March 24, 2003

Carter addresses his 'colleagues' in Cannon

By Michael Terrazas

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 Chace.

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.”