Emory Report

February 7, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 20

Being the best Emory can be

Donald Stein is professor of neurology and psychology. He will step down as dean of the graduate school after this semester.

What do we mean at Emory when we say we want to be the absolutely uncontested, premier educational institution in the South?

Do we want the most commercial research contracts or the fastest growth of patented technology transfer? Do we want to attract the best scholars and support them in a way that maximizes their intellectual productivity? Will we continue to put University resources into teaching excellence even in areas that don't have an immediate commercial value?

All these questions help define Emory's culture and vision of excellence, and they must be debated by all segments of this community as we define our institution's future. Let us begin, then, with the question of university resources.

The criteria for University Research Committee funding often favors younger, newly hired scholars who need seed money to get started on a project, and this is as it should be. The start-up package is probably the first and last time a university will commit significant funding to an individual. Besides, these are the people who are at the cutting edge of research and usually have the latest techniques at their disposal but little or no experience in obtaining grants or contracts.

My experience leads me to believe that younger and mid-career faculty often have a better shot at getting extramural funding than those who have been around a long time. Consequently, many universities pressure established faculty members to be very entrepreneurial, making salaries and infrastructure dependent on getting government or private-industry grants.

Universities choosing this route sometimes even get caught up in a "star" system where, as with top athletes and business executives, top researchers who get big grants can "write their own ticket" for positions and support. They can bring in substantial indirect cost returns to their deans. Often these stars do little or no teaching, are hardly ever around campus and contribute little to the campus community other than their fame and stature.

As a result, a university can seriously drain its resources luring superstars at the expense of other productive faculty who may not be as well known. It is often these other faculty who provide the infrastructure, the parametric knowledge that the stars need to remain stars. It's like hiring a phenomenal quarterback while letting the offensive and defensive lines get weak-the team is still not going anywhere, despite the expensive superstar. And when he or she moves to another team, what then?

I think for Emory to go overboard on this model would be a mistake. There is a very high cost associated with this approach: the classic, traditional university mission of seeking knowledge for knowledge's sake-and disseminating that knowledge as widely as possible-can be severely compromised.

Why? Let me offer a few examples. If you're working with a corporation to develop a new drug or a new computer chip, or maybe to clone and use a gene, the information you're dealing with is highly proprietary. Consequently, you are restricted from disseminating the knowledge.

At a university, proprietary arrangements change the very nature of the mission of the research. Is the focus of your research product-oriented, or is it knowledge-oriented? These are very different questions. Further, who will be given the credit for the discoveries? The student, the faculty member or the corporation?

In such a setting, the whole issue of inventorship, authorship and intellectual freedom can become highly contested. With my background, I could have gone into the pharmaceutical industry as a young man. But I was attracted to the university life because of the opportunity for intellectual freedom and exchange of ideas among people across national and international boundaries. I wanted to be in an environment where that kind of intellectual, personal and professional autonomy existed. I think most of us were drawn to the academy for similar reasons.

Given the current funding situation in most major research universities, however, I think these core academic values have been, and continue to be, severely eroded. As long as universities across America insist that their faculty focus primarily on becoming entrepreneurs rather than scholars, the distinction between the academy and the business community will become increasingly blurred.

I'm not at all sure that it's in the best interests of any of us-business, government or society as a whole-to perceive and treat our national university system as just another business sector. I don't support the view that education is simply another "product" of our society and that students should be seen merely as customers. Enlightened business leaders, with an understanding of the true value of a liberal arts education, recognize the need to maintain the university as a place where ideas can be developed and discussed, where existing paradigms can be challenged, where experimentation-and yes, even failures-can happen without always worrying about "the bottom line."

It's not that we shouldn't encourage entrepreneurship at all; it's simply a question of balance--that is what needs debating. What is the main mission of the university? How much can or will the university support projects and areas of inquiry that have no short- or long-term financial payoff, but are simply good or interesting or exciting things to do, as esoteric as they may be?

The answer depends on what kind of university we want to be. Each university defines its own institutional culture and we--the faculty, the administrators, the trustees, this whole, big, sprawling entity we call Emory--are the ones charged with making these distinctions. If we decide to be a liberal arts institution in the broadest sense of that term, shouldn't part of our development efforts be focused upon providing the resources necessary to be that, regardless of the potential (or lack of potential) for immediate economic payoff?

As I depart this office, I worry. Clearly we are doing a lot of things right, but the potential for distraction and lack of focus is real-and always at our door. Given the hyperdevelopment of this whole region, we sometimes get caught up in a competitive mania to the extent that we don't always focus as much as we should on academic values.

This essay first appeared in Academic Exchange

Return to February 7, 2000 contents page