Volume 76
Number 1

The Shaman’s Gift

Deliberate Vision

Before Madness

Lee's Miserables








Provost Rebecca Chopp brings a systematic yet imaginative approach
to the process of redefining Emory's place in the academic world
by Sharla A. Paul

A latecomer entering the law school’s Tull Auditorium on a chilly evening in early March tries in vain to keep the heavy door from closing behind him with an echoing whoosh and bang. A few heads swing back in response, but on the whole, the intrusion goes unnoticed by the audience—a m¬lange of graduate students, a good many professors, including several feminist theologians, and a number of others who have come to hear the evening’s lecture, “The Poetics of Testimony,” because they are drawn to this particular lecturer, regardless of the topic.

Undisturbed, the speaker continues.

“Theology is negotiating the sanctity of life. We listen, we create safe spaces, we reinvent relationships, we remain attentive to the self-determination of the witness. We build bridges,” she tells her audience. “We depend on testimonies to help us to traverse the deep waters of our swirling culture of diversity, so that we can imagine new possibilities for our life together.”

As this year’s Currie Lecturer in Law and Religion, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Theology Rebecca S. Chopp is discussing the place of the “other”┴women, African and Asian Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians┴in contemporary theology. A scholar of theology and culture with a special interest in rhetoric, pragmatism, and feminist theory, Chopp is giving her view of the theological conversations taking place in U.S. universities today, and she is advancing her own theory of a broad-based Christian theology, one which takes into account the poetry and novels that tell of the experiences of disenfranchised groups. These works are forms of testimony, and appropriating these testimonies, Chopp believes, is vital to keeping present-day theological education alive and relevant for its students and scholars.

The lecture concludes and a scholarly debate ensues. Listening to the discourse is like eavesdropping on a conversation in a slightly unfamiliar dialect. As the voices echo through the auditorium, one has the sense that this evening’s conversation is what life at a university is all about.

Chopp’s lecture on testimony was a rare opportunity to hear her in action as the distinguished theologian she is. Author of three books and editor of an additional three, Chopp has published more than forty-five articles in her subject area, and she has frequently delivered keynote addresses at major universities, seminaries, and divinity schools. Since her appointment as the University’s second provost and executive vice president of academic affairs two years ago, her conversations with scholarly audiences at Emory have tended to be more administrative in nature. But the experience, say many faculty members, is not all that different.

To listen to Chopp speak as a scholar is to hear the framework of her philosophy as a university leader. As provost, one of the most influential leaders at the University, she supports the boundless academic endeavors of Emory’s scholars and, as such, she also oversees the growth and evolution of Emory as a major research university. The language she uses to describe the conversations she’d like to hear among Christian theologians in the United States is the same language she uses to describe what she’d like to see happening among scholars in all disciplines at Emory: reinventing relationships, building bridges, and imagining new possibilities for life together.

“No university can tell the story we can tell from the last twenty years,” Chopp says during an early-April conversation in her office on the fourth floor of the Administration Building. “We have grown so fast. We have a richness of history, a texture and a depth that places us among the best universities. We need to let the world know about that. We are better than what the world knows about us. We are better even than we ourselves realize.”

The twenty-year tale to which Chopp refers is Emory’s transformation from a regional teaching university with a substantial clinical medical complex to a national research institution┴a transformation sparked by the 1979 unrestricted gift of $105 million from Robert W. and George W. Woodruff and spurred by the $387.3 million in income provided to the University since the receipt of the Emily and Ernest Woodruff Endowment Fund. During that time, the University introduced several major merit-based scholarship and fellowship programs, its ranks of distinguished professors more than doubled, and Emory invested heavily in research resources and an information infrastructure based in the University’s libraries. Renovations of classrooms and teaching spaces, as well as overall capital improvement, have been continuing priorities.

The way in which Chopp goes about accomplishing her work as provost is, like her language, rooted in her growth as a theologian.

In 1988, the University appointed Billy E. Frye to be its first provost, a position which was slow in coming to Emory┴Columbia University first appointed a provost in 1811, Harvard in the 1940s┴mainly because the scale of the University’s scholarly endeavors had never before called for a chief academic officer to intercede with the President and Board of Trustees on behalf of the deans and faculty. After a decade’s worth of unprecedented growth led to almost inevitable fragmentation, the University faced the question, as Chopp puts it, “Who am I?”

During Frye’s tenure as provost and later as chancellor, he dedicated hundreds of hours over several years to conversations with administrators, faculty, and staff in an effort to set goals and guidelines for Emory to know itself and to be able to revise its self-understanding as times and higher education change. In 1994, Frye published Choices and Responsibility: Shaping Emory’s Future. The plan charged Emory’s new president, William M. Chace, the provost, and their colleagues in the administration and faculty to modify the University’s culture in four ways: to raise the value of teaching and interdisciplinary scholarship at Emory, to build a stronger community within Emory, to meet infrastructure needs, and to extend the University’s external relationships.

Many at Emory agree that Frye’s institutional soul-searching set the stage for a leader like Chopp, someone Harriet M. King, senior vice provost for academic affairs, describes as “focused entirely on bringing decisions to fruition.”

“Rarely if ever have I met someone with such a lucid, efficient, clear mind,” says Emory President William M. Chace. “Rebecca Chopp seems to have, from sources I know nothing about, a way of thinking of problems that is friction free and nonabrasive. She seems to know what she thinks in such a way that there is no wasted motion.”

The consensus among administrators and faculty is that the transition from Frye to Chopp was fluid and appropriate for Emory’s place in its own history.

“Rebecca has the benefit of a lot of listening that had been done,” says Charles Howard Candler Professor of Theology and Human Development James W. Fowler. “Without what Billy put in place, she could not do this.”

What Chopp is doing, and what Chace’s support makes it possible for her to do, is systematically redefining Emory as a place of discovery, integration, and transmission of knowledge. During the past two years, Chopp has put forward a series of clear goals, and in a November letter to the faculty she documented the University’s progress. In 1998—1999, her top priority was to increase support for scholarship. She believes that scholarly work must drive all fiscal decisions at Emory, and last year oversight of the University’s budget became her responsibility. In 1999—2000, her focus has shifted toward Emory’s “intellectual vitality.” Looking forward, she has set three distinct priorities: strengthening and extending the scope of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, identifying and inaugurating new “intellectual initiatives,” and strengthening the voice of the faculty in shaping Emory’s future.

“I think it’s always difficult for a woman in an executive position to achieve instantly the recognition that men get all the time,” says President Chace

If what Chopp’s colleagues in the faculty and administration say is true, if Chopp’s unwavering focus and clarity of purpose have in two years effected major change at Emory, then it seems reasonable to believe that the way in which Chopp goes about accomplishing her work as provost is, like her language, rooted in her growth as a theologian, particularly as a woman theologian among the ranks of top university administrators who tend to be men. (In June, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that women hold the chief academic position at four of the eight Ivy League colleges and eleven of the sixty-one universities in the Association of American Universities.)

“I think it’s always difficult for a woman in an executive position to achieve instantly the recognition that men get all the time,” says Chace. “But I don’t think anyone who listens to Rebecca Chopp for more than a few minutes doesn’t have the thought, îMy goodness, this woman knows exactly what she’s doing.’ ”

Chopp describes herself as shy as a child, and she recalls with gratitude a school teacher who allowed her to stay inside and indulge herself in books while her classmates went outside for recess. Having steeped her thoughts in the written word for much of her life, Chopp has developed a distinct voice in her own writings, a systematic and down-to-earth kind of voice that says “here’s how I see the situation, now tell me how it looks from where you’re standing.” Both her scholarly works and her administrative letters and reports tend to be written in the first person. She communicates easily over e-mail and is apt to betray her enthusiasm for an idea with a spattering of parenthetical exclamations.

In the first chapter of Saving Work: Feminist Practices of Theological Education, a seminal publication examining the impact of the growing number of women in theological education, Chopp draws parallels between her own development as a theologian and the sea changes occurring in her field. She writes, “This book is written out of my own journey, as all books are crafted out of the writer’s life.”

Chopp’s journey as a theologian began when she entered the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1973, at a time when even she considered women who entered the ministry to be “exceptions.” Nevertheless, she became an ordained Methodist minister and spent the next several years serving churches in Kansas. It was during her service as a pastor that she began to realize, she writes, “the depth and power of women’s lives in the churches and how îchurch’ itself could be understood quite differently from the position of women washing dishes after a potluck as compared to the position of men running the business in the board meeting.”

She entered graduate school at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, where she studied under theologians such as B. A. Gerrish, who introduced to her the idea that tradition is “a living object liable to growth and change.” In Saving Work, Chopp characterizes her training at Chicago as that of systematic theologian, who tends to “ask questions about what practices mean to persons and how the symbols involved relate to activities produced.”

After earning her Ph.D. in 1983, she joined the Divinity School faculty as assistant professor and later became director of the school’s four-year doctor of ministry program. At the time, enrollment in the program was low and its prospects for increasing enrollment weren’t promising. Chopp and the school’s administration looked around at other theological schools, where three-year master of divinity degrees were the norm, and realized their program was ripe for change. She spearheaded an effort to reorganize the curriculum into a three-year master’s degree program.

Around the same time, W. Clark Gilpin joined the divinity faculty as associate professor.

“Rebecca Chopp’s ability to get [Chicago’s theological] faculty to shift from one degree to another and get a curriculum in place was immediately impressive,” says Gilpin, who is now dean of the Divinity School. “She had a permanent impact on the education of ministry at the University of Chicago.”

“Strengthening the arts and sciences at Emory has as much cpacity to advance Emory as anything we have done in the last decade or more."

In 1985, Chopp joined the faculty of the Candler School of Theology at Emory. In the classroom and in her scholarly work, she explored feminist theory and liberation theology. By 1993, she was serving as dean of the faculty and academic affairs under then—Candler Dean Kevin LaGree.

In 1996, Chopp was appointed to be chair of the University’s Commission on Teaching, a group established to explore ways in which the University could support teaching, a priority outlined in Choices and Responsibility. Professor of English Walter Reed, who directs the Center for Teaching and Curriculum in Emory College, served as co-chair. After a year and a half of conversations with faculty, the commission proposed, among other actions, that the University establish a teaching “supercenter” to serve as a clearinghouse of teaching resources for faculty in every discipline. Before acting on the proposal, however, Chopp asked the Office of Institutional Planning and Research to seek opinions from the faculty about the center. The research revealed a good deal of opposition among faculty, many of whom feared that the center would in reality become a layer of University-level red tape, creating rather than relieving stress for Emory’s teachers. Chopp immediately set the concept aside for further discussion.

In 1998, she was appointed provost.

“By that time I had gotten to know her through our work together,” recalls Reed. “She was someone who seemed to have a breadth of experience and an uncompromising commitment to the serious intellectual pursuits of the faculty, and I believed she’d hang on to that respect when she moved into administration.”

As provost, Chopp established the University Advisory Council on Teaching, chaired by Reed, to continue the discussion of teaching support. One of the council’s priorities is to establish criteria by which teaching excellence may be documented for tenure review.

Chopp’s ability to imagine a new reality for Emory, her methodical approach to decision-making, and her habit of asking before acting are the very qualities that seem to endear her most to her colleagues in the faculty and on the administration.

Says King, who works closely with Chopp to implement guidelines for faculty tenure and promotion, “Rebecca is out in front of where we want to be. She doesn’t make a decision without considering first, îWhere do I need to be tomorrow in order to be where I want to be five years from now?’ ”

Last year, Chopp invested her energies in guiding the changes that will determine Emory’s future as a research university. Primary on her agenda has been the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, which she believes to be the heart of the University. She envisions nothing short of a redefinition.

“Graduate schools are incredibly important in research universities,” she says. “Our ability to recruit faculty is based on the excellence of our graduate students. They work on the horizons of new knowledge. They are the scholars of the future, and in their work we see not only how the disciplines will emerge, but also how knowledge production will evolve. Because the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences sits across so many disciplines at the University, it must be strong and vibrant.”

It is not unusual for Chopp to be in her office from seven o’clock in the morning until nine o’clock at night. Interspersed with the marathon workdays are short, intensive bench-marking trips to Columbia, Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Susan H. Frost, vice provost of institutional planning and research, accompanies Chopp on these investigations.

“It’s important to see how Emory stacks up and to see what ideas we can borrow,” says Frost. “One big advantage is that when we leave, we’ve redefined what they┴Harvard, Columbia, Stanford┴think of Emory. There’s a great respect for what we’ve become as a research university.”

One challenge on the horizon is slowed growth in the stock market, which translates into slowed growth for the University's endowment.

Chopp’s visits to other universities confirm her conviction to strengthen arts and sciences at Emory.

“This has as much capacity to advance Emory as anything we have done in the last decade or more,” she says. “It is a very important move for us to make at this time in our history. Both conditions and needs of faculty at Emory and the comparative strengths of other universities that we have learned about on our trips bear this out.”

Chopp’s vision for the graduate school is based upon the emphasis on interdisciplinarity in Choices and Responsibility. The graduate school, Chopp says, must lead the effort to find ways for ideas and intellectual energy to flow freely across boundaries. The school also will design and support cooperative arrangements with other universities, and under Robert Paul’s leadership, arts and sciences faculty will be charged with anticipating the questions and themes that will influence scholarship over the next decade.

In Chopp’s November letter to the faculty, she recounted Emory’s recent progress in increasing support for scholarship, beginning with two interdisciplinary faculty seminars, the Halle Seminar and the Gustafson Seminar, which she puts forth as models for faculty interaction at Emory.

The Halle Seminar is an intensive research seminar in which scholars from various disciplines discuss individual research related to contemporary Europe. The Gustafson Seminar was inaugurated last year to honor James M. Gustafson, Robert W. Woodruff Professor Emeritus of Comparative Studies and Religion who retired in 1998 and who helped strengthen the interdisciplinary concept at Emory as director of the Luce Seminar from 1989 to 1996. The Gustafson Seminar is modeled after the Luce Seminar, in which a dozen faculty members from various disciplines and schools were relieved of their teaching and administrative responsibilities to participate in a year of intensive reading and discussions of broad topics such as “responsibility” or “human being/being human.”

“This kind of grass-roots tradition of tough-minded and supportive intellectual exchange is something we need to continue to develop at Emory. It’s a really very straight-forward simple thing,” says Associate Professor and Chair of Religion Laurie L. Patton, who co-directed the Gustafson Seminar this year with Walter Reed and Mikhail N. Epstein, associate professor of Russian and East Asian languages and cultures. “Because Emory has its own intellectual culture . . . , we don’t know how this will emerge. . . . We’ll focus a lot more on social service and the ways in which intellectual tradition and social service go hand in hand.”

The provost’s office has also increased support for scholarship on a structural level. The formation of the University Advisory Council on Teaching is one example. The council and the Office of Institutional Planning and Research are compiling, for the first time, comprehensive listings of the teaching and research resources available to faculty at Emory. Chopp also has been actively involved in the Presidential Advisory Committee, a group of distinguished Emory scholars appointed by Chace to advise the president and provost on faculty tenure and promotion issues. With the group’s input, the provost’s office has standardized tenure and promotion guidelines across departments and schools.

“Emory rises with its faculty’s achievements,” says Chopp. “It is incredibly gratifying to see truly outstanding people in the sciences and social sciences, humanities, arts, dance, and the professional schools be tenured and promoted. We have excellent teachers and excellent researchers at Emory who give of themselves to this community and the community around us, and we must do everything we can not only to attract top scholars but to support them and provide them with what they need once they are here.”

Efforts to help faculty gain both external and internal support for their research has paid off richly in recent years. In 1998—99, the faculty’s combined sponsored research passed the $200 million mark. Back in 1987, then-President James T. Laney suggested Emory would be doing well to double its sponsored research from $50 million to $100 million by the year 2000.

Chopp has also overseen the revitalization of the Council of Deans and the appointment of five deans: Marla E. Salmon in nursing, Dana Greene at Oxford, Woody O. Hunter for a third term at the law school, and most recently, Russell E. Richey at Candler and Robert A. Paul in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The deans’ council meets regularly with Chopp to define and advance academic priorities and to consult on budgetary and programmatic matters.

“The budget process is more efficient than it’s ever been,” says Hunter, the longest-serving dean at Emory. “The presence of the council helps ease the transitions across disciplinary and school lines. It works well because we know each other and because Rebecca understands what we do and the cultures of our schools. Our interactions become brainstorming sessions for new programs and appointments.”

One challenge on the horizon is slowed growth in the stock market, which translates into slowed growth for the University’s endowment fund. This year the University’s Ways and Means Committee has asked the schools and administrative offices to submit budgets for next year with expenditures of three percent less than those for this year.

“We are doing this not because we have to,” says Chopp, “but because we want to build the capacity to invest in programs that will shape the even-more-distinctive university we intend to become. In any financial environment, this is a useful and prudent strategy, and it will serve us particularly well in this time of slowed growth. Managing a university over time is about managing many changes of pace. Our plan is to emerge stronger and more flexible, ready to meet the next challenges and able to invest in our future.”

Chopp’s second priority for Emory is to identify new “intellectual initiatives,” the seeds of which, she says, already exist at the University.

“Rather than looking outside the University to those problems of society one might expect Emory to address,” she says, “we will look within the faculty body for the most promising current and future work and build internal bridges to advance it. If properly shaped and supported, these initiatives will expand the ways we create and transmit knowledge, strengthen intellectual connections across disciplines and schools, and contribute to a university that is more than the sum of its parts.”

One model for the intellectual initiatives Chopp’s office will foster at Emory is the Law and Religion Program. Established in 1982, the program explores the religious dimensions of the law, the legal dimensions of religions, and the interaction of legal and religious ideas and methods. The program also sponsors the annual Currie Lecture in Law in Religion, the very lectureship which brought Chopp back to the lectern as a scholar this spring to present her views on testimony.

Another model is a series of lunchtime discussions held by faculty on religion and the sciences, including a recent symposium on physics and creation. Chopp also points to the recently created Office of University—Community Partnerships. Housed in the Center for Ethics in Public Policy and the Professions and directed by Associate Professor of Political Science Michael Rich, the office will help faculty and students identify teaching and research opportunities in greater Atlanta and help community groups establish partnerships with Emory programs.

Among the most important new intellectual initiatives, in Chopp’s view, are those joining the health sciences and Emory’s other schools and programs.

“This may be the most difficult and complex environment ever for university leadership,” says Michael M. E. Johns, executive vice president for health affairs. “[Chopp] exercises tremendous influence in ensuring that all of Emory’s many academic programs and missions don’t act as centrifugal forces and pull us apart.”

“Emory is on the edge of an exciting frontier—one that is likely to cause us to rethink the very geography we use to understand the University.”
A top priority for Chopp and Johns is to provide Emory scholars with opportunities to extend their research not only within the University, but also to industry, government, and nonprofit groups as well.

“It has become clear that our interrelationships with the city and the state of Georgia support an essential part of our research agenda,” says Chopp. “Because university and industrial research have moved closer, we are finding new ways to work together while maintaining the intellectual distance that scholars need to do their work. The paths we forge will be very important to the future of research in the U.S.”

As the provost’s office seeks to identify new intellectual initiatives, Chopp and her colleagues will continue to revisit dialogues among faculty and the administration to ensure that Emory’s forward movement is collectively inspired.

“Emory,” Chopp writes in the conclusion of her letter, “is on the edge of an exciting frontier┴one that is likely to cause us to rethink the very geography we use to understand the University. . . .

“Anticipating Emory’s continued trajectory of excellence, how can we join our intellectual passions and our understanding of the needs of society to shape Emory’s academic landscape for the coming decades? How can our development best serve the needs of scholars? How will we use the contours of this landscape to advance our distinctiveness in the world? In an environment of both escalating costs and uncertain funding, how can we best establish academic priorities and ensure that our resources will support our aspirations and needs?

“By going forward with the developments I have outlined and exploring these questions, I believe we will continue to advance. The work before us is exciting and challenging.”


© 2000 Emory University