When Emory College Dean Robin Forman quietly revealed news regarding the school's "new direction" on Sept. 14, little did he know that he would soon be vilified as public enemy No. 1 on campus. Over the past two weeks, nearly everyone with the slightest interest in Emory University's future has joined the fray over the College of Arts and Sciences' proposed institutional shifts.
At the core of these recent decisions stand seven departments — four undergraduate and three graduate programs — facing either indefinite suspension or outright elimination. These cuts are entirely discretionary, making the issue all the more sensitive. Add to that Forman's relatively unilateral decree, and it's understandable why the outcry will likely continue throughout the school year.
The shuttered departments have framed their plight as both an on-campus tragedy and as a victim that's part of the growing trend of slashed humanities programs nationwide. These opponents have spent their time organizing a response to a decision that seems unlikely to be changed. Their fight continues over the perceived injustices surrounding the issue, saying the College's top-down decree was unfair and unethical.
This is where their problem lies. They can blame the administration for a lack of communication and transparency all they like, but that's not going to change Emory's plan. After talking with Dean Forman last week, he offered some additional insight during our interview into the rationale behind these cuts and why these departments and programs were either being eliminated or suspended. He cited individual reasons for closing these seven programs, but it ultimately appears that his final decisions all revolve around a single motive: that Emory cannot and will not settle for programs that are less than exemplary. As Forman said in his initial letter, the moves were "designed to enhance areas of distinction" and "transform areas of excellence into areas of eminence."
These are bold but adept moves — especially for someone who has only worked at Emory for two years. As a recent Emory alum, I'm on board with Forman's decisions. These departments haven't exactly made a case for themselves, and have largely failed to consider the College's bottom line. Whether they like it or not, liberal arts ideology and administrative costs aren't mutually exclusive. Emory's choices, moreover, show that they're an educational enterprise with a long-term vision — a concept not always visible on a campus with traditions that old.
In the discourse around the issue, far too many people have overlooked the fact that Emory made it through the economic crisis — now entering its fifth year — without having to scale back programs. Having weathered the storm, these discretionary moves ensure that Emory doesn't overextend itself. While it's a tough decision to sell, it's one that will prevent the university from being in the same position as the University of Georgia and Georgia Perimeter College.
UGA recently revealed plans to eliminate roughly 130 jobs in order to meet Gov. Nathan Deal's 3 percent state budget cuts. Likewise, Georgia Perimeter College laid off faculty and staff to absorb a $25 million shortfall caused by the fiscal ineptitude of its senior leaders. If either of these two institutions attempted to practice fiscal conservatism, both of these financial shortfalls could have been avoided.
By reallocating resources from departments that didn't fit the school's long-term academic mission, Forman has doubled down on the programs that should bolster the university's reputation for years to come. In making this difficult decision now, the dean has taken a proactive measure, which is a far better situation to be in than the reactive positions two other Georgia institutions have encountered.
In an ideal academic environment, no programs would face cuts. In a perfect budgetary decision, all matters with far-reaching ramifications would be perfectly communicated with complete transparency. Does the way in which Forman announced these plans leave something to be desired? Sure. But he made the right move. In doing so, he's actually showing his acumen as a leader on Emory's campus — despite the overwhelming backlash.
Forman's reforms don't stop there. He has proposed a new series of yearlong initiatives to explore the possibilities of bringing new programs to the campus that range from contemporary China to new media to neuroscience. He refuses, however, to repeat the College's past mistakes, creating new departments without a defined mission. Rather, the dean has given these potential new programs a chance to prove they will enhance — and not simply expand — the size of the College.
I understand and certainly don't blame members from these seven departments for fighting back. They're fighting for their own survival. Yet, they're trying to save themselves without clearly stating why they should fit into Emory's future vision. On the other hand, Forman has his eyes set on what he believes to be the College's best course of action. Because of that, I find it hard to side with those fighting to win today's battles, especially when the administration is focused on winning tomorrow's war — one focused on sustaining long-term viability.