Even though he has only been the Provost at North Park for around two months, Dr. Michael Emerson has immersed himself in Chicago's culture. With an specialty in urban sociology, Dr. Emerson is ready to share his experiences with students, faculty and staff. He is asking meaningful questions and is beginning to find even more meaningful answers. SL: You went to school in Minnesota?
ME: All the way through until I graduated high school. Didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so I moved to California because I had seen it on TV and it looked warm. So I thought I’d go there if I have to sleep outside, which I ended up having to when I ran out of money.
SL: You’ve dabbled in homelessness?
ME: I did. I lived a homeless life. I would wear a trench coat and I would walk through Denny’s restaurants, and at that time they would put out free rolls and people never really ate them. So I would go by, grab them, put them in my trench coat, grab little packets of ketchup, and that would be my meal.
SL: And you survived it. Where did you go after that?
ME: I eventually got a job as a bank teller. I realized you really have to go to college ... because all the people above me had college degrees and I could not rise up in the bank structure without the degree. Then I came and ended up going to the University of Loyola.
SL: And what did you study?
ME: [I] started in psychology, and I really became fascinated by all the inequalities I was seeing here in Chicago, so then I ended up switching to sociology.
SL: After you completed your degree in sociology, did you continue studying?
ME: I went straight on to graduate school, at that point. I got married after my sophomore year in college so I was a married man already. I took an urban sociology class, came home and told my wife “I found my calling.” And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing ever since: urban sociology research.
SL: I mean, you have all these books, done so many studies, you’ve carried that on through your whole life. Why?
ME: All in an attempt to answer the question I had first ... I would ride from the north campus to downtown for classes and would get out downtown. On one side at that point was Cabrini Green and all the poverty. I’d walk toward where the campus was and could see the gold coast, all the wealth. I was just ... I was so naive at that point, “How can this be? How can you have with just in a few blocks, wealth I cannot understand and poverty I cannot understand? And why can I clearly see there’s a difference in the color of the skin of the people on either of these two sides?
SL: Chicago is one of the most segregated cities. It was a great place for you to start researching.
ME: And then I remember saying, “I’m going to go to grad school and the only place I will not go is the Southeast because I don’t like heat and I don’t like humidity." And I end up at the university of North Carolina for graduate school, so be careful what you say you won’t do.
SL: How did you end up here? You did come full circle in a way.
ME: I’ve been down in Houston for 15 years at Rice University and a one year stint at Notre Dame. And two things: one my daughter came here and I was really impressed with how it went for her and being part of the convocation that they're going to have tomorrow. Just seeing ... I love the campus, I love where it's situated, I love that it's in Chicago. That was one thing, the other thing was a sense of ... I have no strong desire to be a provost but if I ever was to be one, I would want it to be at North Park. So when I saw that they were looking I said, “Oh I gotta apply.” And it happened.
SL: Can you define a provost in common language?
ME: That’s been the funniest thing at this job. Because when I’m a professor, everyone goes “Yeah, I understand that.” When I first started here, I didn’t have a key to the building and I needed to get in. I found security and I said “I’m Michael Emerson, the new provost here, wondering if you could let me in to my office." We were talking and they thought I was legal counsel. Provost must mean an attorney or something. Yeah. So what’s a provost do? You could say ... There’s two ways you could say it. You’re professor of the professors or the vice president of academic affairs. Your job is to oversee all of the curriculum, the faculty development, and making sure we have quality education through and through.
SL: What are excites you about being here? I know you already talked about why you chose North Park, but what is one of the most exciting things you have found about being here so far?
ME: One is a vision, and that is that what’s happening here and is going to continue happening is that I say this term “God is gathering greatness.” All the people, that are here and that are being brought here, it’s for a purpose. It’s not just random chance. There are going to be very powerful things happening here.
SL: That’s ominous.
ME: Yes. And what I have found in being here and all the people I’ve met so far is the incredible commitment that people feel, a bond they feel with this place. Which is a very important thing, its part of how a place becomes great. People have to truly believe it has a purpose and a mission that is worth sacrificing for and that’s what I’m finding, that people do.
SL: What is that purpose you find people are striving for?
ME: It is this: “How do we as a Christian university, in a world that’s urbanizing and diversifying, how do we prepare students for that world? How do we speak and use our knowledge to make that world work better?” When you bring diversity together, when you put people in tight urban spaces, it often doesn’t work and we have police violence, and we have shootings, gangs erupt, and fights, and people arguing and people don’t want to live by each other. There’s so much to work on. And that’s the big challenge we have, but that’s also, what I think, gets people excited.
SL: You would say that the negativity in the city is what North Park is challenged by the most?
ME: Not just this city, left to its own, when you’re bringing diverse people together it often doesn’t work well. It doesn’t happen naturally so its finding a way to use our knowledge. We ask big questions, we try to figure out what is our purpose in life, when do I sacrifice and what do I sacrifice for. Is it okay as a color just to live with other people my color? Why or why not? Let’s think about it. Our country asks us not to think about it, just follow the way we do it, don’t think about it.
SL: Going back to the North Park mission of being intercultural, before you arrived here they changed from multicultural to intercultural. Can you explain why that happened?
ME: It sounds like nothing but it’s a huge change. It is that idea, we don’t want to just be a lot of different people here, we want to be people who are bringing their differences together to find strength and to make friendships and to use that creativity that comes from diversity to find solutions for better learning. So intercultural communicates that. It’s saying we’re doing it together. Inter. Intergrowth. Multi, Chicago has always been multiracial, it hasn’t always been intercultural. SL: Has the university been enacting any policies to make that distinction now that they’re trying to be intercultural? A lot of it is white, mainstream culture so how are you trying to achieve that goal of differentiating?
ME: That’s part of what I’m learning and part of my job, is to make it happen more. So one of the important things for me is ultimately who we hire. Even if we hire people who look racially different, they could still have the same culture. We are really seeking people that have diversity of perspectives. We’re trying to make sure that we continually diversify our students. The thing is that we find in my own studies, is that if you have enough diversity, people then can have a voice to change things. If we don’t, the majority will never agree to change even if some want to they can’t succeed. you have to have diversity of perspective pushing for the change. That has to be step one, to continue to diversify who’s here. One of the things we did on Monday, is that our whole faculty retreat was on the issue of intercultural and we focused on the big questions that we ask like: “who do we assign in our books? Who are students reading? Are they reading different voices and different perspectives or not?” So we’re trying to figure out how to weave it into our courses.
SL: With your daughter also here, what is the dynamic like? Do you go out for coffee or pretend like you're strangers?
ME: You might want to ask her, I don’t really know yet. I know that when I was interviewing here, it happened to be that I came across her class standing outside of Sohlberg Hall because they were waiting to take their final and had some problem with getting into the building. And I said “Hello everybody, I’m Leah Emerson’s father, the new provost here, and I’m going to go see if I can figure out what the problem is and get this solved for you.” I remember she was very embarrassed by that, so probably keep some distance.
SL: Do you like to explore the city and go to different neighborhoods? What do you like to do here?
ME: First of all, when we chose a neighborhood [to live], it had
to be diverse, I had to be able to walk or bike here, and I had to be able to walk to the train as a family. So we were able to find that by heading south a little ways from here. And why we wanted to be by the train, for one because I don’t like to drive, use a car. I think that’s a waste in a city. And it also allows us to explore neighborhoods and get anywhere.
SL: With lots of new students arriving, new to Chicago, what is something you think they should try?
ME: Do not waste the chance to be out in the city every time and every chance you get. That’s a great advantage of being here at North Park, and part of our job as faculty, as deans and administrators, is to help you be able to do that. And we will be working very hard at that.
SL: To combat the Netflix habits.
ME: That’s right. It’s easy to that, and when it gets cold out to just say, "I’ll stay in." But the connections you make, internships you can do, that’s the beauty of being in a huge city, right? Whereas you have all the worlds big companies here, you have the great, great religious leaders, artists, incredible performers; everything you can think of.