Emory Report
November 15, 2004
Volume 57, Number 12


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November 15, 2004
Making history

BY Eric Rangus

Sharon Strocchia knows a lot about history. As an associate professor of the subject, that comes with the territory, of course. But as any historian might say, the past and the present are always in vigorous conversation with each other.

“This is a pivotal year for Emory,” said Strocchia, who joined Emory’s history faculty in 1988. “There is so much in motion and so many ideas, new proposals and initiatives floating around that it’s quite exciting when you try to discern what could and should happen. What’s truly exciting for me is that Emory has been amassing potential for a long time in terms of intellectual talent, faculty, resources and so forth, and now is the right moment to realize that potential. So this is a very exciting year for me.”

In more ways than one. Strocchia is president of the University Senate and chair of the Faculty Council for the 2004–05 academic year, so all that excitement frequently will come beating on her door.

The Senate’s theme this year is “Visioning Emory’s Future”; that theme is tied not only to the vision statement created last year, but also to the strategic plan that is now being crafted to guide the University into the future.

Figuring out the Senate’s role in that equation is what Strocchia seeks. “The Senate could be a more nimble body,” she said of the roughly 90-member group, which encompasses administrators, faculty, staff and students.

“I’d like to make the Senate a more vibrant intellectual forum for the community at large by bringing in—on an ongoing basis—issues that come up in the community from the Senate’s standing committees or ad hoc committees, and also be proactive toward seeing things on the horizon,” she continued.

Strocchia added that the Senate’s unanimous passing of a resolution brought forth by the President’s Commission on LGBT Concerns asking the University to reaffirm its policies on behalf of the rights of gay and lesbian persons, in light of the then-to-be-voted-on marriage amendment to the Georgia Constitution, was an example of an external development affecting the campus community. Internal developments, including a review of the employee benefits package—Strocchia chairs the committee conducting that review—are numerous.

“The Senate should apprise the Emory community of big issues and debate those issues respectfully and civilly, to take on a larger agenda,” she said.

An offshoot of the Senate, but no less a responsibility for Strocchia, is her chairship of the Faculty Council. There, too, her goal is to streamline the body’s structure. “Are we the right size?” she asked. The council has 28 members plus the three chairs. “Do we have the right composition? Should all members be elected?” Faculty from every part of the University are represented; 18 are elected, eight appointed by the president.

To answer these questions, the council is undertaking a comprehensive self-review with the goal of making it a more effective communication tool not only upward to the administration but across the schools as well. Strocchia hopes to have a set of recommendations ready for a vote by the end of the academic year. Any changes would be phased in during 2005–06, and since the council is affiliated with the Senate, the changes would be felt there as well.

It’s all a very complicated process and one that speaks to the flexibility of University governance in general. A prime reason Strocchia is so concerned with the flexibility of the Senate and council is that she sees them as essential tools of the Strategic Plan.

This year, Strocchia has pulled an administrative trifecta—one no previous Senate president has faced. Not only does she lead the Senate and Faculty Council, but she also sits on the Strategic Plan Steering Committee. Her situation, while adding to her already busy schedule (she teaches a full load in addition to her service duties), puts Strocchia very close to the pulse of several converging activities. “I’m a conduit for the concerns and issues that come up in these various bodies,” she said. “I think that’s very important because I can let people know what is on other’s minds.”

But the concerns she shares are not only those of others. “As a faculty member, I have a deep investment in the institution,” she said, adding that University governance is an excellent way for faculty to develop professionally outside the classroom.

“I’m more aware of the complexity of the institution,” she said. “You hear people’s experiences. You get to walk in somebody else’s shoes and see what it’s like to be a member of the law school or to be a clinician. To have a wide enough and deep enough pool of faculty leaders, who can speak in informed ways of what the institution is and what it aspires to be, is very important.”

Serving in administration is a relatively new thing for Strocchia (she chaired the Graduate Executive Council in 2001-02 prior to serving on the Senate). She’s been in academia a long time; before coming to Emory she held faculty positions at Arizona State University and the University of South Carolina. A native of Chicago, Strocchia earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Stanford and master’s and doctoral degrees in history from the University of California, Berkeley.

Teaching college students has always posed a special challenge, Strocchia said, especially rolling with the cultural changes that come with each class. “I’m not a big TV watcher, but I reference ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ and ‘Sex and the City,’ in my undergraduate seminar on the history of sexuality in Renaissance Europe,” she said. “We had a class a couple weeks ago—I was trying to give the students a sense of how historians have to piece together some kind of reasonably coherent picture of the past using records that seem to contradict each other. So we did this exercise where they had 10 pieces of evidence—a sermon from Jerry Falwell, ‘Queer Eye,’ a piece from the Emory Wheel about hook-ups—I wanted them to see things that spanned the spectrum. There are tremendous contradictions in any given society. It just can’t make up its mind. Often those contradictions give societies their momentum as well as their special feel.”

In addition to academics, athletics played a significant role in Strocchia’s college life. She played volleyball at Stanford, a school that has since won an unprecedented five Div. I national championships in the sport. Strocchia’s participation predated Title IX, though, and the NCAA did not govern women’s sports at the time. As such, she played only on the club level. “What we played doesn’t resemble today’s game at all,” she said.

Gender study has always been a research interest, Strocchia said, but when she was in school, people told her studying the history of women was impossible because there were no sources. She later found out that that wasn’t really true.

Strocchia is working on a manuscript titled Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence. The final product, which will be her second book (she has written many articles, as well), allows her to mix both her specialties: women’s history and the Italian Renaissance (she is affiliated not only with Italian studies and women’s studies but also medieval studies, and she works with art history).

The subject of Strocchia’s book, which she hopes to complete in 2006, will be how these groups of women ascended to their important roles in the city that was the center of Renaissance Italy.

“One of the great ironies for me is that I spend part of every year looking at documents that are six or seven hundred years old, because those communities thought it useful to keep thorough records,” Strocchia said. And the nuns were particularly adept at the practice. Strocchia said they recorded everything down to the most minute detail, such as the exact number of eggs purchased for a feast.

“There are kilometers’ worth of records in the Florentine archives, from palm-sized, 20-page notebooks to 850-page, leather-bound books,” she continued. “Yet if you try to find out about the history of the University Senate more than 10 or 15 years ago, you are really at a loss. We need to do a better job of documenting how we have grown as an institution.”

Visioning that future and making that history is something Strocchia and the rest of Senate and Faculty Council clearly will relish.