August 4, 2003

Q & A with Jim Wagner

On July 30, 2003, James W. Wagner was named the 19th president of Emory University, effective Sept. 1. As he prepared to take office, Wagner spoke with Emory Report Managing Editor Michael Terrazas about his background, his impressions of the University and his ideas for its future.

Why do you want to be president of Emory?
Emory is in a special position, I’m sure one of the special moments in its history. Emory University has this opportunity to be known and to be recognized for being inquiry-based and values-guided, an educational institution of the highest order.

Inquiry-based, of course, is making reference to the fact that the University is a research university, and in everything it does, that should permeate its activities. As to the second part, there is an ease with which a vocabulary of values is used on this campus; it’s discernible on even a casual visit.

But there is much room, it seems to me, for Emory to be more evident, to be more apparent, to be more visible. Not to be different or blown out of proportion by some slick sales process, but just to be recognized. I was with [Emory trustee] Jimmy Williams this morning, and he asked if people in Montana had heard of Emory, and sadly I don’t think you have to go as far away as Montana [to find people who haven’t]. So there’s this opportunity simply to help Emory not brag about itself but to be evident so it can help make a difference nationally.

Frank Rhodes was the 18-year president of Cornell University, and he continues to be a wonderful scholar of scholarship and of university leadership. About five years ago he wrote that the past century was all about the “Harvardization of America”—everybody chasing Harvard. For several reasons, Frank writes that he feels that the future will be more about the de-Harvardization of America. I choose that to mean Emory can lead by being Emory.

What were your impressions of Emory when you became a candidate?

My impressions were very favorable. Emory has a reputation as a university on the move; it’s hard to imagine a university that’s moved more in the last 15–20 years. After having studied Emory and come here, my impressions have become even more favorable.

Let’s put it this way: When the recruiter first called, I told her that I had great respect for what I understood at Emory, but I thought it might be best if I declined because I was fully engaged where I was. If I’d done my studying before she called me, there wouldn’t have been much hesitation.

You have an engineering background, and you’re now president of a university without an engineering school. What do you think about that?
I would like to think the engineering background is foundational but doesn’t define or restrict who I am and what I can contribute in leadership. In fact, maybe in some ways it puts a slightly different spin on it that will be constructively provocative for where the institution needs to go and the kind of leadership it could benefit from.

Vocationally, having been called to serve as a provost and also as an interim president of a comprehensive university, one of the great recent joys of my career has been to work hard to understand scholarship in areas outside of the sciences and engineering—and outside of medicine, for that matter. Specifically, the learning curve for me has been most steep with regard to the arts, humanities and social sciences, and I continue to learn.

I would expect to serve in leadership here in such a way that I’ll have an opportunity to continue to grow and continue to better understand scholarship across all of academia, at least as it’s assembled here at Emory. I’m excited about that.

What peculiar strengths does Emory have, in your mind?
I talked earlier about how Emory should aspire to be a leader with national and global impact and spread its branches more broadly; one key is to dig its roots more deeply into what’s already here and to form strong, truly complementary partnerships with cultural institutions, other educational institutions, with industry, even civic organizations. And even here, within the associated structure of Emory, I imagine there are much greater opportunities for partnership with entities like the Carter Center.

I put those in the resource category. They’re not necessarily financial, but imagine some of the creative programs that already are under way but might be expanded with the Carter Center. If Emory fails to do that, it really needn’t be located in Atlanta, right? Why bother? That resource should go to somebody else.

Atlanta is a higher education center–have you identified any partnerships you’d like to pursue with other institutions here?
I had a great meeting last week with [Georgia Tech President] Wayne Clough, and I was well aware of the biomedical engineering program shared by Emory and Georgia Tech, which almost at conception became a leadership program. I think there are great opportunities for more of that, and he agrees.

The Georgia Tech connection is an example, but I’m sure there are other opportunities to be working more closely with Georgia State, with Morehouse, with Spelman, Agnes Scott and other universities in the area.

How did your experience as interim president at Case Western Reserve
prepare you for this presidency?

The interim presidency at Case was in many ways unique in that it happened as a result of the sudden departure of the sitting president. When that kind of a situation takes place, you’ve got two obvious choices: One is to identify what the institution needs to be doing during this time frame, commit oneself to that and charge ahead. And the other is to sort of curl up on the ground in the fetal position and wait for the next president to come. Choosing the former turned out to be in an odd way exciting.

How does it have an effect on preparing one for leadership in the Emory position?
Maybe because it reinforces strongly the value of being clear and crisp about where we need to go and drawing buy-in from the several constituencies that really are the University, and seeing the power in doing that. So maybe that’s the biggest lesson.

In just the past five years, you’ve become first a dean, then a provost, then an interim president, and now you’re becoming president of a major research university. What do you think about that?
Why can’t I hold a job? My kids ask the same thing. It has been a real fast-track, intensive learning period, and there are ups and down sides to that.

But people who have occasion to speak publicly know that every time you approach a lectern, there is a right level of butterflies you’re supposed to have if you’re going to be at the edge to do this job right. I have experienced the butterflies a few more times, perhaps, in recent memory, and I’ll tell you that that unrealized potential, the anticipation of growing in potential with each position, is something I bring to Emory and look forward to experiencing as Emory and I grow together.

What’s the proudest achievement of your career?

Well, of career—we would all talk about achievements in our professional lives, and family is extremely important to me. It’s hard to be proud of those things because you can’t convince yourself you were responsible for them, but I certainly feel blessed and proud of that side.

Of my professional career, it would have to be—and this is not very exciting—the list of hirings, believe it or not. I’ve had the good fortune to bring some wonderful people into an organization to have impact, a number of leaders, faculty members, deans and staff whom it’s been my privilege to offer positions. The results of that have been some rather interesting programs and accomplishments, but the things I’m most proud of center around people.

How would you describe your management style?
I would describe it as delegated and objectives-based. Faculty are just wonderful people, and most of our University administrators on the academic side have roots as faculty. Part of what makes faculty special is their entrepreneurial spirit, but this risking spirit—which you must attract to research universities—also makes those very same faculty unmanageable, to some degree. So what one needs to do is take advantage of those gifts.

So my management style, and one I think works well in a university situation, is to delegate responsibility and be certain to delegate authority. To challenge people to be explicit about their own objectives, and to attach accountability to those objectives. So there’s a little more self-determination, but it’s self-determination within the guidelines of the vision that is set.

There can be at Emory a tension between the health sciences and other parts of the University. How would you deal with that?

First of all, it’s unfortunate that it exists. If it’s a perceived rift, perception is what guides people’s behaviors, so it might as well be real.

We should look at it from both sides. Let’s take it from the medical school’s point of view: I can think of no great medical education and research institution that isn’t also associated with a great university. Therefore it behooves any medical institution like that to do whatever it can to ensure that all of the University is great.

Now let’s look at it from the other side: We need to cultivate a shared pride in all aspects of the University. The great success of the academic medical center here should not inspire any other part of the institution to say, “Well, we can do it by ourselves, too.” As I just said, the academic medical center really can’t do it by itself, and even if it appears that it has, it’s false.

All other divisions of the University must have pride in the entire University and actually embrace the success of the academic medical center, draw from it, and trust that each of these divisions will still preserve and grow their own individual identity in partnership with all the other divisions including medicine. We may need to say that out loud a lot, and then structure our decisions and our policies to reinforce that.

Emory’s last two presidents were a theologian and a scholar of Irish literature. Now the president is an engineer. What do you think about this apparent shift?
You know, leadership is a lot about ideas and drawing ideas from people. One of the first jobs of the new president will be to hold up an enormous mirror to the faculty, a clean mirror, and help them to recognize who they really are. The power that they have.

Since academic leadership is so much about ideas and soliciting and integrating those ideas, I’m quite comfortable that the grand ideas, the great ideas, the valuable ideas, whether they come from the English department or the theology school, can be solicited and assembled to Emory’s advantage, even by an engineer.

To be specific, I won’t deny that scientists in general—whether they’re medical scientists, natural scientists, biological scientists or engineering scientists—do have more of a linear thinking process, and that’s part of the discipline of learning. Liberal learning is supposed to provide people with a discipline of learning; it’s never the same discipline of learning for each individual. So I don’t know if that will be noticeable, but perhaps a more linear approach, a sequential approach to setting priorities and addressing problems, might be expected.

Do you think that mental training has made you a better administrator?
I just think it’s made me different. If there’s any sort of institution that can handle diversity of concepts, ideas and approaches, as well as diversity of cultures, races and experiences, it should be the university. So I wouldn’t say “better,” no.

What are you looking forward to most?
New colleagues, I think. Nothing against the old colleagues. How about more colleagues? That’s very exciting to me. And as I said, being able to serve on what I think already is a very special platform that Emory represents among elite universities. I don’t know that even Emory people really understand what Emory is, and that’s what I mean about holding up a mirror.

Will you have an academic appointment, and do you plan to teach?
In the meeting we had with the Faculty Advisory Committee, that question came up, and it’s really a decision I’d like to ask the faculty to make, though the group in that room thought it was important that the president seek tenure. Presidents aren’t uniformly tenured; there are some institutions where the tradition is the chief academic officer of the university is the provost, and in those institutions it’s not appropriate to tenure the president. I would eagerly accept it as evidence of being among the faculty; in fact, I’d be flattered to be included among the faculty. But I wouldn’t seek it without their invitation.

Will I teach? The answer is all the time. Will I seek out classroom opportunities? The answer is probably not initially. I love teaching. But when you move to administration, you have to evaluate what it is you enjoyed about doing research, what it is you enjoyed about teaching, what it is you enjoyed about other academic duties that could be transferred to your administrative position in other ways. I would hope to satisfy my continuing desire to learn, yes, through intensive reading, and I would love at some point to be involved in teaching.

On the research and discovery side, that’s what I thought I would miss the most when I left research to go into full-time administration, and you do miss it a great deal. But when you think about it, the research and discovery side is about asking questions, about posing hypotheses, testing those hypotheses, modifying, and going forward. Believe it or not, there’s a lot of opportunity for that in administration.

So you take a researcher’s approach to administration?
I do. And I think most administrators would agree.