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May 7, 2001

What we've learned this year

Billy Frye, John Stone, Steve Kraftchick and Robert Agnew co-chaired the 2000–01 Year of Reconciliation and the Reconciliation Symposium in January. Karen Poremski served as coordinator for all official Year of Reconciliation activities.


As the Year of Reconciliation draws to its official close, we (the co-chairs and coordinator of the Reconciliation Symposium) take this opportunity to reflect on the successes and shortcomings of our experiences as an institution this year—both what we did “right” and what we’re still learning to do.

We did not solve the conflicts of the world or our campus during two days in January, or even during the whole year; these were not our goals. We realized early on—and hoped our colleagues would follow as the year got under way—that reconciliation is not about achieving a static end result. Rather, it’s about the process of hearing and talking with each other, the process of sustaining dialogue across lines of difference or conflict.

We wanted people to know that the greatest power of the idea of reconciliation lies in the dynamic meaning of the word—the ways in which we hold ourselves accountable for understanding the arguments, evidence and interests of those different from ourselves.

Conflict is inherent in everything from the structure of atoms to the affairs of humankind. The most interesting question in every situation is how the conflict or tension between its parties is resolved or balanced. The same goes for our intellectual life: Isolated from other ideas, our own amount to little more than dogma; it is when we examine them honestly in light of other, potentially conflicting ideas that they become scholarship. Seen this way, reconciliation is at the heart of what we do.

The goals of the committee—echoing those set forth by Billy Frye in Choices & Responsibility—were to heighten the University’s awareness of the complexities of the concepts of conflict and reconciliation, to engage in a discussion as a community about meaningful ideas that affect our lives, and to discover ways in which we could use this thinking and discussion to act.

These goals gave us a framework in which an impressive array of productive and stimulating activities took place, from the symposium to course offerings to special programs in the schools of law and public health, the Women’s Center and so forth. The activities through which Emory as an institution explored the concepts of conflict and reconciliation are indeed too numerous even to list here. But in general, we think the events of the year—and, in particular, the symposium—were successful in the following ways: They highlighted the work of Emory faculty in the area of reconciliation; they stimulated dialogue across the University on topics of mutual concern; they provided a model for future endeavors of this sort; they identified or drew greater attention to a range of issues that Emory (like many other institutions) needs to address; and they fostered the “spirit of reconciliation” sometimes evident on campus.

One of the successes, the ways in which the year’s events advanced our knowledge, is in the examination of environmental issues at Emory. The symposium presentation by E. O. Wilson, its panel discussion on reconciliation in the environment, and the resulting workshop on nurturing a “green university” enriched and were enriched by the work of the Ad Hoc Committee on Environmental Stewardship, which had begun well before this year.

There is tangible evidence that this symbiotic relationship has produced real change at Emory: We now are more aware of Emory as an environment and of the decisions that affect the balance between preservation and growth. While the Reconciliation Committee cannot take credit for producing this progress, we can be proud that we supported it.

However, these significant successes notwithstanding, we are also mindful of ways in which we fell short of our goals. We were less successful in ensuring that many of the conversations begun at the symposium continued and bore fruit. Unfortunately, it seems to take a crisis to stimulate widespread discussion of an issue, as we have seen in the controversy over Commencement and the discussion of race and biology in The Wheel. In these cases, students worked quickly and diligently to address these conflicts, and with good results.

We also failed to anticipate the need for reconciliation between faculty and administration; once more, a “crisis” has stimulated much discussion in this area. But there is hope: There is a spirit of cooperation emerging, and dialogue has begun.

We think—we hope—that the moral framework provided by the symposium and the year has played some role in shaping the response to this crisis. As murky and painful as the process of examining conflict, airing disagreement and reconnecting is, it is better than separation and departure. By calling ourselves a university, we commit ourselves to a sense of community. We should also be aware that the responsibility for maintaining this community, for keeping alive and possible the prospect of reconciliation, lies with all of us.

The perception of the degree of “success” of the symposium and the year varies greatly from person to person. Those who saw the program as an opportunity to approach their own work from an interdisciplinary perspective and as an opportunity to understand and learn from our differences likely profited from it. Those who saw the theme merely as a contrivance and a questionable effort to create “peace and harmony” likely perceive the year’s events to have had little intellectual or community-building value.

If we increased our awareness of and accountability to one another in an intellectual sense, and if we deepened the desire and opportunities for ongoing interaction and dialogue of the sort that is called for in Choices & Responsibility and A Vision for Emory, then we will have had a significant impact on the intellectual life of the community and the development of our students. But our natural tendency seems to be to isolate ourselves in our scholarly specialties (for understandable reasons); in this condition, no single exercise in interdisciplinary collaboration will bring about a permanent change in the habits of the community. Our challenge is to recognize the importance of such exercises and continue to create and support fresh opportunities to engage with one another in our teaching, research and service activities.

We hope that what we’ve begun this year will continue; when we understand that reconciliation is a process, we also understand that it does not end.

We hope that the legacy of the Year of Reconciliation will be a recommitment on the part of the members of our community to keep that community healthy.


Back to Emory Report May 7, 2001