Rethinking What Emory Stands For

I spoke with Dean Forman during Homecoming week the fall of my freshman year, which was also Forman’s first year at Emory. He impressed upon all of us in the room that a challenge Emory faced as it sought to permanently install itself as an elite school on the international stage was establishing the university’s identity.

We’ve got the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Carter and a great faculty, he said. We’ve got a lot of great students from diverse backgrounds. We’ve got a catchy mission statement, and we’ve got Dooley.

But, he continued, who are we, really?

Having been at Emory for almost six semesters, I have had many discussions about Emory’s identity with faculty members and students. During my freshman and sophomore years, the consensus we reached was that Emory was whatever students wanted it to be, especially regarding academics.

Academically, we had world-class faculty in almost every discipline and a curriculum that encouraged students to take a variety of courses and expand their knowledge base. For those students who want to study a specialized field such as nursing, medicine or business, we had elite programs for those, too.

While much of the negative criticism directed at Emory revolved around how “pre-professional” it was, one could largely ignore the perceived issue if a robust liberal arts path was available for those who wanted to pursue it.

Thus, in the classroom, students defined what it was to be a part of Emory. Unlike many peer institutions, where certain departments’ excellence is achieved at the expense of others, Emory’s academic program was, more or less, strong across the variety of programs students could choose to follow.

Today, most of these statements hold true, despite the recent liberal arts cuts. Emory is still a world-class university with a world-class faculty. Most students’ academic paths have not been altered, and, despite the turmoil and tragedy that have befallen the affected faculty and students in these departments, life goes on.

However, the one truth these cuts have revealed is that Emory is not whatever its students want it to be.

To answer the dean’s question in the fall of 2010, Emory is what he and a select number of faculty decide it should be: a pre-professional school that trains young doctors and businessmen.

While students can still participate in a strong liberal arts program — an excellent one, for the most part — the university has demonstrated that it believes pre-professional tracks are ultimately more valuable and more important.

In the short term, this means that while students’ experience in certain departments ostensibly will improve, other students will not be able to profit from certain academic programs. The strong case has been made that these changes will affect the richness of the academic experience at Emory.

I can certainly sympathize with the aspiring painters and sculptors, recreational and professional, who have had their primary creative outlet taken away, and the budding journalists and economists whose paths these cuts have partially blocked.

Yet, these immediate changes should be the least of students’ fears. The “process” under which these cuts were executed excluded all student input, which means we have lost control to influence and improve the university.

Yes, many students are involved in extracurricular organizations, such as Greek life and Volunteer Emory, that make Emory a better school in terms of student life and overall contributions to the community.

However, if a student wants to forge a certain academic path, how can that student trust that a given program will exist for the roughly four years of their undergraduate education?

How will that student know if the administration’s decisions threaten their department? And, even if that student did know that his/her program was in danger, what recourse would they have?

I know an educational studies and journalism double major who has gotten sympathetic smiles from her friends, but nothing from the institution to which she is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition. This is all too common a tale.

(By the way, to those who say that these cuts will have “no effect” on students in these departments that are getting “phased out,” I ask a question: who will teach classes in a department with fewer professors by the day? Dooley?)

Hopefully, Dean Forman’s new advisory committee, emerging from College Council, will effectively represent students’ views regarding the direction of Emory’s liberal arts curriculum. Perhaps then Emory will realize the potential of being a school where administrators and students can work together to improve academic quality.

Unfortunately, if this committee proves to provide only token representation of the student body, students will continue to attend class in uncertainty, without any means to affect positive change.

And those prospective students who do not know what they want to study before they arrive at college will not choose Emory, a place that seems to encourage certain types of students at the expense of others.

Benjamin Leiner is a College junior from Baltimore, Md.

  • ellen

    I think the points Mr. Leiner made are important considerations for Emory. But, I think his focus is too narrow. If one reads national newspapers like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, the struggles to protect the humanities, liberal arts, architecture, journalism, and interdisciplinary degree students is immense and unresolved. Graduates in these fields have suffered since 2009. They haven’t gotten jobs and they have huge debt. Tuition at private institutions increases each year and job prospects in the humanities decline. I don’t think the recent decisions made at Emory were made in a bubble. Perhaps some stakeholders are angry about the way the decisions were made and the cuts that are coming. But, Emory graduates who cannot find jobs after paying over $200,000 for their education could also feel exploited. Emory, like many private schools, has to find a path through the dramatic changes taking place in higher education. At times, Emory will stumble and individuals will feel betrayed. But it is my impression that most Emory administrators care deeply about the students and faculty as well as the future of the university. No one has clear answers for the challenges that higher education in the USA faces today.

    • Pretty Sentiment, but the Facts Speak Otherwise

      Ellen – Your good faith and optimism is appreciated but misplaced. Even beyond its record budget surplus, Emory’s endowment kicked back nearly 100$ million this year in pure profit and the Campaign for Emory exceeded expectations by 90$ million – yet the school is laying people off and shutting down departments while crying financial hard times. Moreover, Emory administrators have steadily seen their numbers grow and salaries rise over and beyond the rate of inflation for the past five years – James Wagner now makes over a million dollars a year before factoring in his (gratis) living expenses and substantial other dividends. Emory spends more to landscape the campus and lay out floral displays in advance of Board of Trustees visits than it would cost to keep a department like the Division of Educational Studies open for a year (no joke). And check out a piece in last month’s New York Times – “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall” – for a revealing look at how Emory financial aid treats the students in what they on the record describe as “standard methodology.” But maybe you’re right – maybe Emory’s admins care deeply about the welfare of their students and the virtues of education. Yet that seems unlikely given that they behave just like any other private sector businesspeople – investing in flashy, high-glitz and unsustainable ventures to build buzz and enriching themselves while treating their employees (faculty) like disposable resources and selling over-priced, dubious value products to their customers (students) while regularly duping them when it comes to financial aid. Don’t believe the rhetoric and pleas of good intentions – look at the facts instead – and don’t perpetuate the claim that “no one has clear answers” when the data shows clearly that Wagner et al know exactly what they’re doing, and benefit handsomely from it.

  • Ashamed Alum

    Amen!