Autumn 2008: Letter from the President

President James Wagner

James W. Wagner, President, Emory University

Ann Borden

Emory’s Profiles in Courage

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By James W. Wagner

Most Emory people probably are unaware that one of the United States senators featured in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage was an Emory alumnus. Indeed, of the eight men Kennedy profiled, only one hailed from the Southeast—Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, Emory College Class of 1845 and, at his death in 1893, a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Kennedy noted Lamar’s courage in risking his political future on a matter of principle. Confronted by a monetary bill that his Mississippi constituents pressured him to support—and thereby assure his re-election—Lamar disregarded political convenience in favor of conscience, voting for what he thought was best for the whole country and not just one region. Risking a private good for a larger, public good, he demonstrated uncommon leadership. (Fortunately, Lamar’s constituents recognized his courageous leadership and returned him to the Senate.)

Now this anecdote about a somewhat obscure episode in American history has particular relevance to Emory besides its involving an alumnus. For we are launching an enterprise that calls us as a university to exercise courageous leadership. Inherent in such an undertaking is the possibility of failure—otherwise, there is no risk, no need to steel ourselves against a possibly unhappy outcome, no need to talk of courage.

So how is Emory demonstrating courage these days? What are we doing that can be dignified by such a noble word? Where do we risk failure on behalf of a larger, public good?

One quick but shallow answer is that our campaign goal of $1.6 billion is a risk, particularly in an uncertain economy. But while our goal will be a stretch for the Emory community, I have faith that it is within our reach . . . if we can communicate clearly that the Emory campaign is not about courageous fund-raising, but about courageous inquiry, about where courageous inquiry leads.

Courageous inquiry—research that could hit a dead end, scholarship that might fizzle, programs that might not take off—these things are afoot everywhere at Emory. It even takes some courage to suggest that not everything we do will necessarily succeed.

Our AIDS vaccine research—promising as it now is, advanced as it has become, succeeding in trials like few other vaccine efforts around the world—could come to nothing in the end, despite great investment of time and resources and hope and the knowledge that 95 percent of AIDS patients in America take a drug invented by Emory scientists. We have faith that our work will be worth the risk in any case.

The Transforming Community Project, which has won support from foundations and the willingness of more than a thousand students, faculty, staff members, and alumni to engage in frank conversations about race over the past three years, will come to an end in 2010. It may be that little of our campus’s or our nation’s communities will have been transformed by then—who knows? But we have faith that the potential benefits are worth the effort.

Our work to incorporate creativity and the arts into our lives more fully, and to implement better ways of balancing our work with other commitments—in short, to be excellent and humane at the same time—will continue to be a matter of trial and error, of risk and experiment, as every great artistic endeavor must be. We have faith that our frenetic society needs this kind of experiment, so that we can learn to maintain a proper balance between productivity and humanity, between industriousness and community.

We would not be true to our commitments and our vision for Emory if we did not have courage and faith enough to risk the failed experiment, the bar not quite hurdled, the hypothesis that doesn’t pan out, as we work collaboratively for positive transformation in the world.

Of course we will do all that we can to put in place the right materials, the best people, the most conducive facilities, the strongest safeguards for making certain that we take advantage of every opportunity for integrity and success. Along the way, Emory will need many more partners in courage to join in the exhilarating enterprise. Perhaps in time the stories of these partners will become something like Emory’s own profiles in courage.

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