Autumn 2007: Letter from the President

James W. Wagner, President, Emory University

Ann Borden

What’s Emory ‘Worth’?

By James W. Wagner

Walking across the Quad early in September, I overheard one of our wonderful student admission tour guides (performing the traditional backward stroll) offering running commentary about Emory to the dozen or so prospective students and parents following in her wake. (These volunteer guides serve as superb ambassadors to Emory’s visitors.) It wasn’t clear, as I passed, exactly what the context of her remarks was at the time. But one thing she said stood out, as if shouted above everything else she had to say. It was, “Emory is very, very rich.”

I kept walking, but I had to resist the urge to turn around and ask, “What do you mean by that?”

Of course, there is no question that Emory is richly blessed—blessed by our location, by our devoted alumni and friends, by brilliant and dedicated faculty members, by hard-working and talented staff members, and by some of the best students in the world. But I suspect that that is not what the tour guide meant. Instead, I’m fairly certain that she was referring to the size of Emory’s endowment—which, I might add, at $5 billion is merely one-sixth the size of Harvard’s. So I wonder whether Harvard’s admission tour guides state the obvious as they stroll backward through Harvard Yard—that Harvard is very, very, very rich.

Focusing on the size of a university’s endowment or the goal of its fund-raising campaign is one way to measure a university’s value, its worth. But it may not be the best way to measure its true value, its true “richness.” Treasure is only as good as its usefulness. It has value only as it has effect. What we should be measuring is not the size of the endowment but the size and quality of the impact the institution is making in the world of higher education and in society at large.

In Harvard’s case, there is little question that its impact on society is commensurate with the size of its endowment. On the other hand, it is quite likely that some universities and colleges have an impact even greater than their treasury might lead one to predict. (Think of little Emory College, operating near bankruptcy before the Civil War, yet educating a future member of the U.S. Supreme Court, the first president of Georgia Tech, and some of the most influential leaders of the “New South” during the latter part of the nineteenth century.)

From this perspective, Emory’s purpose during the next decade should be eminently clear: it is to fulfill the goals of the University Strategic Plan in order to have a more powerful impact for good in the world beyond our campus gates. It is to create a rich impact by putting new treasure to work. Emory will need greater resources of money, people, and facilities in order to help meet these goals. But the ultimate aim is a richness quantifiable in ways other than dollars—quantifiable instead by patients cared for, students graduating with reduced debt loads, faculty publications cited by other scholars, new drugs invented, works of art created and performed, partnerships with community organizations and other universities, energy-efficient buildings, reductions in environmental spoilage, and insights into the human condition.

In many of these areas other institutions are looking at Emory as a leader—the Emory Advantage program to reduce student debt; our Emory-Tibet Partnership to bring Eastern and Western ways of knowing into conversation; the various sustainability initiatives around campus; our Transforming Community Project to form understanding of racial difference; our work in developing nations; predictive health. This is how we will continue to measure our richness over the next decade.

What is Emory “worth”? Don’t look at our balance sheet to find out. Look at our impact.

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Autumn 2007

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