When Jimmy Carter strode to the podium last Thursday
in Cannon Chapel, he waited for those in attendance to quiet down—and
sit down—before assuring them the standing ovation they’d
just given him was unnecessary.
“You make me feel like I’m a distinguished guest,”
said the former president of the United States and current University
Distinguished Professor. “I’m just a colleague.”
Emory’s most high-profile faculty member was the featured
attraction at this, a special open meeting of Faculty Council, held
March 20 in the chapel and attended by a full house of professors.
After introduced by council chair William Branch as “among
the few people in the world truly thought of as a world leader,”
Carter spoke for more than an hour on a wide range of subjects,
but mostly about the University itself.
“Emory, with the presence of the Carter Center, has a remarkable
opportunity to escalate itself very rapidly to being one of the
top five or six universities in America,” Carter proclaimed.
“If it takes full advantage of that opportunity.”
After brief opening remarks in which he described the scope and
activity of the Carter Center, the newly minted Nobel Peace Prize
winner spent the rest of his time fielding questions, and about
half of Carter’s interrogators wanted his opinion of where
Emory is and where it is headed in this time of transition.
Though he politely declined to be considered for the post himself,
Carter did say he is attuned to the search process looking for a
successor to President Bill Chace, but he has no intention to impose
his will on the process. If, however, he is asked by the Board of
Trustees to interview and offer his opinion on the finalists, he
will oblige, just as he did a decade ago in the search that identified
After making clear that Chace and former president Jim Laney have
been fine leaders for Emory, Carter also said that “every
institution evolves,” and he offered a frank opinion for how
it might happen.
“The main problem with Emory—and I’m on dangerous
ground here—is the parochial nature of its Board of Trustees,”
Carter said. “It has never had a national or international
character to set a vision for Emory that is transcendent.”
Carter suggested taking a chunk of Emory’s endowment—perhaps
a half-billion dollars—and pouring it into the University’s
academic programs with the goal of lifting them all to excellence.
“If this were done, I think you’d see a huge outpouring
of support from alumni [that would compensate for the expenditure],”
Carter said. “You would create an element of excitement and
encourage wealthy alumni to maybe give $50,000 instead of $5,000.”
Carter also proposed a five-year moratorium on capital projects,
though he acknowledged that impressive facilities often lead to
impressive returns. “I understand that very well; I’ve
had it explained to me a number of times,” Carter said dryly.
Remarkably, with bombs already falling in Iraq, Carter did not spend
much time talking about the war. He made clear that with the beginning
of hostilities and U.S. troops now involved in combat, it is time
for the country to pull together and support the successful completion
of the military’s objective.
Carter did say that, after the war is over, he would like to see
the United States make an effort to be known as a “repository
for peace” and work with the United Nations to put forth an
influence that is not superior or autocratic.
“I would like to see this country be the most generous on
earth in alleviating suffering,” Carter said. “I would
like to see us as the leading voice and power in the world in protecting
the environment for future generations. None of these things is
beyond our grasp.”