From the President

Impact and Excellence

By James Wagner, President, Emory University

President James Wagner welcomed the Emory community to the spring semester with the State of the University address, an eight-minute video that recognizes the contributions of faculty, students, staff, and alumni who worked to make Emory excellent in 2013.

Once every semester, the Administrative Council of Emory gathers for a two-hour confab to share with each other some of what is going on in their various corners and byways of the campus. This council comprises the deans, vice presidents, and heads of divisions like the libraries, the museum, and the ethics center—about eighty senior university leaders in all. The university is a big and complex place, and it is easy to lose sight of each other. These meetings give us a chance to gain the broadest possible perspective of what matters at Emory, what challenges and opportunities confront us, and what we are doing to meet them.

Last fall—as is often the case—I found myself both stunned and humbled by the conversation.

As we looked to the academic year ahead, I tried to outline six priorities that I thought should be on our minds and on our plates as administrators: student quality, faculty quality, programmatic and financial strength, reputation and public awareness of our strengths, operational effectiveness, and the distinctive excellence of Emory’s institutional character and culture.

Responding to this outline, one of my colleagues asked the legitimate and sincere question: What makes this list any different from the priorities being pursued by a host of other research universities similar to Emory?

In a sense, the answer is—“nothing.” Every research university should be focusing on these priorities.

What makes Emory distinctive, I believe, is the way we are filling out the list. Quality is in the details. What we heard during the rest of the agenda at that meeting suggests the Emory difference.

Some of our colleagues led us in conversation about the liberal arts at Emory, the strength of our students’ vocations, the ethos of our programs, and the intention of our trustees and friends to make all of these things accessible through a powerful scholarship endowment program. What we heard should give us all reason to be confident in the distinctive contribution Emory is seeking to make.

In the first presentation, psychology professor Robyn Fivush, chair of the newly recharged Commission on the Liberal Arts, reviewed the importance of the arts and sciences to society and the role of these disciplines in shaping and influencing nearly all of what we do at Emory, including in our professional schools.

Next up, Charlie Harman, our new vice president for government affairs, described the challenges in Washington and his hope that a sense of common good might direct the creative thinking and collaborative problem solving of our national leaders. It sounded like a call for people who can explore new directions with the precision and innovation of a scientist while applying the judgment and values of a humanist.

To underscore the value of Emory graduates to society, Paul Fowler, the director of our career planning office, reviewed the statistics for postgraduate “resolution” of our graduating seniors—that is, their knowing what the next chapter for them would be. He reported that by June 1—three weeks after graduation—85 percent of our graduates knew that they would be following their preferred paths come September, whether that was employment, graduate school, military or other public service, internships, or a planned “gap year.” Our graduates have little difficulty finding useful vocations.

They are helped in their search for vocation by programs like the next two that were reviewed. First up, the senior associate dean of Emory College, Michael Elliott, and the senior associate dean for campus life, Andy Wilson, reviewed the progress of the Academic Engagement Task Force. This task force has been working for more than a year to recommend ways to blur the distinctions between learning in the classroom and laboratory and learning in residential and extracurricular settings. In this manner we can leverage the advantages of each to greater heights. The educational experience at Emory must be powerful in its seamless continuity.

As if to punctuate this notion with an exclamation mark, we turned to the development of a distinctive program in ethics and athletics. Tim Downes, our athletics director, and Edward Queen, director of the servant leadership program in our ethics center, have undertaken what we believe is perhaps unique in higher education—the formalized introduction of ethical learning and reflection into athletics programs. In a day when moral lapses among coaches and players continue to bring headlines—reminding us that Emory’s earlier leaders harbored a wariness about intercollegiate sports—we might reassure our forebears that here, again, Emory is trying to chart a different path.

All of this reminds me of the often-quoted words of former Emory president Atticus Haygood: “Let us stand by what is good,” he said, “and make it better if we can.”

There is much at Emory that is good indeed, and our faculty, students, staff, and alumni are doing wonderful things to make it all still better.

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