|The University takes steps toward its bold international vision with a historic gathering at London’s Westminster Abbey • By Paige P. Parvin 96G
President James W. Wagner has spoken about Emory’s strategic plan many times since it was unveiled in September, in venues from Chicago to Cincinnati and to audiences from faculty to families. But only once did he deliver his talk in the same room where English humanist scholar and politician Sir Thomas More spent his final days in 1535.
In October 2005, the University’s first international board, the newly formed Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) advisory board, gathered for its inaugural meeting at what was deemed a central location: London’s Westminster Abbey. They met in Cheyneygates, a suite of two rooms over the entrance to the cloisters, where Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, lived for a time; Henry VII dined often with Abbot Islip; and Sir Thomas More was kept in custody before he was sent to his death at the Tower of London for defying King Henry VIII.
The EMEA meeting was a historic event in more ways than one, since the Abbey celebrated its one thousandth anniversary the same week the fledgling board began its work. Julia Morgan, Emory’s director of external relations for the Europe, Middle East, and Africa region, secured the site through requests to members of Parliament.
“The event and its location symbolize the noble endeavor of education and learning--it was indeed the perfect venue,” Morgan says. “Bringing together people with different cultural perspectives in such a historic venue is an enriched education at its very best.”
The significance of Westminster Abbey’s rich past lent weight and an air of dignity to the EMEA gathering, but the meeting was also charged with a sense of new energy and forward-looking vision. Surrounded by stone, tapestries, paintings, and sculptures steeped in a millennium of history, the twenty-two board members spoke of little but the future--a future in which they intend Emory to become increasingly recognized and engaged around the globe.
“This board is a blank page in many ways,” said Hamish Taylor 84MBA, who chaired the inaugural meeting. “It’s up to us to decide what our role can be and how we can help Emory.”
Raising Emory’s international profile is the centerpiece of the board’s agenda. The group is the first of three international boards being considered to advance Emory around the world, with the Asia-Pacific region and the Americas to follow. The boards are part of a rapidly accelerating internationalization effort that is a linchpin of Emory’s strategic plan, and the Westminster Abbey event, which was followed by a reception for more than a hundred alumni from Europe and beyond, was a symbolic first step toward Emory’s bold international ambitions. In the months following, Emory administrators also made successful journeys to China and Korea to forge connections with leaders and institutions there.
“Emory has advanced from a local, to a regional, to a national university,” Tom Robertson, special assistant to the president for international strategy, told the EMEA board. “Now, as we look toward 2015, we’d like internationalization to undergird everything. Our international advisory boards are very important to us as a means of connecting and anchoring us in these regions. With their help, Emory will make substantial new contributions to international education and social welfare.”
The EMEA board spent a typically gray London afternoon gathered around a long table in Cheyneygates, learning about Emory and offering ideas about its international growth. The group is a diverse mix of chief executives and business professionals, doctors, lawyers, journalists, and diplomats, most with at least a slim connection to Emory. Five are alumni; some are parents of Emory students; and one, Sarka Tourres, an attorney who lives in France and one of three women on the board, is a former Emory Healthcare patient.
Taylor, a Scotsman born in Zambia, a Bobby Jones Scholar, CEO of a company called Skills Exchange, and self-described “marketing man,” kicked off the discussion by remarking that the public perception of Emory in the U.S. and the wider world is not on par with the quality of its education. That’s one area where the EMEA board can help, he said.
“We’ve got a fantastic product, and that’s why I’m excited about being part of this group,” he said. “If we can’t sell this, we can’t sell anything.”
President Wagner also set the stage by outlining key aspects of the University’s vision statement and strategic plan, highlighting those qualities he believes set Emory apart.
“Emory has preserved a sense of values, a moral compass, more common at small liberal arts colleges than at large research universities,” he said, giving as an example the University’s decision to return the mummy widely believed to be Ramesses I to Egypt rather than keeping it at the Carlos Museum. Wagner told the board Emory is seeking opportunities to become engaged internationally and to fill societal needs that are not being met.
What followed was a lively conversation about both what Emory is and what it can become. Topics and possibilities ranged from expanding global public health programs to providing scholarships for international students; structuring financial aid for African countries to creating an institute for peoples of the developing world and hiring a world-class developmental economist. Suggestions were plentiful and wide-ranging, but one theme emerged again and again: the EMEA board was eager, even insistent, that Emory adhere to its stated vision by remaining ethically engaged in all endeavors, setting itself apart from common international perceptions of the U.S. as insular and self-promoting.
Ramon Mullerat, an attorney in Spain and law professor who has taught at institutions in Europe and the U.S., was particularly moved by the University’s commitment to creating positive transformation in a world increasingly driven by money and influence, where human rights and social progress are hobbled by a lopsided concentration of wealth.
“I have been very impressed by the message and the qualities of this institution, which are based on religious diversity, racial diversity, moral objectives, spirituality, and social action,” Mullerat told the group. “We are in a world where everything is commercialized and the objective is to make money. When you talk about human rights, so often the declarations and the reality don’t match. I believe that the most important thing for universities today is to educate human beings capable of changing this world ... educating people for society, to make the world better, is an extraordinary objective. It looks like America lives outside the international community. The most important thing is educating people to believe the world is global.”
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a freelance journalist in South Africa, former CNN Africa correspondent, and holder of an honorary degree from Emory, brought to the table an understanding of the complex challenges facing Africa. She echoed Mullerat’s hope that Emory would distinguish itself through global awareness and social contributions.
“How are you going to balance social contribution with financial gain?” she asked. “Your vision, however difficult it will be to reach implementation, will put Emory in a unique position to be bold and aggressive in taking on some of these issues. You have the opportunity to resuscitate the image of the U.S. around the world, to take advantage of what Ramon talked about--creating a new kind of institution by maintaining something that was great in the past and taking it into the globalized world.”
While much of the discussion was about broad philosophical vision, some board members brought it back to earth with more pragmatic comments and questions. Many had business expertise to share in the areas of marketing and branding, two words heard with increasing frequency at Emory. Lado Gurgenidze 93MBA, CEO of the Bank of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, wondered what these efforts will cost the University.
“Building a brand is expensive, and building it in a way so that the quality is not diluted is even more expensive,” he said. “What about the societal impact you are trying to achieve? Should these international involvements be self-sustaining?”
Some definitive goals and plans resulted from the afternoon’s conversation. Hans-Jurgen Hellwig, senior partner in the law firm Hengeler Mueller in Frankfurt, suggested Emory compile an extensive inventory of current international contacts and programs.
Holli Semetko, vice provost for international affairs, responded that such an effort already is well underway. Semetko also encouraged board members to help the University increase its international enrollment by “talking Emory up” as frequently as possible.
Taylor suggested that there is more to be done in partnering with global businesses to create internships and jobs for students.
Each board member was asked to return to their workplace and social network with a willingness to both promote Emory and watch for opportunities to develop financial support. The board will convene next in Istanbul, Turkey, in June.
“This is going to be exciting,” President Wagner said. “We will track these measures and we will make a difference. Just to be in a room with people saying, ’What can we do? How can we help Emory?’ is exhilarating.”
“I came away with a much better understanding of our aspirations, and I was impressed with the breadth of ideas,” said Ben Greer, a senior partner of Atlanta firm Alston and Bird’s international practice group. “The challenge will be the implementation of priorities in a way that’s consistent with the breadth of the vision, but I’m optimistic we can do that.”
Even as EMEA board members wound down their wide-ranging, four-hour discussion, Emory alumni were beginning to drift into the outer room of Cheyneygates. Well over a hundred alumni from more than a dozen countries came to network with one another over wine and hors d’oeuvres and to hear President James W. Wagner discuss Emory’s strategic plan. Very quickly, the room filled to overflowing and buzzed with conversation.
For most, it was an opportunity to meet President Wagner for the first time, but it also was a chance to connect with fellow alumni in Europe and rekindle ties with Emory. Many guests originally were from Europe and had earned an undergraduate or graduate degree at Emory, while a smaller number were American graduates who had since emigrated to Europe.
Tobias Berenwaldt 99B 03MBA, from Frankfurt, said he worked in Atlanta for couple of years before moving two years ago to London, where he works for a small marketing firm called Flytxt. He has attended other, smaller Emory events in London, he said. Alex Leay 00B, who is English and now works with Reuters finance and marketing, said she is eager to stay in touch with fellow graduates because of her warm memories of Emory.
“I had a fantastic time, I absolutely loved it,” she said. “I joined a sorority and got really involved. Everyone was so supportive of international students. I remember walking into a lecture in the business school and just being blown away. If I ever do an MBA, I’ll be back over.”
Todd Skarecky 94B and Betsy Skarecky 94B met as juniors at Dooley’s Den. Six months after graduation, they moved to London, thanks to Todd’s work with FNX Ltd. The couple also spent two years in Melbourne, Australia. Now back in London, Betsy owns a company called Stretch and Grow, which offers fitness programs for children. The couple also has a two-year-old son, Henry, who has dual U.S. and British citizenship.
“We struggle with it,” said Betsy, who is from Atlanta. “The British education system, up to the university level, is amazing. But we miss out on kid things, like T-ball. We love London, but there’s always that pull.”
Jack Turbiville 57B grew up in Georgia and was editor of the Emory Wheel in 1956 and 1957; he now lives in Avignon, France. The Westminster Abbey reception was the first Emory event he had attended since he graduated nearly a half-century ago. Turbiville worked in Brussels for many years, and on a visit to Provence, he decided to retire in a “sunny place” in France. Looking around the crowded reception, he said, “I’m really pleasantly surprised. I expected a compact little group. It looks like we need to have an alumni organization in France.”
See also: Linking alumni abroad: New AEA chapters appear in Europe