October 6, 2003

Senate hearing

By Eric Rangus

Versatility is something John Snarey has taken seriously throughout his career. The buzzword in academia, actually, is “interdisciplinary.” The term is pretty self-explanatory. An interdisciplinary academic is one whose expertise or research interests crosses traditional departmental, programmatic or disciplinary boundaries. And ever since his days as a student in the 1960s and 1970s, Snarey has been all about interdisciplinary studies.

“One of my Harvard professors once described me as a genuine interdisciplinary type, and I felt comfortable with that,” said Snarey, Professor of Human Development and Ethics in the Candler School of Theology. Snarey’s academic home may be in theology, but he is trained as a developmental psychologist and holds associated faculty positions in both psychology and educational studies.

In his time in the University, Snarey also has dabbled in cognitive neuroscience, business and even women’s studies. “I don’t really abide by disciplinary boundaries very well,” Snarey said. “I basically have made a career of ignoring them.”

Recently Snarey expanded his horizons even more. A delegate to Emory’s University Senate for the past few years, he took over as president this fall. Now, not only does Snarey juggle commitments to his variety of research interests, but also in the mix is a significant contribution to University governance.

“My conviction is that participation in governance is an obligation,” said Snarey, whose almost stream-of-consciousness manner of speaking isn’t necessarily hard to follow—instead it is merely a sign of a mind that never appears fully at rest. That’s perhaps another sign of someone who is bursting at the seams with interests.

“Governance protects rights we are all concerned about, like academic freedom of speech or protection of tenure,” Snarey said. “Those sorts of things are dependent upon the community maintaining some voice in governance.

“We are all members of the same community here,” said Snarey, who by virtue of his Senate presidency also leads the Faculty Council. “The Senate is a wonderful forum because it’s the one place on campus where faculty, staff, students, administrators, professors emeritus and other subgroups of the University come together and are able to talk to each other and offer guidance and advice on the governance of the University.”

Talking—at least, conversations between the administration and the various constituencies he just listed—hasn’t always been easy, Snarey said,.

“Genuine” is one of the words Snarey used to describe President Jim Wagner upon meeting him for the first time. “Personable” is another.

Snarey continued. Wagner is “a man of action” and “a good listener”—in short, someone Snarey is looking forward to working with, and explaining a somewhat activist University Senate agenda for 2003–04.

“He reflects carefully before taking action,” Snarey said of Wagner. “But then he moves quickly, as soon as possible—but not prematurely—to an action plan. That’s a step I think that’s been lacking in recent years, and I like it. I think we’re going to get some things done.”

Snarey said he understands why the rank-and-file members of the Emory community have not always seen eye to eye with the administration—no matter who happened to be sitting in the president’s office.

“There is a creative tension between meeting the needs of specific groups and, at the very same time, meeting the needs of the institution as a whole,” Snarey said. “The two sides need to be carefully balanced. It’s easy for professors to collapse it all on their side, but it’s also easy for administrators to collapse it all on their side as well. But we need somebody who will balance things more carefully, do the hard work of avoiding these either/or choices, and find resolutions that capture the core interests of all parties. There always is more than one alternative, but we haven’t been working hard enough to find them.”

So far, Snarey said the communication between the Senate and Wagner has been excellent, and that the new president has been good to work with. At their first meeting last month, Wagner suggested that the Senate’s executive committee meet with him once a month, which is something that hasn’t happened in several years.

But just because everything is rosy now doesn’t necessarily mean that will be the case in the future (although all parties involved are most certainly rooting for that to be the case). After all, the “things” Snarey hopes get done hardly lack controversy. One of the first issues the Senate wants to revisit is the University’s pre-employment drug testing policy. The Senate had recommended an alternative plan during the 2002–03 academic year, but it was not implemented.

“Drug testing will come up soon, and I am confident that the Senate committee that’s working on this will be able to bring a proposal that’s far better than what we have in place, and will probably be better than our initial counterproposal as well,” Snarey said.

Snarey also wants to bring the issue of faculty retirement benefits back onto the table. Retirement benefits were among those affected in 2001–02 when the University reduced its fringe benefits package for its current and former employees. It’s a subject Snarey described as “far touchier but also more important” than the drug-testing debate.

“Professors emeritus have become more vocal,” Snarey said. “And they really were ignored in the original decision.”

Also on Snarey’s to-do list is a discussion of building a more effective partnership with the Board of Trustees, perhaps by having faculty members sitting on committees (this conversation has already begun) and giving constituencies such as staff, retirees and students more of a voice in administrative decisions that affect them directly (this also is ongoing, and the improved communication Snarey spoke of could only help in this area).

“Everybody begins a new year with optimism, so time will tell,” Snarey said. “But I couldn’t have hoped for a better president.”

Optimism is a good word to describe Snarey’s approach to the new year. Another good one would be “harried.” (“I’ve given up one year of my life to the Senate,” Snarey said.) But he hasn’t shirked his academic duties.

In the last two weeks alone, Snarey has been looking over the proofs of Racing Moral Formation, a book he is co-editing with Vanessa Siddle Walker, professor of educational studies, that gives voice to African American perspectives on justice and moral education. He is editing a special issue of the Journal of Moral Education that explores the work and writing of William James, a late-19th century pioneer in the field of the psychology of religion. Snarey also is collaborating with neuroscience faculty on a manuscript that relates a study on the possibilities of a neural basis for moral reasoning.

African American studies, education, psychology, religion, neurology—the above thumbnail sketch of Snarey’s interests reveals just how interdisciplinary his work is. And that aspect of his research, he said, makes Cander the perfect home.

Himself a former seminary “dropout” Snarey said his academic interests returned to religious questions when a close friend and former professor sommitted suicide..

“Candler is very interdisciplinary,” Snarey said about why he has come to love his home. “There are language specialists, sociologists, psychologists, such as myself, even an archaeologist. There are also the traditional disciplines of preaching, systemetic theology and ecclesiology. It’s not like many other graduate departments where there is just one dominent discipline.”