April 7, 2003


Susan Frost is vice president for strategic development

In the last few years, I’ve observed a trend that bodes well for Emory. It seems that wherever I’ve talked with groups of scholars on the subject of university development and leadership, either in the United States or Europe, I’ve found that Emory has acquired a reputation as a place with a distinct intellectual culture and tradition of faculty interaction.

Along the same lines, I’ve heard from leaders at peer universities who are working to emulate some aspects of our community, especially our teaching and research commissions and our Luce and Gustafson seminars, which received prominent attention in Change magazine in 2001.

Of course, our leadership in this area hasn’t come about overnight. Rather, our success is founded in a very real commitment that Emory faculty and administrative leaders made a decade ago to weave together a strong community of scholars.

We owe much to Choices & Responsibility, which Claire Sterk and David Carr, co-chairs of the Research at Emory Commission, also acknowledged in their Emory Report essay in February. In 1994, then-Provost Billy Frye based Choices & Responsibility on a thorough self-examination of our particular situation and against the larger picture of higher education. It was a pivotal event in Emory’s intellectual history.

As faculty revealed in campuswide discussions, the rapid expansion that helped Emory evolve from an excellent regional institution in 1980 into a major research university had created a powerful double-edged sword. Emory’s investment in highly focused scholarship and research also had the potential to erode the University’s traditional culture of broad intellectual exchange.

Faculty expressed the deep concern then (and now, with the research commission) that universities are in danger of losing their special place in society—a place that values the life of the mind and allows time for reflection. They challenged Emory to strengthen the environment for creating knowledge while also increasing opportunities for scholarly collaboration.

One way the University responded was by taking a systematic approach to understanding Emory’s intellectual culture. Over the last decade, we’ve asked questions about who we are, how we compare to others, and how can we use our particular characteristics to increase our strengths—those that make us Emory—instead of simply imitating what others have done.

While most people on campus are aware of the high-profile research and teaching commissions, other research projects undertaken by scholars in the offices of strategic development and institutional research also have guided our development. One such investigation examined the Luce Seminars, led by Professor James Gustafson. During each spring semester for eight years (1989–96), about a dozen faculty met in structured seminars to explore a range of scholarly topics.

To understand the seminars’ influence, our research team interviewed 25 of the 85 participants. Our findings suggested that the Luce program provided intense and sustained faculty involvement, broad interaction across disciplines and notions of Emory’s ideal intellectual ethos. Many participants said they developed new ways to explore boundary-spanning problems, and that they felt more confident about working across those boundaries.

The findings helped lay the groundwork for the ongoing Gustafson Seminars, in which more than 50 scholars have participated since 1998. This year’s seminar addresses “The Locus of Our Discontent: The Role of Place in Academic Discourse.”

We have used other occasions as research settings, too. Every year since 1993, the president or the provost has conducted a series of discussions with faculty about the nature of our intellectual community. We have invited about 10 percent of the full-time faculty (selected at random) to participate in the series. In 1997 we held 24 discussions on issues of balance between teaching and research and carefully recorded the conversations.

Our analysis revealed three ways Emory could strengthen teaching excellence: First, we could structure activities to help faculty and administrators communicate clearly and frequently about the balance between research and teaching—interestingly, each group believes the other places a higher value on research.

Second, we could help faculty talk more regularly about shared work such as teaching. Some faculty in the professional schools, for instance, felt that discussing teaching with arts and sciences colleagues resulted in a more reflective faculty community.

Third, we could use faculty opinion to determine how to increase support for teaching. For example, faculty participants in our study argued for resources at the departmental or school level rather than at a more remote, Universitywide level. Although the teaching commission recommended a center and professional staff—which the administration agreed to fund—the University later heeded the opinions of faculty and replaced the center with a more flexible teaching council.

Another important study was an investigation into Emory’s cross-school intellectual initiatives. Although these programs have become increasingly important in the United States, few researchers have addressed how faculty begin and sustain them. This qualitative analysis, based on interviews with 12 program leaders, revealed factors, challenges and benefits that shaped their evolution.

We learned that the founders of successful initiatives combined passionate intellectual vision with powerful collegial connections. When scholars with a vital commitment to their topic drew on well-established intellectual ties, they often attracted enough seed money and early administrative support to develop a vibrant interdisciplinary program. Also, Emory’s proximity to the CDC, to other research organizations and to other area universities helped provide the intellectual and fiscal capital the programs needed to support their outward-looking missions.

Over the years, these studies have relied not only on gathering extensive information about Emory’s culture, but also about other universities so that we understand the context in which we operate, as well as the characteristics and aspirations of the broader intellectual world.

This strand of research has helped my colleagues and me advance discussion on what a new model of the university might look like. In fact, university leaders and scholars in many countries have requested our recent paper, “Advancing Universities: The Global City as Guide for Change.” Also, the lead article in the current Journal of Higher Education specifically examines Emory’s experience with the Luce Seminars. (These articles, along with others that address the issues I have mentioned, are posted on the Office of Strategic Development website at www.emory.edu/PRESIDENT/StrategicDevelopment/). By focusing on both the big picture of the academy and the small details vital to Emory, we aim to find more meaningful ways for faculty to help shape this University’s development.

Faculty have invested their most precious resources—time and knowledge—to produce these findings. Because the work of scholars is to inquire into the nature of things, it seems logical that a university should provide the space and time for scholars to question the principles and actions of the community they’re engaged in. At the same time, by sharing this dialogue with others, the community evolves toward a shared vision of its self.

I strongly believe that opportunities await younger, more flexible universities such as Emory that actively support the life of the mind in this time of fast-paced social and economic change. Because we nurture such an environment, I believe new ideas will continue to emerge and flourish here. This way, the intellectual passion of our scholars will dictate the kind of university Emory becomes.