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Release date:
May 9, 2001
Contact: Elaine Justice, Assistant Director, 404-727-0643, or

Get Out the Maalox—It's Commencement Awards Time At Emory

Commencement is the season of honors, awards—and heartburn. At Emory University, faculty, staff and students have stories about how surprise announcements of academic honors test their sense of humor and their nerves. Evidently, no matter how distinguished your record, there's always room for that nagging question: "What's wrong?" when you get the call that the president or dean wants to see you . . . now.

A case in point is Patricia Owen-Smith, associate professor of psychology at Emory's Oxford College, winner last year of a Williams Teaching Award. She was one of several people summoned to a dean's office ostensibly to talk about teaching issues, then taken to the president's office. "The first thing out of my mouth was, 'Please don't tell me I'm getting fired before I get my sabbatical in,'" recalls Owen-Smith. "And the reply was, ‘No, you're not getting fired; it's something else.'"

"No matter how deep I get into my career, when I get summoned to the dean's office I wonder if I'm in some sort of trouble," says Michael McQuaide, professor of sociology at Oxford and one of this year's Williams award winners. "I can't think that anyone would be so secure that they wouldn't be scanning their past for some fireable offense."

So pervasive is the "what'd I do now?" mental mode, that Marion Dearing, executive assistant to Emory President Bill Chace, reports their office had to start using more subterfuge in informing award recipients to keep them from stressing out. "It was so traumatic for people to be called by our office and asked if they can come meet with the president," recalls Dearing. "It was really backfiring. So in recent years we've switched to a more convoluted system so that they are surprised but not traumatized."

Students are especially prone to suspect trouble when confronted by college authorities—even bona fide academic superstars. Class of 2000 graduate Danielle Sered, who last spring was wrapping up an academic career crowned by a Rhodes Scholarship, was summoned to the dean's office and began wracking her brain for something she might have done that would cause her not to graduate. Instead, she found herself the winner of Emory's $20,000 McMullan Award. "During my lifetime, I've gotten in trouble more often than rewarded," says Sered, "so it never occurs to you that someone is going to give you an incredibly high honor and a huge amount of money."

Even being an optimist may not help. Senior Nir Eyal, winner of this year's $20,000 McMullan, was told something good was in store when summoned last month. "I thought I was going to be the senior graduation speaker," he says. When told it was an award instead, Eyal was puzzled, then shocked at the cash. "I just stared at them; I couldn't say anything," he says.

Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, says Richard Freer, associate dean of the faculty at Emory Law School. "One year, the student bar association seemed particularly befuddled by the fact that they had to give a faculty teaching award," Freer recalls. "The president of the group came to my office and said, 'May I borrow this plaque?'" Freer previously had won the group's teaching award and thought he might be getting another one. Unfortunately they'd simply forgotten the address and name of the trophy company. "So they took one of mine down to the trophy shop to get a duplicate made, and I didn't even win it that year! Now that was really a bummer."

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