From the President

Dear Emory
Wagner

As I sit to pen my forty-seventh column for this magazine, I feel ambivalence in knowing that it is my last. There is, first, the bittersweetness of personal transition—excitement about a new chapter, sadness at leaving treasured colleagues and friends.

But there also is the joy and hope I feel on Emory's behalf. This University has every reason to look to the future with confidence and optimism, and it would be fun to keep writing about that future as it unfolds.

Knowing that this would be my last column, I decided to look back over the forty-six that preceded it. That review brought its own mix of emotions. One or two of those columns I would happily forget. A few seemed newsy, about construction or admission numbers or the latest achievements of faculty and students.

This space has offered an invitation, over the last thirteen years, to reflect on the challenges and opportunities in front of Emory, the qualities of research universities that make them so vitally important to our society and the world, the nature of a campus community and its complex dynamics, and so much more. Those reflections were prompted by life in community on a residential campus of a major research university. So I credit the community—the people of this place—for inspiring them.

What were these messages about? Well, early on (spring 2005) came the theme that “the true purpose of higher education is to lead us out of our self-centered universe,” so that we can perceive the world as others do and enlarge our moral imagination.

That is a purpose embedded in the Emory motto and its reference to the “wise heart.” Similarly, several columns commented on the power of the liberal arts to open us up to the minds, hearts, and souls of others—the liberal arts in service to a kind of emotional and intellectual freedom (Latin liber) that is worth all the work of an Emory education. 

Some of that work of liberation comes from the University’s insistence on undermining our dearly held and not-always-examined assumptions. Whether political, religious, or scientific, our assumptions often isolate us from other realities, much the way self-sustaining habitats keep aquatic creatures alive in protective bubbles (winter 2006). Liberation also comes from the University’s mission to be a place (maybe the only place any more) where people can have “difficult conversations,” whether about race in America, Israeli-Palestinian relations, tensions between China and Tibet, or the need for institutions (like Emory) to accept responsibility for their actions.

One of Emory’s distinctive features is its heritage of blending a first-rate life of the mind with an equally vibrant life of the spirit. The column on depression (winter 2008) focused on the ways the social and medical sciences, the humanities, and a very diverse range of religious practices on campus seek to understand and treat the ravages of this illness. And the column on “God and the University” (autumn 2006) sought to make the case that the university should be a place to “wrestle with questions of ultimate meaning and purpose” and to “engage in conversation with those who seem so other”—surely the work of the best of our religious traditions.

A couple of columns focused on the power of the campus itself to be transformative. The “movie issue” of Emory Magazine (summer 2010) noted the way a drama’s setting—a college campus no less than a battlefield or a starship or Downton Abbey—shapes and reveals character. The “pilgrimage issue” of summer 2009 called to mind the great campuses of Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard, as well as Emory, to which pilgrim souls might journey to breathe in the air of the rooms where C. S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, or where Watson and Crick mapped the DNA molecule, or where Emerson orated “The American Scholar”—or where, in the Rose Library, the manuscripts of W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney and Alice Walker and James Weldon Johnson can be held and examined and used as means to inspire our own work.

Inevitably, Emory, along with the rest of the nation, experienced the “Great Recession” of 2007–09, challenging us to remain vital and effective as leaders in the face of real and consequential constraints. My reflection turned to the need for choices, the prospect for sustainable enterprises in both health care and education, the balance between what is essential for a university and what might be truly excellent, if not eminent.

Regardless of the topic, I hope that in all of these columns a note about the humanity of this institution could be heard. That humanity is manifested in so many ways by Emory people. It was the possibilities and promise of these people and their aspirations that first attracted me to Emory. It is these people who have provided fodder for much thought and activity since September 2003. And it is these people who will continue to tell the story of Emory—a story of discovery, innovation, caring, and accomplishments.

So here we are, forty-seven columns later. If any one message from these columns has stuck, I hope it is this—that the enlargement of self, the transformation of one’s understanding of the world and one’s place in service to it, is the principal mission of the university. As I conclude thirteen years of learning at Emory, I can say that this university has enlarged and transformed me greatly.

Well done, Emory, and thank you.

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