite a reasonable discussion. But the next day a picture of me standing on the chair with my eyes tightly closed, looking obviously distressed, appeared in the student newspaper. You might guess what the headline read: "Frye Closes Eyes to Plight of Women's Studies!"

Perhaps the most important lesson that day was simply "accountability." Another was the importance of the most difficult of administrative challenges in the university-full and honest communication. A third was the dawning realization, highly uncomfortable to me as a scientist and pure rationalist (or so I thought), that emotion and politics cannot be taken altogether out of campus discourse. Nor perhaps should they be, as long as they are appropriately tamed. I remained committed, however, to the notion that in an intellectual community the greatest passion of the scholar must be dispassion itself.

Lesson #4: "All rights entail responsibility." The anecdote I recall on this point is not an amusing one. Some of you may remember when I was acting as president, a decision had to be made whether or not to invite Minister Muhammad of the Nation of Islam to speak on the campus. For a host of reasons it became a very difficult problem. And the political pressures on both sides of the issue were very strong.

That situation raised, and will in time surely raise again, important issues about the nature of the university and the need to differentiate between the "first principles" of the university community and those of the larger society of which we are a part. The core issue was not freedom of speech, as some misconstrued at the time-the First Amendment does not oblige private universities to give a forum to every person who wants the public's ear. Rather, the core issue was about the university as a "marketplace" of ideas and the conditions necessary for that marketplace to thrive.

We take it as a right within the university community to hear and debate any and all ideas. But often we do not equally recognize the responsibilities this right entails: the responsibility to maintain a civil environment in which rational discourse can proceed; the responsibility to examine every idea critically-especially those we have a personal bias for or against; the responsibility to make sure that all sides of an issue are examined; the responsibility to insist on truthfulness and to resist specious or merely polemical arguments; and the responsibility to insist that the right of free exchange of ideas not be abused in a way that accomplishes the opposite-that is, in a way that creates an environment of intolerance and inconsiderateness. In short, the responsibility to ensure that the intellectual virtues that I mentioned at the beginning be honored.

I am not foolish enough to suppose that any of us can shake off our human passions or that the university can be intellectually "pure" and nonpolitical. But it is precisely because we cannot that we have written and unwritten rules of scholarly discourse. So my point is not really about Minister Muhammad or even academic freedom per se, but about understanding conditions that are necessary for an open learning environment and protecting them with all our might. In our zeal to exploit the remarkable freedoms the university offers, we should never overlook the responsibilities our freedoms entail.

This essay is excerpted from remarks made by Chancellor Billy Frye at a November 1997 ceremony inducting new members into Emory's Phi Beta Kappa chapter.

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