February 23, 2004

Practice of community requires commitment

Jim Wagner is president of Emory.

Good physical and mental health require constant disciplines of diet, exercise, rest and reflection. However good your health may be, you never reach the point of being exempt from these disciplines if you want good health to continue. In the same way, the practice of community involves at least four elements: commitment, communication, policies and procedures, and vigilance. Each of these requires understanding and deliberate nurturing for a community to be healthy.

Commitment to community is the vital and motivating factor that makes the other elements of community possible. Communication, of course, refers to disciplines that help us to express our needs, desires, wisdom and knowledge and, in return, to understand others. Policies and procedures codify our expectations of behavior and provide mechanisms for addressing grievances justly. And vigilance is an often-overlooked element essential to the flourishing of the community. Indeed, vigilance itself is an indicator of the degree to which we value and are committed to community.

All of these elements of the practice of community deserve careful attention. Moreover, they require Emory's commitment of effort and resources to ensure their effectiveness.

To help us begin to define, debate and implement the practice of community, I want to consider, in this short column, the first of these vital elements: commitment. Commitment to being in a community assumes a shared understanding that there is value in communing with others, that our lives and our work are somehow enhanced by moving beyond the solitary.

In academia, where we value so highly the pursuit of truth, one might think that the commitment to community would manifest itself in a desire for diverse ideas and views born out of differences in scholarly backgrounds, life experiences, cultural histories, religious practices, lifestyles, race and ethnicity. In other words, the university should be a place where differences are valued and respected, so that they can become topics for exploration and debate.

If our commitment to community is based upon a thirst for truth, then at Emory our goals for community must transcend mere tolerance, which is primarily endurance of--rather than curiosity about--persons or opinions that may offend us. We are called to a loftier goal that encourages respect (even for those with whom we disagree), to ensure all views and differences that can contribute to our pursuit of truth are included in our "laboratory"--our community. (Of course there will be certain aberrant ideas and behavior that merit exclusion, but we must consider those as a community, and on ethical principle rather than personal prejudice.)

Why go on at such length about something so apparently obvious as our need to be committed to community? Because we need to remind ourselves that only within a diverse scholarly community can we exercise true academic freedom.

We need to recall that academic freedom includes both the freedom to express ourselves fully and the freedom for others to do the same. An obsession with "political correctness" can throttle the freedom to bring ideas to the table. On the other hand, if you are unable to trust my motives, or if I choose deliberately and unnecessarily to offend, that might impinge upon your freedom to be part of a scholarly discussion. In either case, academic freedom is compromised for me and for the community.

People must be at the table and in community for academic freedom to exist. Although ideas are always fair game to be challenged and even attacked ferociously, people and peoples are not. Thus, genuine and full academic freedom can exist only through a commitment to community.

In that spirit of inclusive respect, I welcome your thoughts as we continue to work together on the practice of community here at Emory.