Emory Report
December 6, 2004
Volume 57, Number 14


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December 6 , 2004
An imperative to serve


Before we next celebrate Thanksgiving, Emory will embark on a major fund-raising campaign, and the external environment in which this campaign will be conducted is different and infinitely more challenging than 10 or even five years ago.

To succeed, we as an institution will have to distinguish ourselves, but the question is: How? The answer may lie in President Jim Wagner’s recent emphasis on contributory excellence—an excellence that brings improvement and innovation to society, rather than simply competitive excellence that helps us keep pace with our peers. The president isn’t merely coining a new buzzword. The idea of contributory excellence is one he developed through decades of his own research, teaching and administration, and my 28 years in the trenches of marketing the academic enterprise to the outside world have taught me similar lessons.

For America’s great research universities, a commitment to serve the supporting society is an imperative. It is not a choice. In fact, service ought to be one of the principal foundations upon which teaching and research reside, and the University’s enduring connection with its constituents must depend on this relationship.

Yet despite their intellectual richness, large research universities have yet to tap fully this potential to serve—and certainly not in a way that captures the public’s imagination. The very concept of higher education as a “public good” is being challenged; increasingly, citizens see universities as an individual benefit rather than serving the broader needs of society.

How do we change this perception? By directing our enormous intellectual capacity outward into society through a much-broadened, publicly stated “social contract” to serve the larger good. Emory and its peers must be central actors in efforts to address society’s most important problems and make sure that citizenry sees us as such.

Emory is particularly well situated to play this role. We have leading-edge expertise in almost every discipline that affects quality of life in today’s world. This puts us in a strong position to lead collaborative efforts that maximize our nation’s intellectual, creative and entrepreneurial resources. This should constitute a large part of our institutional identity—our “promise,” if you will.

Great universities don’t just try to foresee the future and react to it; they create their future. This raises important questions. What is Emory’s purpose in today’s world of hyperkinetic change? How does the University organize and apply itself to help renew society’s social, political and cultural life amid a growing accumulation of unsolved domestic and global problems? We fail to answer these questions at our own risk. The time has come to stop trying to persuade society of our value—we must demonstrate it.

We have the capacity to build enormous support for our University by serving the huge numbers of citizens who simply need what we have in abundance: information, research, expertise, content, library resources, historical and cultural treasures, and much more. Even though we are a private university, we need to leverage these assets to build a much-enhanced sense of public ownership of Emory—a sense that people and communities can actually partner with and derive personal value from our University.

If we can build a strategic overlay of societal engagement that becomes an organic part of our nature, and if we can question existing premises and arrangements, we can embark on an exciting and mutually beneficial adventure to help society address its most vexing problems.

To do so will help Emory remain relevant by placing it in direct contact with the needs and aspirations of the supporting society. Service should be more than volunteerism. In fact, serving society should be a prominent factor underpinning research and teaching—service must emerge as a product of our activities that expands the very boundaries of academic disciplines.

These thoughts may stir debate. It is unclear whether the rather loose confederacies of talent that define large research universities can keep pace with societal changes. In a time of growing interdependence among society’s various sectors, the organizational and cultural norms of great research universities appear to run counter to interdependence. This, again, is why President Wagner’s notion of being a “university”—as opposed to a “multiversity”—is such a critical concept.

Still, if there were ever an ideal time to test Emory’s capacity in this regard, now is that time. We are preparing for a large development campaign, which is the perfect moment for the University to revitalize, articulate with clarity and make concrete its mission to work for the greater good in an intentional, publicly stated way. We must make transparent and seamless the inherent, interdependent connections among teaching, research and service.

Rather than institutionalizing service as one of three separate—and, perhaps, competing—missions, Emory can lead higher education in designing and bringing to fruition a new vision of engagement with society. The ethical imperative to make a difference is what gives significance to our teaching and research. It is why we do what we do.

All of this will entail more than philosophical pronouncements and stepped-up public relations. Because service and engagement cut across disciplinary and administrative boundaries, and because attaining this notion of service is predicated upon how the University defines, values, rewards and integrates its many academic products, my hope is that the strategic planning process will include a rigorous imperative for the University’s administrative and incentive systems to work across lines.

In conclusion, to improve its national standing, to be successful in attracting the next generation of more demanding volunteer leaders, and to execute a strategically significant comprehensive campaign, Emory must explore new means to serve Atlanta, the state and the nation, free from the traditional constraints of institutional “success.”