Emory Report
April 30, 2007
Volume 59, Number 29

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April 30, 2007
Placing Emory in the path of beauty

Tom Frank is professor of religious leadership and administration in the candler school of theology.

Over the next decade Emory will remake itself as a university. The campus master plan is astonishing in scope. It calls for a forest of new dormitories, long-anticipated classroom and research buildings, a state-of-the-art hospital and clinic, and surrounding mixed-use villages for integrating life, work and leisure. The plan fingers for demolition some buildings that have arisen willy-nilly over the years to disrupt campus vistas and architectural integrity. It will be nice not to have to look at some of these any longer.

The plan further reinforces Emory’s historic character as a physically compact campus relative to most other major universities. This density, while putting immense pressure on our available land, has nurtured a sense of community and shared purpose remarkable for a contemporary university. Our physical contiguity has enabled us to develop numerous interdisciplinary research projects, joint degree programs and shared institutes that connect our intellectual passions with concrete issues in world societies.

At Emory a lot of people know each other and seek opportunities to work together, to an extent that is distinct among schools of this stature. In the future even more people, mainly students, but soon also staff and faculty will have the opportunity to live in close proximity and build the relationships that continually refresh a strong and purposeful community.

The plan also honors our place in the land by protecting acres of Emory’s forests and watersheds from any built development and providing for plantings around new construction that will last for generations. New structures will be more ecologically sound and energy-efficient, on sites in which the built environment is more sensitively matched with the natural environment. Emory’s campus will be an even more constructive place for growing intellectual community.

But for that intellectual growth to thrive we must keep one more question before us as we build: Will Emory be a place of beauty?

In her succinct and passionate book “On Beauty and Being Just,” Harvard professor of aesthetics Elaine Scarry argues that “to misstate, or even to understate, the relation of the universities to beauty is one kind of error that can be made.” The arts and sciences nurture the “perceptual acuity” and clarity we need in order “to place ourselves in the path of beauty” and hence of creativity and discovery, Scarry says.

Through our research and study, we discern the particularities of our world in all their richness and vitality. From the health sciences labs to the seminar rooms of anthropology to the astonishing poetry collection in Woodruff Library, we find ourselves speaking of an exploratory theory as “elegant” or an apt interpretive phrase as “nice” or a statement of possible solution as “beautiful.” We love to find what is distinct and how what we explore fits into larger wholes.

These same features of particularity, diversity, discovery and proportion — elements of beauty — characterize a flourishing university. We are diverse as human beings, each coming to Emory with a particular history and outlook, our differences making us a more intriguing community of learning. The immense variety of our intellectual dispositions as we interact across disciplines makes discovery more likely. We are here together in a shared venture in which we expect a voice in conversations and appropriate participation in our institution’s policies and directions. When these elements are all working together, we are more productive, more passionate about how our learnings can serve human societies, and more connected to this place as the site of our community of arts and sciences.

In 1994 I wrote a “First Person” column for this paper, in which I reflected on the newly-installed clock tower at Cox Hall. I wondered if Emory was so preoccupied with time — the time of productivity and progress, the march of time, the time that we keep, spend or waste — that we were neglecting the spaces of our lives in which we live in companionship and harmony with the land and extend our collective story in this place. We have come a long way in the intervening 13 years — the Piedmont Project, sustainability initiatives, the Transforming Community Project and now the campus plan, and countless initiatives that bring collaboration between departments and schools. In many ways, we have been deepening our grasp of what it means to be an arts and sciences university here on these hills.

Former Missoula, Mont., mayor Daniel Kemmis once wrote that “what makes a city a good city is not its capacity to distract, but the way in which it creates presence” — a certain fitness between time, space and movement that stirs a sense of place. So what makes a university a good university? Perhaps at the core it is a certain fitness between our natural, built and social environment, a fitness that relieves our distractions and focuses our attention, sparks creative frictions among our differences, and opens the way to discovery.

Construction has begun and it will be a disruptive decade of red mud. But it will also be a decade of new spaces, new flows of movement and new encounters. This can be Emory’s moment. We have an opportunity, through design, construction and ultimately our use of these new structures and patterns, to place ourselves in the path of beauty.