wants Emory to be a household name.
intention to help make it so was among Wagners first pledges
to his new community when he was named the Universitys
nineteenth president July 30.
needs a crisp, refined vision, Wagner says, to become nationally
recognized as an inquiry-based, values-guided educational
institution of the highest order.
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.
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 Emorys
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.
in the end, the committees decision was unanimous.
is someone who understands higher education, who understands
the uniqueness of Emorys 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
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 bachelors degree in electrical engineering from the
University of Delaware and a masters 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.
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.
scholars in the humanities fields have ventured careful optimism
and a willingness to keep an open mind about Wagners commitment
to the liberal arts.
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 Emorys 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
does Wagner believe his past experience will suit Emorys
well, he says, briskly. Its funny, Ben Johnson
was reflecting on this, and he leaned back in his chair and
said, Well, I guess everybodys gotta come from somewhere.
I would like to think the engineering background is foundational,
but it doesnt 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.
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 theyve
developed a continuing hunger for more knowledge, greater discovery.
I would hope that my engineering background has done that for
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. Wagners
parents, Bob and Bernice Wagner, live in Stone Mountain, near
says he didnt 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 didnt take
well to the separateness of school and home life.
wanted to answer a vocation where my life would not be so segmented,
he says. Growing up, it was school and not school. I didnt
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.
desire to create a seamless life of the mind and heart may be
why Wagners devotion to his work is well known.
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,
hes 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
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
thats the engineer in him, Singer said.
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.
cant 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
youre supposed to have if youre 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 Ill 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 dont know that
I have ever been as excited as I am right now.
the Emory presidency indeed brings out Wagners best, the
University community has much to look forward to, according
to his former colleagues. They sing his praises unbidden and
without exception. Wagners leadership style is described
as at once responsive and decisive, visionary and thorough,
introspective and inspiring, accessible and authoritative.
knows how to be a leader, but he treats everyone as if they
have something to contribute, Singer says. Hes
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.
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
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.
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 Wagners help. He
was always willing to listen to students. He was very much a
mentor to me. He wasnt 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
interim president at Case Western Reserve, Wagner also oversaw
the improvement and restructuring of the universitys 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
terms of him being responsive to staff, I dont think you
could have found anyone better, says Kathryn Howard, a
research assistant and chair of Case Western Reserves
Staff Advisory Council. Hes approachable, bright,
and dedicated. You found yourself a gem in Jim Wagner. Gems
usually are not polished, but this one is polished.
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.
is a man of vision and energy who can lead Emory to elite status
as a leading research university, says Thomas Lawley,
dean of Emorys 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
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 others
strengths and be complementary. Theres a lot the two institutions
can do together.
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
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
Emorys 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 Universitys
strengths and identify its shortfalls.
reason Emory is not a household name, he says, is that we dont
know what we have.
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
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 nations 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
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; its discernible even
on a casual visit.
has worked hard to immerse himself in Emorys 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 Chaces
invitation, he also presided over the opening convocations at
Emory and Oxford College when school began this fall.
will spend the fall semester living in an apartment at the Clairmont
Campus while deferred maintenance takes place at Lullwater,
the presidential residence. Wagners 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.
of Wagners 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.
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 hasnt been seen in
this town in many years.
is Emorys 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.