Content warning: this article contains mention of suicide.
Michael Elliott’s office isn’t what I expected it to be. The desk didn’t have an engraved, golden name plate; the walls had no awards or degrees. We sat at a small roundtable where he prefers to take most of his meetings. The window beside the table gives a bird’s-eye view of the Reading Room in Candler Library, where students sit at a table working.
“This window is a great reminder of why I’m here,” Elliott said. “It was especially hard to look through this window during the pandemic.”
After 24 years at Emory, Elliott will say farewell to this view and his post as the dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences (ECAS). He will return to his alma mater, Amherst College, Aug. 1 as its next president.
In 1998, Elliott received his first professional job as an associate professor of English at Emory. Two years later, he married and moved into a faculty residence on the Clairmont campus where he raised his two children among Emory students. He switched into the role of senior associate dean for faculty in 2010, after then-ECAS Dean Robert Paul offered him the position. After five years, he ascended quickly to an executive associate dean position, then to interim dean of Emory College in 2016, before assuming his current role of ECAS dean in 2017.
As ECAS dean, Elliott focused on the advancing the liberal arts, hiring faculty from historically underrepresented groups and keeping the college afloat during the pandemic. In early March of 2020, Elliott sent an email that announced to faculty that Emory would shut down due to the pandemic and send 8,000 undergraduate students home. That email began the biggest challenge of Elliott’s career — one that defined his time at Emory.
Elliott’s job changed from daily conversations with students on Cox Bridge and meetings with faculty to completely virtual communication. For his dedication to students, the class of 2020 honored Elliott with the Brit Katz Senior Appreciation Award. The wooden bowl, one of the few awards displayed in his office, rests on a small end table in the center of the room.
In a final sit-down interview with The Emory Wheel, Elliott discussed how the past 24 years have shaped him — from his many accomplishments as a professor and administrator to his struggles and shortcomings — and what he hopes his legacy will be at Emory.
Emory Wheel: You started as a professor at Emory fresh out of school. What was it like coming in to teach Emory students, specifically?
Michael Elliott: Emory students really care about what they’re getting out of their studies; they really want to learn. I’ll say also, Emory students are generous with each other. As driven as Emory students are, I very rarely had the sentiment that they feel like they’re in competition with each other. I’ve spent a lot of time with Emory students over the years, both on campus and off campus, and I’ve always been impressed with their sense of decency and their desire to be good people.
EW: Do you miss the teaching component of your every day?
ME: Yeah, I do. I love being dean — it’s a lot of fun, I learned a lot, I get to meet interesting faculty, students and alumni. The biggest drawback to it is what I can’t do. I’ve never found a good way to work teaching into the schedule. One of the things I did as dean was to establish a student advisory board, and I did that in part because I just wanted to have that regular contact with students.
When you see students regularly and you get to know them, you learn a lot about the student experience that you don’t get in one-off meetings like this. You and I have just met, and I’ve asked you a few questions. But, if we met every two weeks, I would notice when you feel particularly stressed or you would tell me the small things that can help me understand the student experience better. Plus, I just like it.
EW: Do you have a proudest accomplishment as a teacher?
ME: What I’m really most proud of is what I see students from my classes going on and doing in the world afterward. I mean, I was well recognized as a teacher: I won an Emory Williams Award … I remember a fabulous seminar that I taught for undergraduates, on women and Dickinson. I learned so much from that class. I just received a nice note from somebody who was in it.
It was filled for some reason with cross country runners, which I couldn’t quite understand, and then I realized maybe the long loping strides are perfect for thinking about poetry. That’s a class that I remember a great deal. I remember a class that I taught with somebody else about cultural studies where we read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and I remember it especially because it was the spring as we were expecting my first child. There are students from that class that I still keep in touch with to this day.
EW: When I look at some of your bios for Emory, they often come with the numbers of how much money you raised, but how would you define your success at Emory?
ME: You know, the numbers always get reported because that’s the easiest way to tell a story — to quantify it. What matters more to me is that Emory is making strides toward feeling like a place where everybody belongs, regardless of where they came from, and each student can lead a life of impact.
One of the things I like to say, so you may have heard this before: it’s great if every Emory student has a terrific four-year experience, but what really matters to me are the experiences that our graduates have for the four years after they graduate from Emory and the four years after that, the four years after that and so on. The value of an Emory education is not whether you enjoy being on campus, it’s what you do with what you learn here, both inside and outside the classroom.
EW: Is your job hard?
ME: Of course, there are hard things about it. The practical reason is simply the scale. There are 5,500 students in every college, there are 575 or so faculty and there are 35 departments. As dean, you want to try to keep in touch with all that they’re doing. Managing that is a challenge, but it’s also what keeps it fun and interesting.
It’s also a challenging time to do this work in higher education because of a political environment that’s polarized around how the public regards higher education. The public is increasingly skeptical of institutions, and as the cost of higher education has risen, people increasingly view education as a transaction that produces a good for the individuals going through — a private good. My belief is that education is a public good. One of the reasons that we spend so much on the students who come through here and [why the school] cost[s] so much as well: they will not only reap rewards for themselves but generate rewards for society.
EW: How flexible did you have to be doing your job to address the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic?
ME: Everybody’s job changed in March 2020. You could go back further and say that our jobs change with the election of Donald Trump. I don’t think that’s a political statement, but Trump’s election pushed polarization in ways that put administrators under a different level of pressure. Every action at a university was increasingly scrutinized as being a reflection of the larger national political climate. March 2020 made it even more challenging. The pandemic threatened all of the best things about what we do. What we do as a university is to bring people together to learn from one another. A virus that’s highly transmissible and highly dangerous is an existential threat to that.
If you go back to when universities shut down, there were a number of people that were predicting that this would be the end of residential education. What we discovered, in the course of the pandemic, was that the residential face-to-face learning that goes on undergraduate life is what students value most and their families value most. If anything, [the pandemic] underscored the values of the things that we were missing out on.
EW: Did you feel the effects of a lack of trust from students this year?
ME: In January, remember we announced and delayed our start in person because of the omicron environment. The first announcement said, “We’re going to be back in three weeks, should conditions allow.” I don’t know how you felt, but one of the things I heard from students was, “We don’t believe you.” I even heard from a few students and parents that they believe we were delayed coming back in person because the University would benefit financially. For the record, this is not true. Our costs did not decrease at all by going online. We sent out a second email that said, “We’re really coming back at the end of January.” Again, I heard from students saying, “We really don’t believe you.”
EW: What was it like for you seeing students back on campus?
ME: It was wonderful because it was so sad to be here during the pandemic, walk around and not see anybody there. I live very close to campus right now, so I just kept coming into the office to use it, which was also good for my family because it got me out of the house. I would sit here in this office, and I do Zoom calls all day.
Whenever I had a break, I would walk around campus to get outside and get a breath of fresh air. That spring and summer of 2020, I’ve never been in such a quiet place in my life. To see people come back this fall and really just enjoy being with each other, it meant a lot to me, and it reminded me of how much we took for granted from the pandemic. I hope we won’t take it for granted again.
EW: This semester, tragic incidents of mental health among students were some of the most difficult concerns you had to respond to. Walk me through the administrative response to that and your own personal response. There always seems to be a juggling act from universities on whether to address things like this or not to prevent any further incidents on campus.
ME: Anybody who works at a college and university, when they hear about a student’s death, it’s extraordinarily painful. Figuring out what the next steps are in terms of notifying the community and how you’re going to go about mourning that person poses a set of questions to which there’s no perfect answer.
The conversations were what you would imagine them to be. We don’t want to look like we’re hiding it, but you need to respect the wishes [of] the family. We need to make sure that we are attending to the students who are most directly impacted. All of those paths forward involve trade-offs. In the end, we made a decision to really focus on attending to the students who were most directly impacted and limiting the information as it was sent. Other people might have reached different decisions. What is hard is realizing no matter what decisions you make, there are young people at Emory who are going through extraordinary pain and who feel that the institution is indifferent to their suffering. That’s a perfectly understandable response, and I have a lot of sympathy for it.
It’s also something that hits home for me, personally. I had a friend who killed himself when we were sophomores in college. It’s a lot to process at any age, but especially at this particular moment.
The larger question of the mental health of students is something I’ve thought a lot about, and we can spend hours on it. It’s going to require a very different approach to wellness and health in the broad sense that most campuses and most faculty aren’t prepared for. There’s been a shift in the mental wellness of the students on campus, not just at Emory but every campus. The effects of the pandemic are likely to make that even worse. We have to change our mission in some ways to think about not just educating in an intellectual sense but also preparing students to be mentally healthy. That’s going to require a lot more than increased counseling, although increased counseling is clearly part of the solution.
EW: What will you miss the most about Emory?
ME: I’ll miss Songfest. I was a judge for Songfest most years. One of the best things about being the dean is getting to do that address that I do for all the students as part of orientation. I will miss watching students on quad, and I will miss Atlanta a lot. I’ll come back and visit.
EW: One of the things that I’ve talked with my friends about is the problem of school spirit and being prideful of Emory.
ME: I’ve heard that for 24 years, and I wish I had made more progress on that. This is a place where the pandemic really did slow us down because the things that help instill that pride were not possible to do. One of the things that I found interesting about Emory is that there are a lot of things that go on here that students really love and identify with, but they don’t always think of them as being Emory things: Diwali, Culture Shock.
EW: What do you look forward to at Amherst? What lessons are you bringing over from Emory going into that new experience?
ME: I’ll take a lot from Emory. I’m looking forward to getting to know a slightly different community after being here for 24 years [and] building new relationships. And it’s a different part of the world in terms of the region, the relationship there between a town. Amherst College sits at the edge of a very interesting town. I’m looking forward to digging into that and being part of it.
What I’ll take here is a sense that no matter how nice buildings are and how important initiatives and programs are, what really makes a university go are the people. It’s really the relationships here that I’ll remember the most. Hopefully, I can take from what I’ve learned from the relationships here and use them to do something valuable there.
I’ve had the chance to work with an incredible group of people here. Emory has just been supportive of me from the very first day that I walked on campus. I still feel lucky that I was able to walk onto campus and into the classroom here.
EW: How do you want to be remembered by the Emory community?
ME: I’d like to be remembered as somebody who listened, somebody who was fair and somebody who cared about the quality of the community.
One of the things that the pandemic really forced me to do is to think a lot about communications — emails and videos. It was harder to be a student — I want to make that clear — absolutely much harder to be a student than to be an administrator or professor.
It was hard on us all, and part of the hard thing was watching students understandably struggle with these incredible challenges that were so different from anything any of us had ever had to go through … I’m really proud of the students, how they conducted themselves and how they pursued their studies. Probably the thing that I will be remembered for is being the dean during the pandemic, and that’s okay.