JIM WAGNER wants Emory to be a household name.

His intention to help make it so was among Wagner’s first pledges to his new community when he was named the University’s nineteenth president July 30.

Emory needs a crisp, refined vision, Wagner says, to become nationally recognized as an “inquiry-based, values-guided educational institution of the highest order.”

“Emory is too good not to be recognized as a leader,” he told those gathered at a press conference announcing his appointment. “The excitement here is not only about what Emory is, but what it can be.”

Wagner came to Emory September 2 from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he had been provost and vice president since 2000 and also served for fifteen months as interim president. Wagner was tapped by Emory’s presidential search committee to succeed President William M. Chace after an eight-month national search in which some 150 candidates were reviewed, fifteen were personally interviewed, and four were considered finalists.

But in the end, the committee’s decision was unanimous.

“This is someone who understands higher education, who understands the uniqueness of Emory’s heritage and the role Emory can play, who is very ambitious for Emory to achieve its potential, and who has got the ability, energy, and ambition to take it there,” says Ben F. Johnson III, chair of the Board of Trustees and of the search committee. “I have never been more convinced of anything in my life than Jim Wagner being the best possible president Emory could have in the years going forward.”

Prior to his selection, James W. Wagner was not a household name at Emory. To a university whose past two presidents have been a theologian and a scholar of Irish literature, Wagner brings a background in engineering and materials science. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Delaware and a master’s in clinical engineering and Ph.D. in materials science from Johns Hopkins University. Before his arrival at Case Western Reserve, Wagner spent thirteen years on the engineering faculty of Hopkins, where he was chairman of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering for four years and held a joint appointment in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. At Case Western Reserve, he served as dean of the School of Engineering for two years before becoming provost.

“I must admit, I was a little taken aback when I saw his [curriculum vitae],” says David Lynn, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Chemistry and Biology and a member of the faculty advisory committee, which helped guide the search committee. “But he clearly has a vision and does understand what it means to be a liberal arts institution. He is a very articulate, well-reasoned person, very likeable and engaging. And he had really done his homework on Emory, what it is, its strengths and weaknesses. He had thought very carefully about what kinds of things he could bring to the institution.”

Emory scholars in the humanities fields have ventured careful optimism and a willingness to keep an open mind about Wagner’s commitment to the liberal arts.

“To be a truly great university demands a wide spectrum of intellectual activity, and the liberal arts in particular have traditionally been the basis for most of the best research universities,” says Martine Watson-Brownley, director of Emory’s Center for Humanistic Inquiry. “Everything I have read and seen of President Wagner indicates that he understands this, and I am not worried that the humanities will be overlooked under his leadership.”

How does Wagner believe his past experience will suit Emory’s institutional culture?

“Very well,” he says, briskly. “It’s funny, Ben Johnson was reflecting on this, and he leaned back in his chair and said, ‘Well, I guess everybody’s gotta come from somewhere.’ I would like to think the engineering background is foundational, but it doesn’t define or restrict who I am or what I can contribute in leadership. In fact, maybe in some ways it puts a slightly different spin on it that will be constructively provocative for where the institution needs to go and what kind of leadership it could benefit from. Vocationally, having been called to serve as provost and also as an interim president of a comprehensive university, one of the great recent joys of my career has been to work hard to understand scholarship in areas outside of the sciences and engineering.

“The successful imprint on a student who has enjoyed a liberal education is that they have done two things,” Wagner adds. “They have mastered a certain discipline for learning, and they’ve developed a continuing hunger for more knowledge, greater discovery. I would hope that my engineering background has done that for me.”


Wagner’s enthusiasm for engineering stretches back to his boyhood in Silver Spring, Maryland, when he was frequently found hunkered down over various “gadgeteering” projects: he built a canoe, a small sailboat, a go-cart, a sled, and a whole fleet of model airplanes before he was old enough to drive. His partner on almost all those ventures was his dad, a lifelong mentor whom Wagner calls “an unusually wise person” and who summoned patience when his son scattered tools around the garage. On vacations together, the two still tinker with old cars, including a replica of a 1929 Mercedes they built from a kit. Wagner’s parents, Bob and Bernice Wagner, live in Stone Mountain, near Atlanta.

Wagner says he didn’t enjoy school much as a kid, although it did tap into his natural curiosity about how things work. He recalls a high school science project for which he bought a series of fertilized eggs and tried to cut windows in the shells to watch the embryos grow. But overall, he didn’t take well to the separateness of school and home life.

“I wanted to answer a vocation where my life would not be so segmented,” he says. “Growing up, it was school and not school. I didn’t want it to become work and not work. I wanted to find, truly, a vocation and not an occupation, where you love your work and expect it to love you and your family back, where everything you do is part of a continuum.”

This desire to create a seamless life of the mind and heart may be why Wagner’s devotion to his work is well known.

“One of his foremost work characteristics is incredible dedication,” says Lynn Singer, deputy provost and professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve, who served as interim provost when Wagner was interim president. “He answers every e-mail, he’s very involved with students. Jim is one of those people who really just seems to enjoy almost everything he does, every meeting, every new engagement. He genuinely gets into the moment. And he always seems to be the last person out of the university each evening.”

One of those evenings, Singer recalled, Wagner left with her favorite umbrella, which had broken and wound up in the trash. He brought it in the next morning, repaired and good as new. “I guess that’s the engineer in him,” Singer said.

His commitment may also be why Wagner, at fifty, has enjoyed a fast climb to the upper ranks of university administration, from dean to provost, interim president to Emory president, in the last five years.

“Why can’t I hold a job?” he quips. “My kids ask the same thing. It has been a real fast-track, intensive learning period, and there are up and down sides to that. But every time [you approach a new challenge], there is a right level of butterflies you’re supposed to have if you’re going to be at the edge to do this job right. I have experienced the butterflies a few more times, perhaps, in recent memory, and I’ll tell you that that unrealized potential, the anticipation of growing in potential with each position, is something I bring to Emory and I look forward to experiencing as Emory and I grow together. I am expecting this job to be my best. I don’t know that I have ever been as excited as I am right now.”

If the Emory presidency indeed brings out Wagner’s best, the University community has much to look forward to, according to his former colleagues. They sing his praises unbidden and without exception. Wagner’s leadership style is described as at once responsive and decisive, visionary and thorough, introspective and inspiring, accessible and authoritative.

“Jim knows how to be a leader, but he treats everyone as if they have something to contribute,” Singer says. “He’s fun, dynamic, engaging, and respectful, and he really creates an atmosphere of cooperation. I think what I will miss the most is the dynamic interaction, the fun work environment he creates. But I had to chuckle when I learned he was going to Emory, because he drinks Coca-Cola Classic every day at lunch. There must be some destiny at work there.”

At Case Western Reserve, Wagner was apparently popular with everyone from lone-wolf laboratory researchers to wide-eyed freshmen. He became known for his ability to pay equally appropriate attention to such disparate matters as undergraduate life, technology infrastructure, diversity initiatives, faculty benefits, and fund raising.

Key initiatives that Wagner led at Case Western Reserve include the establishment of a commission to enhance undergraduate education and student life, which addressed academic curriculum revision in addition to student services and resources. Despite his own academic career in high-level graduate research, he proved a champion of the undergraduate students.

“He wanted to understand the students’ perspective, to know what students thought,” says Samir Korkor, a Case Western Reserve student who started a faculty-student program called “Building Bridges” with Wagner’s help. “He was always willing to listen to students. He was very much a mentor to me. He wasn’t the kind of person who did his job just to do it. He did it with this unique, incredible motivation, and profound appreciation, and passion. He does things with passion.”

While interim president at Case Western Reserve, Wagner also oversaw the improvement and restructuring of the university’s technology transfer operations and created the Postdoctoral Researchers Association. He helped complete a campus master plan, planned for a capital campaign, and formed a presidential advisory committee of staff, faculty and students on women and minorities in the university.

“In terms of him being responsive to staff, I don’t think you could have found anyone better,” says Kathryn Howard, a research assistant and chair of Case Western Reserve’s Staff Advisory Council. “He’s approachable, bright, and dedicated. You found yourself a gem in Jim Wagner. Gems usually are not polished, but this one is polished.”

Wagner also led the development of BioPark, a joint venture of Case Western Reserve, University Hospitals, and the Cleveland Clinic. Such institutional collaboration and relationship building, particularly in the area of health sciences, is a talent many hope to see him bring to Emory.

“Jim is a man of vision and energy who can lead Emory to elite status as a leading research university,” says Thomas Lawley, dean of Emory’s School of Medicine. “He is an engineer who will help foster deeper and stronger ties with Georgia Tech and create opportunities that are additive to those in biomedical engineering.”

“We are all really looking forward to working with Jim Wagner,” says Don Giddens, dean of the School of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who worked closely with Wagner as a dean at Johns Hopkins and also was the architect of the joint biomedical engineering program between Emory and Georgia Tech. “There is a natural alliance already established between Emory and Georgia Tech, and Jim will be very interested in how we can build on that, how we can leverage each other’s strengths and be complementary. There’s a lot the two institutions can do together.

“At the sort of big-picture level, Jim has a characteristic of being able to define a vision for an organization. He has a drive for excellence and his style is very collaborative. He listens, takes in information, but then is able to move forward in very clear-cut ways.”

So far, Wagner shows no signs of being any less admired at Emory than he was at Case Western Reserve. Already he has promised continued support for many of the initiatives at the heart of Emory’s institutional philosophy and image: commitment to preserving the environment, which was a special priority for President Chace; diversity efforts, including progressive policies on sexual orientation; and the cultivation of valuable ties with organizations such as The Carter Center. Wagner has favorably impressed Emory community members across campus and beyond with his ability to both articulate the University’s strengths and identify its shortfalls.

One reason Emory is not a household name, he says, is that we don’t know what we have.

“Leadership is a lot about ideas and drawing ideas from people,“ Wagner says. “One of the first jobs of the new president will be to hold up an enormous mirror to the faculty, a clean mirror, and help them recognize who they really are, the power they have.”

Wagner has said one of his early priorities as president will be to begin shaping a clearer vision for what Emory is, its resources and gifts, and to better define the position it might hold among the nation’s best schools. As well as being a top-notch research university, Emory is marked by a conscious morality, Wagner notes. The emphasis on values, ethics, and service to the common good that characterized the leadership of President James T. Laney and was built upon by Chace makes Emory a remarkable place.

“Emory is in a special position,” Wagner says. “It has the opportunity to be known and to be recognized for being inquiry-based and values-guided. Inquiry-based, of course, is making reference to the fact that the University is a research university, and in everything it does, that should permeate its activities. As to the second part, there is an ease with which a vocabulary of values is used on this campus; it’s discernible even on a casual visit.”

Wagner has worked hard to immerse himself in Emory’s culture, to learn the place from the inside out. On visits to the campus throughout the summer and early fall, he has shaken many dozens of hands and begun at least as many conversations, including at an open community appearance outside the Dobbs University Center after his presidency was announced. At President Chace’s invitation, he also presided over the opening convocations at Emory and Oxford College when school began this fall.

He will spend the fall semester living in an apartment at the Clairmont Campus while deferred maintenance takes place at Lullwater, the presidential residence. Wagner’s wife, Debbie, will remain in Cleveland this academic year while their younger daughter, Christine, finishes her senior year in high school, and their older daughter, Kimberly, returns to Miami University in Ohio. For a time, the Wagners plan to become very familiar with the inside of airplanes.

One of Wagner’s scheduled visits to Emory had to be postponed when much of the northeast, including Cleveland, lost power for hours one afternoon in August. The blackout left Case Western Reserve without running water and Wagner grounded. Speaking from his office there, where he spent the day on conference calls instead of on the Emory campus, Wagner seemed to be taking it all in stride.

“It’s been interesting and awesome, in a sense, to realize how fragile we are,” he said. “And also awesome, without all the lights, to see the Milky Way, which hasn’t been seen in this town in many years.”

This is Emory’s new president: an engineer who can understand precisely why the lights went out, and, at the same time, look up and admire the Milky Way. And anticipate the future with just the right level of butterflies.



© 2003 Emory University