Winter 2010: Letter from the President

President James Wagner

James W. Wagner, President, Emory University

Ann Borden

Brains, Aims, and Automobiles

By James W. Wagner

A curious but enduring phenomenon in discussions about higher education is the analogy between colleges and cars. One of the first of these that I recall was offered by Terry Sanford, who was president of Duke University in the 1970s, a wrenching time for higher education. He defended the rising costs of a college degree by pointing out that tuition in the 1950s was about the same as the cost of a Cadillac, and that by 1975 this equivalence was largely unchanged. You could say the same thing today: Emory’s tuition this year is $37,500; the base price of a 2010 Cadillac CTS four-door sedan with automatic transmission—$39,930.

Both figures are list prices before discounts, and it’s important to note that the average student discount on tuition at Emory is rather steep. It’s also worth noting that the value of the Cadillac plummets the moment you drive it off the lot, while the BA or BS degree bought with years of tuition and work greatly increases the graduate’s lifetime earnings.

Recent efforts to reduce costs in higher education have led to further car references. Two senior administrators in New England, writing in the online journal Inside Higher Ed in December, commented that demands for “no-frills education” are like walking into a car dealership intent on buying the most stripped-down model available. It will get you where you want to go, but you will get only what you pay for. Even that radio, once considered a frill, now comes as standard equipment—are you sure you don’t want it? As the writers observe, “One institution’s frill is another institution’s essential service.”

Some of our own campus conversations about economic realities have turned to the auto analogy. We have often referred to our strategic plan as our road map for the future—our guide to our vision, our help in achieving our aims. We might think of getting to our destination by chauffeur-driven Town Car or, alternatively, by driving ourselves in a vintage Yugo (anyone remember those?). Either way, we’ll arrive, but the experience, the level of frustration, and the duration of the journey will likely vary. And in the end, depending on breakdowns, travel time, and efficiency, the presumed low-cost journey may not be all that cheap.

More importantly, the different things we’re able to pay attention to along the way also will determine the quality of the journey—whether, on the one hand, we can enjoy the scenery, take opportunities for side trips and discovery, listen to music, spend time reading or in conversation, and arrive rested and full of energy; or, on the other hand, we must watch the oil pressure gauge all the way, listen for the source of rattles and pings, and finally arrive exhausted.

Of course as a university, Emory offers students neither the chauffeured Town Car nor the Yugo but a variety of models in between, depending on students’ circumstances and interests. What’s critical, though, is that we identify those pieces of equipment and qualities of experience that are essential to every Emory student’s journey. Just as critical is identifying those things that make the Emory vehicle of education better in some ways than any other—or at least as excellent as any other.

The challenge lies in determining what those essential needs and excellent qualities really are. For the past year we have been looking hard at the full spectrum of our activities and programs, gauging what is essential and what is excellent. Some of our essentials we must have to call ourselves a university, even if they aren’t necessarily on a par with what other universities offer—just as a car must have windshield wipers but doesn’t need the “intermittent” option for them. Some of what we do is excellent but not necessary for a great university (Princeton, for instance, has no professional schools). But because of their excellence at Emory and their leading example to others, they should be part of Emory’s “package” just as much as the essentials.

We have already made some of these choices at Emory. Decades ago Emory taught engineering—a program that was neither particularly excellent nor, clearly, essential for Emory, especially with Georgia Tech (a Mercedes Benz in that regard) across town. Other choices may be less easy, less clear-cut. In another decade the Emory model will likely look somewhat different than it does today. One thing is clear, and that is that the restyled Emory will contain everything essential (most of it excellent), and we will invest in the nonessentials because of their excellence. We may be more streamlined and efficient, but we will have even more horsepower. More importantly, our students will have the kind of vehicle that will get them where they need to go in the decades ahead.

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Winter 2010

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