From the President

Thank you, Atlanta, for the past hundred years
wagner

James Wagner, President, Emory University

The nineteenth-century Emory president George Foster Pierce once referred to the little college in Oxford, Georgia, as “an amaranthine plant”—in other words, a hardy weed that would not die, no matter how poor the soil, how scant the rain, or how hostile the environment. Kind of like kudzu, that invasive vine that later “ate the South.” Pierce’s day was a tough period, but Emory did survive. 

In this centennial year of Emory’s transplantation to Atlanta, in 1915, another botanical reference suggests itself—wisteria. This beautifully flowering plant is known for its tenacious roots, its astonishing rate of growth, and its capacity to climb and spread above us in the springtime. A hundred years ago, like wisteria, Emory reached a long tendril from its original soil in Oxford to set down a new root system in Atlanta. In the century since, the university has sunk its taproot ever more deeply into the city, has grown with it, and consequently has reached up and out to join the broad canopy of institutions throughout the US that carry forward the intellectual and scientific work of our nation.

This is a remarkable development, because not every university similar to Emory remains similarly rooted in its home environment. But these past hundred years have wrought a kind of mutually assisted evolution for the university and our city. 

Emory and Atlanta have grown up together. The city’s leaders have served as Emory trustees, given generously to the university, and sent their daughters and sons to us as students. In return, Emory has graduated lawyers, physicians, clergy, teachers, nurses, and public servants who have helped to shape the city’s culture, its commerce, its race relations, its historical memory, and its science. 

It is hardly conceivable that the growth of Emory to its current stature as a liberal arts–based research university in less than seventy years, since the start of PhD programs after World War II, could have occurred without the rich soil watered by Emory’s alliances throughout Atlanta. And while a host of men and women with no connection to Emory helped to build the city into the vital capital of the Southeast, it is indisputable that Emory has contributed to that transformation in countless ways.

One of those ways is through our research enterprise, which for five years in a row has garnered more than half a billion dollars in externally sponsored funding. Through technology transfer and start-up companies and on-campus research, this funding is multiplied many times over to help make Atlanta a hub of biomedical and biotechnological development. Emory’s research activity helped make possible the formation, in 1990, of the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA), which in turn makes it feasible for Emory to partner with sister institutions to attract some of the most eminent research scientists in the world to our campuses. Five years after the formation of the GRA, Emory was invited to join the Association of American Universities (AAU), the sixty-two most prestigious research universities in North America—universities that help set and pursue our nation’s science agenda. Clearly Emory has flowered on the national and global scene while remaining deeply rooted in our home city and community.

If we can learn something from Emory’s relationship with Atlanta, I would venture four lessons.

First, we must continually demonstrate Emory’s worthiness of great trust—whether that trust leads to the planting of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) next door or the great gift from the brothers Woodruff in 1979 or the request to send Ebola virus disease patients to our hospital. Preparation, follow-through, and integrity are essential.

Second, Emory must continue to stay alert to opportunities for service that also expand our capacity for teaching and research. We are doing this through our partnerships with the CDC, Georgia Tech, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and other great institutions in our city, as well as through the Gates Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and other great funding sources whose branches extend across the globe.

Third, Emory should expect that real partnerships will enhance not just Emory but all parties to the collaboration, including the city as well as the nation. This is the case with our work through the AAU to insure against a growing “innovation deficit” by fostering greater investment in graduate programs, basic research, and technological development. 

Finally, Emory’s earned and privileged place as a globally connected and influential institution does not diminish the university’s local commitments. While we belong to the world, we serve it best by remembering and tending to our roots.

Thank you, Atlanta.

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