Emory Report
January 31, 2005
Volume 60, Number 17


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January 31 , 2005
Songbirds, butterflies & bonobos

rosemary magee, senior associate dean of emory college, is incoming vice president and university secretary

Most people attend college for four years. After that, they are ready to move on to the next stage of their lives. Yet some of us choose to stay here.

Perhaps we stay for the same reasons many young people seek out college in the first place: to become fully immersed in a community that, more than any other place on earth, values ideas for their own sake. A place that cherishes acts of reflection, curiosity, yearning and individual expression. Even quirkiness.

I'm proud to admit that I've spent the last two decades of my life in college. My subjects for advanced study have ranged from anthropology to philosophy, from physics to theater, from chemistry to music. Each semester, I've received new lessons in critical thinking, organizational processes, human behavior and creativity.

Each year, I've heard talks given by brilliant intellectuals, many on our faculty. I've met world-renowned writers, such as Salman Rushdie. I've read student papers that have impressed me with their originality. It's a full load, exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.

Since the fall of 2003, when the Emory College administration moved into the renovated Candler Library, I've had the pleasure of walking each morning across the Quadrangle before encountering a day of details, planning and surprises. From an office on the fourth floor, I've looked down from an interior window into the magnificent Matheson Reading Room to watch students and faculty studying and daydreaming. From behind an exterior window facing west,   I've observed the quiet natural beauty of Beckham Grove. Through another window I've watched people passing through the connector bridge to Woodruff Library.

Surrounded by the physical embodiment of university life--of structure, thought and reverie, nature, intellectual connections--I've thought to myself: This is what college is for.

Yet, inevitably, administrators, like faculty and students, get caught up in the busyness of life. Whereas colleges once resembled cloisters or convents, modern institutions of higher education now actively participate in the marketplace of ideas and intellectual property. No longer a separate sphere, the campus has become connected to the world in ever-expanding ways (and bandwidth). Our students have internships, practicums, community projects and study-abroad opportunities--which means that faculty and administrators have responsibility for overseeing these many activities. Day-Timers and Palm Pilots rule the day.

Truly, this kind of connectivity is a great thing. Learning, we all know, cannot be confined to traditional libraries and lecture halls. Groundbreaking research requires a competitive edge--and often external funding. Scholars and students alike benefit from increased collaboration and a deeper engagement with the world.

But it's also worth remembering some of the reasons why U.S. colleges are so highly regarded throughout the world. Why our teaching and research programs have set standards for inventiveness and productivity.

There is a reason sabbaticals and summer breaks are still vital to our enterprise--and why faculty and students do not have classes scheduled every hour of the day, every day of the week. There is a reason why the Quadrangle, which looks inward, continues to resonate as a powerful symbol in the world.

As a community, we still believe in the power of reflection. This basic principle is embedded in our shared intellectual life. While ideas may come to us at any place, in any moment, they also need time to evolve, meander and develop. Plato once said the highest form of leisure is to be still and receptive to the world. Time, that rarest of all commodities, is essential to the art of contemplation. The poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman refers to "deep play" as a way to transcend daily urgencies in order to move into a more timeless and engaged awareness of oneself in the world.

Many academics believe the chief challenge facing our students has to do with the increased pressures of professionalization. As the costs of higher education have risen, students may feel compelled to approach their college years primarily as a passport to a particular kind of job or lifestyle.

However, perhaps the greater challenge to a liberal arts education is the determination to move through each subject as quickly as possible to get to the other side. New ideas, whether in the laboratory or library, don't always occur in a straightforward, linear fashion; they often evolve by accident, in the unplanned diversions. Genuine education requires students and teachers alike to approach a subject with careful thought, discipline and reflection. Thus, it turns out, there may be a very good reason why academics are known for slow, deliberative processes.

Throughout my college career, I've been privileged to participate in many of these processes. In so doing, I've observed behind the scenes what happens on stages of all shapes and sizes, from planning a performing arts center to hiring a new scientist. Over the course of an average day, I have found myself dealing with acoustics as well as startup funds, floods as well as poetry collections. Deliberations move in and out of laboratories that study life forms as varied as songbirds, butterflies and bonobos.

On occasion, I've found a moment to sit back and admire the many moving parts that make a college hum. In the midst of overbooked schedules, heightened anxieties and parking dilemmas, if one sits silently for just that moment, it is possible to discover a still point. And in the still point, I've discerned quiet, scholarly patterns emerging.

Campuses, like large cities, rely on a fair amount of "organized complexity." Even with annual changes in procedures and personnel, certain self-organizing principles (with a dose of pure intentionality) allow students to sign up for courses, buildings to get renovated, computers to get installed, supplies to get ordered, and search processes to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

It is, quite simply, a miracle that something so abstract and complex on the one hand can transform lives and create new knowledge on the other.  

That's not to say these daily miracles occur without tremendous effort by people who contribute their energies and talents to our shared aspirations. Here I think of dedicated teachers and researchers across the University. I also think of administrators and staff, people like Weiming Lu, who provides computing support to college deans, and Karen Fain, who industriously pulls together the college budget proposal each year. They and many others like them have devoted themselves to the academic enterprise so that intellectual life may prosper.

Even after 20 years in college, I've not yet had a day when I felt as if I'd learned everything I wanted to know. And that's why I continue to work here, still curious after all these years. As I prepare to take on a new role and gain a larger University perspective, to move from one end of the Quadrangle to the other, I feel an enormous sense of gratitude for all I've learned from my many teachers--students, faculty and staff--and more committed than ever to participating in these lifelong educational pursuits.