Emory College Dean Robin Forman, the man responsible for both the elimination and suspension of seven academic programs as well as implementing several new academic initiatives, has taken plenty of heat over the past week from a large portion of the academic community. Nevertheless, he's committed to the College's new direction, which he believes will serve the university for years to come. Forman spoke with Creative Loafing this week about the response, his take on the College's academic plan and specific reasons for closing certain departments.
In your announcement of these cuts, you noted that you were focusing on a plan "designed to enhance areas of distinction" and “transform areas of excellence into areas of eminence.” I was wondering if you would elaborate on why certain areas were considered areas of distinction and others weren’t?
Yeah. Would you mind if I could start just a couple of steps before that point?
Emory College of Arts and Sciences was running a deficit for several years, and I’m proud and excited to say that we’re not protecting the deficit for this year. We’ve worked very hard to address our financial challenges in ways that do not impact the students and the faculty. I think we’ve done that. But the result is that right now we are projecting basically breaking even, and we’re spending about as much as we’re taking in.
The period of the last four years — even though we were not contracting the college in significant ways — we weren’t growing certainly. Yet there was kind of a continuous sort of expansion of programming, centers, departments, degree programs, and the result is that we’re at a place now where much of what we do is under-resourced. Not just the new things, but core departments as well that devoted resources, or in which resources that where allocated out to start new things and then were never replenished.
So we’re at a kind of unstable equilibrium where we are doing too many things that are under-resourced, and as a result, I don’t think most of our programs are as vibrant as they should be for our students. Chairs of many departments has told me now for two years, that’s how long I’ve been there at Emory. They told me for two years that they barely have enough resources — which is time, attention, faculty, and effort to cover the basic requirements, core requirements of their undergraduate majors and graduate programs — which means that there hasn’t been that slack in the system that allows faculty to think about new and creative courses they may want to offer.
We actually focused our attention on freshman-year [curriculum], but I think we’re short in our senior year in most departments for what [classes] we’re offering. Now that students have mastered a body of knowledge, you know, offering them something where they can take advantage of that, to do something really interesting and exciting and innovative and challenging and rewarding and fun. We’re not serving our students well by stretching ourselves as thin as we are.
So the first decision was simply — before we will get into details — the first decision was [that] we [had] to contract our scope a bit. It’s not about, just to be absolutely clear [as] you referred to cuts, it’s not about cutting the college. We’re breaking even. Nothing we’re doing will reduce the expense budget of the college. Every dollar we free up by the reorganization will be reinvested it the academic mission — every dollar. So this does not represent a cut to the college, it is not about addressing a deficit because we’re not projecting a deficit. It’s not about reducing the overall expense of the colleges. This is not about saving money. It’s really about setting priorities and making sure those priorities receive the resources they need to achieve their mission and their ambition and their potential.
It’s more of a reallocation of resources.
It’s not just more, it is a reallocation, period. It’s exactly what it is. It’s not an overall cut. Every dollar, this is entirely a reallocation.
That makes sense. I was at the protest or the meeting, whatever it was referred to... discussion. I think it was a chair from either the Portuguese [or] Spanish department...
Spanish and Portuguese? Yeah.
She was aware of this, she wasn’t blindsided by it, that’s what she said. She knew this was coming as there was communication. But in terms of other forms of communication I've seen with other departments, including professors in the Economics department and the Journalism program. It seemed, in both cases, that people were upset with the lack of transparency and communication. It also, like in the case of the Spanish program, seemed to vary by program. Can you discuss some of the lines of communication going back and forth?
I was at the first hour, from noon to 1 p.m., and they were calling it a discussion as well. I heard the same thing. You know, I understand that. I will say that the first time that you hear these issues discussed, no matter what it is or what the setting is, there’s going to be a sense of shock. There’s always a first time when you hear this idea. Some of that is unavoidable. We were rolling out communication as things became clearer to us, and in many cases, as they became clear to me in different ways.
I meet monthly with all the chairs and directors of the programs. As it became clear that we were going to have to reduce our scope that we were going to have to stop doing some things that we were doing. The chairs and directors were told this, without specifics — because initially it wasn’t entirely clear to me what would fall in that category. Throughout last spring — I don’t know when I first stated it with that much clarity, I think it was probably March — it became clear we were going to have to stop doing things. Final decisions weren’t reached until June, and even after that, there was some evolution of the plan. It’s not like there was a lot of time between when the decisions were made and when they were communicated.
One thing I did decide was that I was not going to make any major announcement over the summer because that’s when faculty and students aren’t here. There wouldn’t be the opportunity for gatherings like today. I think conversations like these are important.
Were some chairs prepared for the news? Probably not, but in every case, we have had conversations with each of these chairs and directors about the challenges their departments and programs were facing — our concerns about [what] their future would look like.
What was the protocol for choosing programs to be suspended or eliminated?
Before I answer that, let me tell you that these decisions were made in close collaboration and consultation with a committee of faculty leaders. A committee, the Faculty Financial Advisory Committee, was put together four years ago before my arrival on the campus by predecessor, Bobby Paul. He first put it together as a committee he appointed that would advise him on questions of allocations of resources.
For the past three years, it’s been a formal representative body of the faculty governance committee. This group advised me — they had been doing a lot of work before I got here — but the ultimate decision was mine. They were close collaborators and partners. They had access to all of the information we had about departments, including enrollments, all the assessments we’ve done internally and externally as well as budgets — everything just short of salaries of individual faculty members. They had all the information we had and helped advise, support, and ultimately endorse the proposal.
We tried to do our best to assess every way in which our academic units contributed to the mission. Roughly speaking, there were five categories. One was national distinction in the graduate program, which is often indistinguishable from questions of scholarly distinction. Is this department a true leader in the discipline, nationally and internationally? If not, what kind of an investment would be required to get it there? The second category, I would say, was the impact on the undergraduate experience. Is this unit essential for a liberal arts education in the mid-21st century through the next couple of decades? Next, is this a unit in which students hold a great interest? What are the enrollments telling us about the student demand for this?
Then, there were a variety of ways in which units contribute to the College’s mission beyond their own boundaries. The ways in which they contribute to other academic units, the ways in which departments contribute to the broader College and university mission that goes beyond the purely academic contributions. Finally, there was an effort to come to some understanding of what our vision for the college would be and ask the question: what units do we need to make that vision a reality?
I don’t mean to imply that there was an algorithm or that numbers were assigned to categories and they were added up. It wasn’t that. This is the framework we used to have this kind of conversation. The difficulty is that everything we do scores at least highly in one, and often several of those criteria. Everything we do has a value, everything we do makes an important contribution. Everything we do has a passionate constituency. Journalism, Visual Arts... that’s true for all of them. No one ever, at any point, entertained the idea that somehow they were unimportant or were not contributing in ways that were rewarding students and faculty. Ultimately, we had hard choices to make about what we invest in and the consequences given that we are just breaking even — that investing in something means investing less somewhere else.
Can you walk me through the reasoning behind a few different decisions, such as Journalism, Economics, or ILA?
You’re confusing a couple different things. Journalism is a program — it’s not a department. Economics is a department. The fact that you called Journalism a school is already kind of interesting, in the sense that most institutions, not all, but most institutions that teach journalism do so in a separate School of Journalism. We don’t have a School of Journalism, we have Journalism program in a College of Arts and Sciences. That poses some limitations and challenges compared to the School of Journalism model. It also presents us with some opportunities that derive from having journalism present in the same larger community as history and political science and philosophy and chemistry and biology.
Why Journalism? Because it’s simply the fact that it’s not our job, as a liberal arts college, to simply train people to be professional journalists — in the same way it’s not our job to train people to be professional doctors or lawyers or businesspeople. It’s not what we do in the College of Arts and Sciences. We believe fervently in an ideal of a liberal education, which have certain core pillars that have to be strong for a liberal education to thrive. It’s those core pillars that we have to make sure are as strong as possible.
By the way, answering a question you kind of asked in passing, which is one of my thoughts about the discussion. I’ve been, in many settings, arguing for a couple years that we need to do more to make the Emory campus a place where dissent is not only safe and tolerated, but encouraged. A great university should be a place where ideas, often-inconsistent ideas, have their chance to be heard by the community. I thought the idea of the discussion was a great one and an important process. I was grateful for those who made an effort to organize it.
That said, I was troubled by the amount of misinformation presented. That’s not to blame anyone. There’s absolutely no way I could have included in the initial letter all the information that was relevant to this process. It would’ve been a book, rather than a page. There’s a continual process... it’s weeks of addressing every question that comes our way, which is not to say that at the end of the day, people are all going to agree on the choices made. I would like to create a foundation for more productive conversation.
Going back to Economics is, obviously, an important discipline and essential for the liberal arts. The decision was certainly not made to close to Economics department or to suspend the undergraduate major. That would be ridiculous. The decision was made to suspend admissions to the graduate program. Why was that decision made? The Economics department, to some extent, is a victim of it’s own success. It’s overwhelmed with undergraduate interest. The number of majors is going up the roof, and I spoke about Economics in particular at several different chair/directors meetings about how it’s a puzzle that we need to somehow need to figure out. Ultimately, we’re just not serving our students well nor are we serving the institution well. They’re overwhelmed and the creakiness is showing up in all aspects of their mission — both in the undergraduate program, the graduate program and the faculty scholarship.
For a variety of reasons, the first answer can’t be that you need to hire more economists. That is likely part of the answer, but that can’t be the first response. We have hired economists to fill every space in their building. We’ve even converted some lounges into offices to offer more hiring. The point is that they’re so overwhelmed that I believe that they’re missing some opportunities to do things that are really creative and exciting and innovative. I think that it’s valuable to just pause for a moment and commit ourselves in a way that they haven’t had the chance. To think in an open-ended and creative way about what the Economics department at Emory should be, and then think about what role graduate education can or should play in that vision. I don’t have any doubt that we will ultimately embrace a continuation of graduate education.
The question was asked by several speakers [on Tuesday] what can we do to reverse this decision. Well, the decision was not made to close the graduate program, it was to suspend the program. The notion of reversing the decision is built into the language itself.
I think many affiliated with those programs and beyond would argue that “suspension” as opposed to “cuts” is an issue of semantics.
I understand that response. Look, suspending the graduate program, and the idea of opening it up when we come to a clear understanding of what our mission is, will have an impact. The department will be changed by it and I hope for the better. Anytime there’s change, there’s a sense of loss. I don’t want to minimize the sense of loss whether it is to those in the Economics department or those studying Visual Arts or Journalism or anything else. Any sense of change creates this sense of loss. It’s very real and I don’t even want to suggest that it’s inappropriate. What I hope is that the sense of loss is balanced with a sense of opportunity.
Going along the lines of new opportunity then, let’s move into talking about some of these newer initiatives. Will you tell me about some of these like contemporary China, new media, and the others?
There’s always confusion when you mention new initiatives that you’re cutting things here to invest in new things over there. While there’s some partial truth to that, the bulk of our reinvestment will be in core traditional disciplines in the liberal arts...I’m happy to tell you about the new initiatives, but I want to make clear that the reallocation isn’t just from things we’re closing to new endeavors.
So there are things that students and faculty have been telling me are absolutely passionate interests of theirs since the day I arrived. One is the study of contemporary China, which I first heard from faculty. You can’t understand global, political dynamics, economic dynamics, without having China be a large ingredient in that conversation. That’s true for conversations about energy and sustainability and it’s increasingly true for conversations about global art and culture. Yet, we don’t study China much in the College, not as much as I think is necessary for realistic conversations about the world we live in. We have to increase the presence of China in our curriculum. Students are telling me this as well — there’s overwhelming demand for our Chinese language course and Chinese culture courses. It’s coming from all sectors of our community. We will be creating a community that studies China.
The reason why we’re setting up a committee for that, and new media and other things, is because we’re not going to achieve our goals unless this is a broad interdisciplinary multi-departmental initiative. We’re putting together a committee that has faculty from across the arts and sciences to create a vision. Before we starting hiring and throwing money around, let’s have an idea of what we’re aiming towards. The charge to the committee is to spend a year exploring what the study of China looks like elsewhere, could look like, and ultimately agree on a vision for Emory College that we won’t accomplish in a year, two years, but nonetheless sends us on a clear direction.
New media is the same kind of thing, whether it’s new media for a form of artistic expression, audio and video and all the different ways that can be combined and enhanced, as well as the role the new media is playing in the way we connect with each other as a community and the role that new media and digital media are playing in social and political movements. Again, I expect that committee that we ultimately create to be represented in several departments.
It sounds like the goal is to not make same mistakes as with the shuttered programs, and to ensure these new initiatives — if they become departments — have a long-term vision.
I think that’s fair. It’s the collective view of most at Emory College that these are subject with which we have to engage if we want to remain relevant.
Beyond those questions, was there anything else you wanted to add?
If you were at that discussion you heard two statements repeated several times by different speakers. Again, I understand where they’re coming from, but I think it’s important to address them. One is the notion that we’re getting out of the business of teaching languages, and languages are essential to a liberal education. I believe the second part, I believe that passionately. But it’s simply not true that we’re getting out of the business of teaching language. In the last couple of years, we’ve hired a Tibetan instructor, last year we were searching for someone who could teach Sanskrit, this year we hired two more Korean instructors. We opened a program in Yiddish.
We’re continually adding to our Chinese instruction. We are devoting more of our resources — faculty, time, attention, and financial — to language instruction, both as an absolute number and percentage, more now than we ever have. It’s just not the case that we can study all languages all the time. There’s nothing new about the fact that we’re continually assessing where the needs are and where the student interest is. The point is not that others shouldn’t feel free to disagree with the decisions, but it is to suggest that I don’t think it’s realistic to question our commitment to the instruction of foreign languages, nor our commitment to the idea that language is crucial to the study of the liberal arts.
If that’s the case, why did the graduate Spanish program get suspended?
Spanish is an example of a program where — and I don’t want to speak for them — but most of the faculty are welcoming this opportunity to rethink their mission. The discipline of Spanish is changing around the country. My view is that there are opportunities. My hope is that there are opportunities to really recreate that department and graduate program that absolutely everyone would find exciting. The kinds of things they’re exploring are transformations of the department from its current configuration to something that could more accurately be described as Hispanic Studies or Latino Studies. They’ve already taken steps in that direction — what we’re asking is that they really focus on that as a goal.
If that means opening up the program to those not just in Spanish and Portuguese, but including those who study Latin American history, the Caribbean, from various perspectives. I think most of the department shares this idea that there’s an exciting possibility out there that’s going to take a little time. I’ve made clear to them that I’m hoping and optimistic that there will be a very exciting and compelling vision — one that we will enthusiastically embrace. Again, this is not about saving moving. We’re prepared to invest in resources to support that vision. I think that they’re energized by the idea of rethinking what the study of Spanish and Spanish culture could be on our campus.
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