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September 30, 2002

Drug testing comes up at Chace town hall

By Eric Rangus

About 22 minutes into his annual Town Hall Meeting, Sept. 25, President Bill Chace received the question he was waiting for. After all, the campus was buzzing about it, and the student newspaper, The Emory Wheel, had published an in-depth investigation into its creation the day before.

“It,” of course, is Emory’s new pre-employment drug screening policy, which tests prospective employees for illegal drugs, but exempts prospective faculty.

When Ron Foust, senior financial analyst in Information Technology and former president of the Employee Council (the organization sponsoring the town hall), asked Chace about what led to the decision, Emory’s president was ready, understanding, eloquent and, perhaps, surprising.

“I’m not utterly astounded that this question has arisen,” Chace said to a full Winship Ballroom. Previous questions had covered relatively soft subjects, and the switch to drug-testing policy moved the meeting in another direction.

“This is not and should not be construed in any way as an invasion of the privacy of employees,” he said.

The policy was piloted last spring in four University divisions: Campus Life, Community Services, Facilities Management and Human Resources. It is in the process of being expanded to encompass the whole of the University.

Staff concerns about the policy have ranged from a fear that the policy would eventually include current employees to the question of why new faculty are not tested. Chace discussed the policy from a variety of angles.

“We do not intend to administer drug testing to employees,” he said, alleviating concerns that current employees may eventually be asked to submit to testing.

Regarding faculty testing, Chace reiterated a previous stance that faculty on campus were treated differently than other employees. “They are the entity around which everything else revolves,” Chace said. “We’re all here, including myself, working for the faculty. Without them, we don’t have a university.”

Chace expanded his thoughts on the subject, however. “I’m about 60/40 in favor of this [testing],” he said. “I don’t want to come before my colleagues and say, ‘This is wonderful. Why don’t you understand that?’ You get situations in your career and you choose, and all the right isn’t on one side. On balance, I believe this is the way to go.”

He concluded by leaving the policy open for change. Chace said he would be open to pre-employment drug testing of faculty, but such change would be up to the faculty.

“I will ask Faculty Council to take up the matter,” he said.

Drug testing was certainly not the only subject of Chace’s 50-minute appearance. He answered questions about whether Emory is still competitive despite national economic troubles (“Without trying to create a sense of defensiveness, I simply cannot believe we [are not].”); if employees could be given a third floating holiday to compensate for reduced benefits (no, too expensive); whether employees could formally evaluate managers (no, the manager/ employee relationship is not a two-way street); and a handful of other questions.

Prior to answering questions, Chace briefly commented on the state of the University. “As I look around campus—I’ve read a great deal—and I’m happy to report that, all things considered, we are in very good shape,” he said. “But I would be less than candid if I didn’t report that we’re doing well within somewhat adverse circumstances.”

Those circumstances, he said, include “something of a recession” and a troubled U.S. health care system. Still, he continued, while Emory’s endowment has shrunk slightly, the University remains able to hire top-level faculty and staff as well as continue to build state-of-the-art academic buildings and research laboratories.

A town hall meeting with the University president and Emory staff was first organized by Employee Council in 1991 when James Laney led the University, and it has become a staple of Emory’s fall schedule. Chace has appeared each year of his nine-year presidency.