From the President

Toward a More Vital Integrity

By James Wagner, President, Emory University

President James Wagner

As anniversaries go, 175 lacks the Latin heft of, say, a sesqui- or a bicentennial. Still, it’s worth celebrating, and I look forward to gathering with many of you in Glenn Memorial on December 7 to salute the 175 Emory Makers of History, who represent especially well the values Emory has espoused all these years. It is indeed an occasion for celebration.

Such moments invite us to look forward while looking backward, as we not only remember the vows and principles that have guided us, but also seek to revitalize them for the chapter ahead. Such moments beckon us to a more vital integrity as an institution.

What do I mean by integrity? In “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber describes two different ways politicians pursue their goals with integrity. One is to hold intractably to ideals without compromising for incremental gains: stick to principle, all or nothing, never mind the consequences. The other path of integrity is an overriding commitment to procedure, often sacrificing vision for the right steps: thanks but no thanks for creative solutions that don’t have the right notary seal. For Weber, great leaders combine both paths, so that vision and procedure complement each other. I would go further and say that great universities, to which society looks for leadership, depend on both process and principle for a vital integrity.

A university, unfortunately, offers much opportunity for integrity to pull in different directions, because every stakeholder has a voice in one or more forums. But because a university also relies on shared governance and shared vision, the integrity of both those voices and those forums must be guaranteed. I am convinced that all of Emory’s stakeholders aspire for Emory to be truly great. If we sometimes differ about the definition of greatness or the path to achieving it, we must still maintain the integrity of our conversation.

This anniversary year, then, is a time to remember that again and again in our past, Emory has exercised integrity in defining what it means to be a great and a good university in a part of our country that has struggled to build great universities. Emory grappled with questions of integrity during the period of desegregation. Emory reasserted its integrity in the 1980s, over the question whether to disinvest in South Africa. Emory grappled over integrity when we answered questions about the treatment of members of our community regardless of sexual orientation or gender; when we sought ways to discuss the racial history of Emory honestly and openly; and when we saw the need to keep from buying merchandise made in sweatshops. This calendar year began with a statement of regret about Emory’s entwinement with the institution of slavery in the college’s early years. In each instance the Emory community put everything on the table, looked at the facts, and reached conclusions that made Emory better and stronger, more vibrant and more excellent. Along the way, the community also established better processes for implementing humane principles.

Last spring questions were raised by dissent and protest about the way we provide food services on campus. The issues surrounding that moment in our history have only partly to do with who serves us breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They have much to do with whether we can communicate in good faith; whether certain kinds of discourse and demonstration risk particular consequences; whether our shared governance is strong, thoughtful, and adequate to any agenda; and whether authority is balanced by accountability. We have already begun to answer these questions in the affirmative, and I believe that we will continue to engage them with integrity and vitality.

On campus, among the most effective forms for engaging difficult questions are those provided by our several shared governance bodies—our Employee Council, Faculty Council, University Senate, and undergraduate and graduate student governments. The year ahead beckons those forums to live more fully into their constitutions. Beyond the campus, but still in the Emory family, our Parent Association and Student Alumni Association must seek to define their expectations and hopes for the university in behalf of students as students, not customers. Our Alumni Board must pursue an agenda that vitally engages those who call Emory alma mater. And our Board of Trustees must remain committed to the hard work of growing and stewarding the resources and reputation of Emory.

Residential universities in general, and Emory in particular, enjoy special freedoms afforded by campus life and work in a somewhat contained campus. The campus provides an environment that encourages intellectual and political risk taking, where the consequences and accountability are less severe than they might be in the “real world.” It may be in our universities, then, that we help young citizens discover—and in turn help our society rediscover—the essential ingredients for citizenship in spheres of governance ranging from local communities to our national democratic republic. These ingredients include good faith, thoughtful discourse, meaty agendas, and accountability—in short, integrity.

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