Wrapped in crimson robes, flanked by 11-foot video screens, seated above a bank of chrysanthemums,the Dalai Lama seemed one part royalty, one part rock star Monday as he appeared before thousands on his second day in residence at Emory University.
Visiting the campus for the first time since he was appointed a distinguished presidential scholar in 2007, the Tibetan religious and cultural leader pursued a vigorous schedule of lectures and appearances Sunday and Monday, presiding over a conference on compassion meditation Monday featuring a panel of scholars from around the U.S. Tuesday brings more panels and conversation with actor Richard Gere and writer Alice Walker.
Monday's audience was arrayed on bleachers and in folding chairs inside the cavernous Woodruff Physical Education Center, which holds about 4,000 people. Slightly fewer than the maximum were in attendance.
Yet the pomp and circumstance were to-the-brim -- which was appropriate, said Stephanie Davis, a program administrator in Emory’s religion department.
“I kind of correlate him with Martin Luther King,” Davis said as she stood just outside the auditorium during a break in the discussion. “I realize that he’s all about love and compassion and peace.”
That Emory can claim a reincarnated bodhisattva as a faculty member -- albeit one who visits only a few days every few years -- expands the school’s profile beyond the usual news reports.
“It obviously brings attention to the school, and, at least for brief periods, big crowds,” said Harvey Klehr, a professor of politics and history.
Emory’s relationship with the Dalai Lama is a cornerstone of its ambitious Emory-Tibet Partnership. Through that program, Emory sends students to India to study Buddhist philosophy, and sends teachers to instruct Buddhist monks in cosmology, physics and biology. Robert A. Paul, former dean of the college of arts and sciences, told Monday's audience that the goal is "to maintain a flow of knowledge from east to west and west to east."
Emory has had a knack for attracting high-profile faculty members and capitalizing on both their marquee value and their scholarship. Its endowment of $4.6 billion (down about a billion from 2008, due to a sagging stock market) would seem to explain its ability to lure the likes of distinguished writer in residence Salman Rushdie and university distinguished professor Jimmy Carter.
But Gary Hauk, vice president and deputy to the president at Emory, suggests that sometimes being in the right place and asking the right question at the right time are more valuable than big salaries.
According to Hauk, when the school brought novelist Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses," to become an Ellmann lecturer in 2004, Emory president James Wagner asked the writer why he had never joined the faculty of any university. Rushdie answered, essentially, "no one's offered."
With similar serendipity, the Dalai Lama, after speaking at an interfaith meeting at Emory in 1995, agreed to an ongoing relationship, partly because Emory's faculty included a leading Tibetan scholar, Robert A. Paul, and partly because the school already had in its divinity program Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, a monk who had studied with the Dalai Lama in India.
Without discussing salaries, Hauk said "I don't think Emory's practice has been to pay star faculty exorbitant amounts of money that would be out of the range of our home-grown faculty." He added that Rushdie, who conducts seminars every year, spoke two or three times last year at events that were open to the public. Given the exorbitant state of speaker fees these days, said Hauk, Rushdie's retainer is a bargain.
Ticket sales have underwritten the production cost of this three-day visit by the Dalai Lama, Hauk said, adding that while the Dalai Lama receives no stipend, Emory directs funds equivalent to what would have been his fee to support the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative. (Emory provided 1,500 free tickets to students; ticket prices ranged from $10 to $140.)
Colleges and universities around the country have long attracted celebrity faculty members who help to burnish the school's reputation. Occasionally it has caused trouble, as in 1986, when reports surfaced that Egpytian president Anwar Sadat's widow was paid $50,000 to teach a single term at the University of South Carolina.
At Spelman College, the William and Camille Cosby Endowed Professorship pays for a one-year or two-year stint by a distinguished visiting professor, a post that has been held by such figures as Bernice Johnson Reagon (of Sweet Honey in the Rock), novelist Pearl Cleage, filmmaker Ayoka Chenzira and former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin, who finishes her one-year term this December.
That the program boosts the school's reputation is "a beneficial side effect," said Spelman provost and vice president of academic affairs Johnnella Butler. "The main goal is for our visiting Cosby professors to bring fresh ideas and new ways of approaching intellectual and social problems."
For Christian Harnett, 19, a pre-med student at Oglethorpe University visiting Monday's conference, the Dalai Lama's personal example was as powerful as any of the scientific findings presented concerning compassion and altrusim in the primate brain.
"The fact that he remains so optimistic and compassionate toward the Chinese and people that may hate him -- he represents a turn-the-other-cheek philosophy," said Hartnett, "that many people need as a role model right now."