The Carter Center

A window on the world at Emory

Sita Ranchod-Nilsson

Director, Emory Institute for Developing Nations

Like most great research universities, Emory interacts with the global community in numerous ways, through international faculty and students, through research on global issues and problems, and through relationships with global partners, organizations, and alumni. But Emory also has one unique link to the world: our relationship with The Carter Center, a non-governmental organization addressing some of the most pressing and complex issues of our time in the areas of democracy building, conflict resolution, human rights, mental health, and neglected tropical diseases in countries disproportionately associated with poverty. 

Built from the vision and reputation of former President and First Lady Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, The Carter Center provides Emory with exceptional opportunities to understand and engage global challenges, such as strengthening rule of law in Liberia, establishing foundations for long-term peace in the Sudans, and fighting diseases like malaria and Guinea worm disease. Our institutional partnership is realized through President Carter and through strong bonds between programs and individuals. As director of the Institute for Developing Nations, a key link between these institutional partners, I believe we can expand and deepen connections between the hands-on work of The Carter Center and our academic community at Emory in ways that not only enhance the work of both institutions, but also build a community of scholarship and practice—an action-oriented think tank, if you will—that will have an impact far beyond our institutions.

In 1982 President James T. Laney agreed that Emory University would partner with President and Mrs. Carter in launching The Carter Center, an agreement that was enthusiastically endorsed by Emory’s Board of Trustees. In the early years, key individuals connected the work of The Carter Center to academic life at Emory. For example, William H. Foege was appointed executive director of The Carter Center in 1986 and was instrumental in the creation of the Rollins School of Public Health, all the while serving as a member of the Emory faculty. Richard Joseph was director of the African Governance Program at The Carter Center and also a political science professor at Emory. In the 1990s, Ambassador Marion Creekmore concurrently served as director of programs at The Carter Center and Emory’s first vice provost for international affairs. From 1996 to 2000 Creekmore focused exclusively on his administrative role at Emory. These individuals and others established direct connections between the Center’s humanitarian work and scholarship at Emory.

Today, Emory and The Carter Center are connected in a number of ways. The most visible connection involves President Carter himself. Since 1982 he has been University Distinguished Professor, and in this capacity he participates in academic life at least once a month during the school year. Last year he gave presentations on “public health, religion and ethics,” “the expansion of democracy,” and “fairness,” addressed a forum organized by the Emory Student Nurses Association, addressed international students at a forum at the law school, lectured in a class on “Race and the American Presidency,” and opened the school year with his annual “Town Hall Meeting,” a thirty-two year tradition for first-year undergraduate students. His visits to campus are highly anticipated events. It is difficult to overestimate the impact on a student when you have an opportunity to ask this former president about historical events that he had a direct hand in shaping, or get his views about the development-related research project you did while on a study abroad program in Uganda. 

There are also numerous connections between programs at The Carter Center and Emory. Benjamin Druss works closely with the Center’s Mental Health Program and holds the Rosalynn Carter Chair in Mental Health in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Rollins School of Public Health. The Center for Global Safe Water at Emory regularly works with the Center’s Trachoma Control Program. Faculty in the Laney Graduate School doctoral program in religion who study conflict resolution, religion, and peacebuilding have worked with the Center’s conflict resolution efforts in Liberia. Students pursuing MPH degrees in the Hubert Department of Global Health and those in the Laney Graduate School Master’s in Development Practice gain valuable practical experience with the Center’s Peace and Health Programs. Last year Emory students held, on average, 27 percent of the Center’s highly competitive internships. These are just a few of numerous examples.

In 2006, President Carter and Emory President James Wagner founded the Institute for Developing Nations (IDN) to foster stronger ties between Emory faculty and Carter Center programs. Between 2007 and 2010, IDN provided seed funding on a competitive basis to faculty engaged in development related research aligned with principles that shape The Carter Center’s work: valuing local knowledge, working with in-country partners, and applying knowledge to solve problems and build capacity. Although small, the program helped launch pioneering projects that have gone on to leverage more than three million dollars in external funding. IDN also promotes connections between Emory faculty and graduate students and Carter Center programs to help understand and solve complex problems such as the persistence of gender-based violence in post-conflict societies, the role of elections in transitional contexts, and the gap between theory and practice in disease elimination and eradication. 

These connections enhance the missions of both institutions. But there is always the sense that we can and should do more together. At Emory and The Carter Center, colleagues often tell me that they don’t understand why we don’t do more together. Having worked at the intersection of these two institutions, I see that while the language of connecting “academics, practitioners, and policymakers” is ubiquitous, there are challenges in building and maintaining these connections, particularly on a long-term basis. One challenge that can limit collaboration is that universities and NGOs operate on very different time tables. Visiting dignitaries, election observation missions, and funding for specific projects often have time horizons that seem very short in a university context. Similarly, timelines for research and funding at universities can feel impossibly slow to an organization that must engage real world events in real time. Faculty teaching on a semester schedule are not always free to stop what they are doing to respond to unfolding events in foreign countries. 

Emory and The Carter Center share a commitment to the role that knowledge plays in bringing about lasting social change. There are, however, differences in our institutional cultures that must be taken into account in efforts to work together. At Emory, research and teaching are paramount, whereas Carter Center program staff prioritize to programmatic goals—whether that involves monitoring an election, advancing conflict resolution processes, or eradicating Guinea worm disease. While these goals are not diametrically opposed, it is a challenge to help them fit together. Faculty are interested in gaining access to data, research opportunities, and internships for their students. While Emory students compete for internships and undertake special projects and research opportunities, there are limits to the time Center staff can devote to learning and mentoring, as well as the number of students that an NGO of this size can work with. 

What is the way forward? How can partnership between The Carter Center and Emory University be leveraged to do even more to support our missions? One important connection recognizes that universities provide an increasingly rare space for open, civil, and critical exchange of ideas—across disciplinary, institutional, and national boundaries. IDN conferences and workshops have demonstrated how this space can be used to solve problems and advance programmatic goals at The Carter Center. This space can be further developed both by increasing the number of conferences and by expanding our capacity to follow up with research, publications, and curriculum. Both institutions would also benefit from having scholars and practitioners in residence at Emory. Carter Center programs would gain from having scholars working with the Center in residence, as well as from having the capacity to bring key field staff to Atlanta for a period of debriefing and reflection. While in residence these scholars and practitioners could also contribute to academic programs and research at Emory. The value of these residencies would be even greater if they were organized on the basis of cross-cutting themes connecting academic programs at Emory with Carter Center programs. Finally, more could be done to create opportunities for research and learning connected to the Center’s programs. Increased interactions would allow for opportunities to align programmatic challenges with research agendas, and The Carter Center’s efforts over the past thirty-one years would be a treasure trove of data and teaching cases.

The partnership between Emory University and The Carter Center is now in its thirty-second year. During that time it has evolved and changed in response to institutional growth, transformed landscapes of higher education and non-governmental organizations, complex global problems, and new technologies and understandings for addressing them. Despite the challenges that can and do arise when working together, the partnership remains a distinctive way in which Emory is linked to the world and an opportunity to connect scholarship and practice for even greater impact.