From the President

Balancing Change and Continuity

By James Wagner, President, Emory University

President James Wagner

This message is excerpted from the address delivered at the 175th anniversary convocation.

Of four thousand institutions of higher education in the United States, fewer than a hundred are older than Emory, so we can claim longevity as one of Emory’s distinguishing characteristics.

But we would be using this anniversary unwisely if all we wanted to celebrate were surviving the vicissitudes of two centuries. We should, instead, use the occasion to learn what we can about Emory’s soul. In truth, there is a kind of tension discernible there. It can be seen in Emory’s history, a tension that also pervades our present and is likely to shape Emory’s future.

Tension is not necessarily bad. In fact, it is essential to progress: the movement of a barge up a river depends on good tension in the cable that links the barge to the tugboat pulling it. With too little tension there’s no progress; with too sudden acceleration the cable may snap. Progress comes from the necessary balance between change and continuity—say, the balanced tension between aspiration and status quo. As the late Henry Bowden said in leading Emory out of desegregation in 1961, “Emory should want no part of the status quo.”

We can say with pride that Emory is a quite different institution than the one that opened its doors in the 1830s, just as America is in many ways a quite different country than the one in which Emory was founded. But we are still in many respects a lot like our forebears, and the tension with which we live, between our aspirations and the status quo, is in many respects a lot like theirs.

Let me give an illustration. Recall that in Georgia in the 1830s, agriculture was the dominant economy, illiteracy was twenty times higher in Georgia than in Massachusetts, and even towns as large as Macon lacked a schoolteacher. Education was not exactly a state priority when fifteen students began classes in Oxford, Georgia.

Yet the founders of Emory College issued a daring call, summoning their fellow citizens to what a liberal education can offer: broader understanding, deeper wisdom, more agile judgment, character-formation, and identity. These things, they thought, would strengthen and free individuals, and thus strengthen and free society as a whole.

Of course we must not lose sight of the human failings of the founders. We at Emory began our anniversary year with a statement of regret by the trustees for Emory’s entwinement with the institution of slavery during the college’s early years. In retrospect we find that Emory’s founders embodied the tension inherent in the human condition. On one hand, they could see the good and aspire to move toward it; on the other hand, their entanglement in history, society, and human folly created a drag that resisted progress toward the good they envisioned. That predicament is what the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr referred to, when he said that our humanity makes us capable of conceiving of our own perfection, but it also makes us incapable of achieving it.

Our forebears could conceive of a kind of education that would produce builders and leaders of a better society, yet that better society was always over the horizon. We too, as individuals, as a university, and as a society, believe that education empowers people, yet we struggle as a society to make it more available. We know that research has led to better lives for millions, yet we debate whether public resources should be used for research that might (or might not) enlarge the public good. We see the need for more physicians and other health care professionals but are caught in a budget bind that threatens support for educating them. In many ways, we embrace the nobility of our aspirations while sensing that the fulfillment of those aspirations must be deferred.

One of the glories of the kind of liberal education that Emory has tried to foster is that it opens our eyes to this predicament and gives us skills to move beyond it. Study in the humanities awakens our appreciation of the human comedy as well as human tragedy. Study in the arts nurtures our inclination to express our deepest longings and hopes. Study in the sciences encourages discovery and tests hypotheses, conducting the trial and error necessary for progress.

If we need justification for this kind of liberal education, this freeing of the mind, all we need do is refer to the last issue of Emory Magazine and its list of history makers, who have manifested the virtues of an Emory education—keen analysis, critical thinking, moral judgment, and the capacity to transform life through the power of minds and hearts fully engaged. They inspire us to acquire, like them, a working set of virtues. And they teach us that deep commitment to these virtues over time helps form an authentic character and pursue a calling with integrity.

We celebrate them because they have given back what they received, strengthening Emory’s character and resolve to be a force for positive transformation in the world. As a university community, we accept the baton, taking from them determination to follow the torch of learning wherever it leads, the courage to trumpet a hard-won truth, and the faith that in the end, our path will lead to a brighter horizon for those who come after us.

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