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April 18, 2005
From harbor to high seas
Jim Wagner is president of the University
Do you ever have the feeling that things are moving at a super-swift clip? That, in fact, the pace of change threatens to overtake you and leave you breathless and stunned, as the world you know rushes off into the future at a rate that will make it unrecognizable and leave you in the dust?
At the recent Futurist Forum (see story, page 1), 14 invited experts and change-leaders, in fields ranging from biosystems to communications technology, from religion to informatics, helped us to envision the world of higher education as it might look in the next five to 20 years. While most of the Emory folks in attendance walked away stimulated and amazed by the possibilities, it’s very likely that some of us left the Schwartz Center feeling just a little anxious and overwhelmed by the prospect of having to keep up with what’s unfolding—or, perhaps even more challenging, to fulfill the expectation that a university like Emory should be a change leader. The opportunities are immensely exciting; the challenges are equally steep.
It’s commonplace that the rate of change seems to us much greater than anything experienced by previous generations. “Progress,” as our grandparents defined it, may have brought technological advances every decade or so. In our day, progress (if it is that) brings technological advances weekly—sometimes daily, it seems. Joel Mokyr, an economist at Northwestern University, writes in The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy that no other civilization before the Industrial Revolution had sustained the degree of technological change—and, hence, political, social and cultural change—that we have witnessed in the last 200 years. And the prospect for still more rapid change is undeniable.
In our own community the challenges of change have been brought home to many by the vigorous activity of strategic planning that has engaged us over the past year. As one person remarked to me not long ago, it’s as if the jetliner has taken off with a rush and a roar, and it would be good for the cockpit crew to come back to the cabin and reassure the startled and disheveled passengers that the plane is flying just fine.
Well, I’m not certain we’re all that disheveled or startled, but I do understand the need to pause and take stock of how we’re doing.
My own inclination is to think of the beginning of our journey into the future in nautical rather than aeronautical terms. The Emory community is not so much strapped into its seat and fighting the G-forces of takeoff, as we are leaving our tall ship’s safe harbor and feeling the tug of a bracing wind in our sails.
Long ago, a friend used an image of progress that I take to heart. Progress, he said, is the tension between continuity and change. Imagine a tugboat pulling a barge. If the towline between them has too much tension—that is, if the rate of change is too sudden and fast—the line will snap, and progress will halt. On the other hand, if the line goes slack—if the tension drops off because change is too slow—the barge will never move. Progress lies in finding the proper balance between continuity and change.
How do we find that proper balance in a community as complex as this great research university? How can we make sure we keep moving forward, but not at such a pace that the lines fray and the tension breaks us apart?
One of the critical practices we need to remember is good communication—open, respectful, honest and accountable. The great advantage of an institution like Emory is that it’s filled with excellent communicators, people who use words honestly and effectively. Since I arrived nearly two years ago, I have been impressed by the degree to which this community has been willing to share its creative ideas, excellent innovations and constructive suggestions to frame our vision statement and to undertake the hard work of strategic planning. Faculty, staff, students and alumni have invested themselves deeply in generating momentum for the future. This is in large part the engine of change driving us.
At the same time, our structures of action—the deliberative bodies, the committee activities, the processes for decision-making—serve as important tools for us to measure the continuity between our past and our future. These traditions of deliberation and action provide strong ties to our heritage, even as they serve as the means by which we are pulled into the future.
What matters supremely at a time of considerable change is the level of trust among us. Admittedly, community members with disparate roles and sometimes divergent interests may have moments of doubt and suspicion about each other’s motives and intentions.
To take as one example the role of administrators, it is not difficult to see that they are “different creatures.” While many of them have served as faculty members, an equal number are professional administrators without deep roots in the academic values of the faculty—even though they may understand and appreciate those academic values profoundly.
Administrators also have a different style of working and thinking about organizational life. I would not go so far as a former colleague, who once remarked of a faculty member making the move into administration that he had “gone over to the dark side.” But the daily work of administrators, staff members and faculty members does have different hues and tones; the differences, I believe, lie in the details and the focus, not in the ultimate direction and intention.
And then, too, administrators tend to have more control over budgetary matters than faculty members. To the degree that budgets are used to strengthen the academic mission of the University—and that should always be the intention at Emory—the administration and faculty and staff are moving in the same direction. But a different degree of freedom to move and use funds requires administrative responsibility and transparency that will justify faculty and staff trust. In the end, we must trust that we all want the greater good of a great university.
If I may take the nautical metaphor of the tugboat and change it to fit another “vessel,” Emory University really is at a moment of leaving harbor and embarking onto the high seas. Our destination stands in the quadrant of our horizon marked by our vision statement; our strategic plan will chart our course. But our progress toward our destination will be sped by the controlled and skillful way we adjust our rigging and canvas, so that our sails catch as much breeze as possible without capsizing.
Crossing the sea and getting to port requires the coordination of a great team. The captain on the bridge, the mate at the helm, the crew member trimming the sails, the navigator bent over the compass—all these and many more have an important part as the ship tacks and jibes.
Knowing that surprises lie in store, in skies fair or foul, we will keep a weather eye out and continue to find our rhythm of work and life together. I look forward to the journey, working together in an environment of open communication and trust.