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
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
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
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
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
This essay is excerpted from remarks made by Chancellor Billy Frye
at a November 1997 ceremony inducting new members into Emory's Phi Beta
to April 6, 1998 Contents Page