September 29, 2003

Emory to test its vision

Michael Terrazas

Before Emory can chart its course for the future, it first must fix its position on the seas. That is what President Jim Wagner has been saying since before he took office Sept. 2, and less than a month into his tenure, Wagner has set about the task by proposing a “vision statement” to the University for consideration and comment.

Posted on its own website ( that is linked from the internal homepage, the statement is concise: “Emory University: An academic destination and a resource for changing the world, whose unique blend of intellectual quest and ethical discourse makes it a leading community for teaching, scholarship and service.”

Wagner’s hope is that five key University constituencies—faculty, students, staff, alumni and trustees—will ponder this working vision during October and send feedback via an access-controlled site (respondents must login with their Emory ID and password) available through the vision statement page. On Nov. 5, Wagner will meet with the President’s Cabinet and the Council of Deans to weigh community reactions and further revise the vision statement.

Individual comments are welcome and encouraged, Emory’s new president said, but even more helpful will be measured and considered responses from groups such as academic departments or organizations like the Employee Council or he Student Government Association. Wagner is encouraging the deans to ask their respective department chairs to convene faculty meetings to discuss the statement and write a joint opinion.

“We want people to feel free to take it apart—but they have to put it back together again,” Wagner said. “We have to make sure it does two things: That it captures who Emory is, and that it believably challenges the University about what it can become.”

Community consensus on a vision statement, he added, is a critical first step to a pair of later, more comprehensive planning efforts: an open-ended strategic planning process for the entire University, and a major fund-raising campaign. In public meetings, Wagner has referred to the vision statement as something nearly brief enough to be put on bumper stickers or T-shirts; the comparison is somewhat hyperbolic, he said, but not much.

“There are two temptations we have to avoid: First, the temptation to be too generic, to come up with a statement that could be applied to any institution,” Wagner said. “And the second is to be platitudinous, to produce something that sounds nice but is riven with unachievable goals.”

In the end, the statement has to be something born of the entire University community. Articulating a clear vision for Emory was a charge Wagner received from the earliest moments of his candidacy for the presidency, and he said he is eager to help the University define itself.

“If we get through this process and people are still calling it ‘Wagner’s vision,’ we will have not yet succeeded,” he said. “It must become Emory’s vision for itself.”