Report: Much of your first year has been occupied by dealing with issues
of community. What’s struck you most about this?
Jim Wagner: I’ve
been surprised about the communication practices at Emory.
I have a sense that for whatever reason—perhaps it’s
the ivory towers being built not just around but within the University
and maybe even around individuals—but for some reason there
is a high threshold for free expression on this campus. Some members
of our University feel that their passion has to exceed some threshold
before they can communicate. They hold it in, hold it in, and then
virtually explode when they’re finally ready to communicate.
So it’s as though we practice shouting before we practice dialogue.
Open communication means that everybody at every rank and every position should
be approachable and responsive. The student office hours I hold are a good example:
I don’t require the students talk to their professor, who should talk to
their department chair, who should talk to their dean, who should talk to the
provost, before it gets to the president.
On the other hand, the action needs to go back down that very structured ladder,
and the reason is we do not disempower anybody from their position. If I do a
dean’s job, make a dean’s decision, the dean is well within his or
her rights to say, “Well, why am I the dean if the president’s going
to do my job?”
Where I have been before, I have had students and faculty and
staff come and talk about a particular problem. We worked through
those problems; they got press coverage—or sometimes
they were resolved and they never got to the press. This is the first time
in my professional experience that I will sometimes see issues
or concerns expressed by people in the press before I’ve
had them expressed to me by any other mechanism. And I don’t
think in the long run that’s a healthy thing.
I see a great role for the press. But as a research university, in everything
we do we should encourage people to go to primary data, and we should also encourage
like this come up, do you groan and say, “Not
another one.” Or do you appreciate the intellectual vigor
It’s more the latter, particularly when it is intellectual.
At any given time, a campus like ours has a number of things boiling.
There is always a churn of debate and controversy in a good, academic
setting, and yet I’m encouraged because there seems along
with this to be a comfort, an assurance, that we are all still
Emory. If we felt that expressing ourselves passionately over issues
could somehow make us outcasts, separate us from the community,
that is a problem.
It’s sort of like a family. I’m encouraged that the brothers and
sisters can bicker, and yet everybody knows we’re still in the family.
It’s better than locking ourselves in our rooms, and it’s better
than being concerned that, “Well, we all have to be on the same page
about every single thing or else I’m not really part of Emory.” So
in many ways it’s healthy.
Sometimes the things we’re talking about are regrettable. Certainly,
if there’s been a hazing incident, I do groan because I’m saddened
for our community. Or when there is evidence of racial insensitivity or
racist activity, yes, I do groan, but it’s for the activity,
not for the introspection it causes.
Is any of this going to fit into the strategic planning efforts?
I sure hope so. There are elements on community, elements on internationalization.
I think increasingly we have to declare what it means to be a destination
university, and it means to move beyond diversity to community.
What are the strategic steps toward doing that? I like the suggestion
of doing something with curriculum and also this notion of having
a senior administrator, someone in a position to wake up in the
morning and think about how to advance community, not just how
to police it.
of the strategic plan, you’re in the process of
forming a steering committee. How does that process work?
We asked deans and vice presidents to make nominations, and my
first cut through I picked 18 people, which is a pretty big steering
committee. Then I really started thinking about it. I was picking
these people based on others’ recommendations. They’d
say, “Please pick ‘Mary Jones,’ and here’s
why I nominated Mary Jones.” And I had this nagging sense
of discomfort, that I’m so new here, I’ve never even
met Mary Jones.
So what I did instead was take a subset of that list, eight people whom I know,
and said, “I’d like you to form the core of the steering committee,
and your charge is to make nominations. Because your eight minds, and your
history at Emory University, will be greater than my guess and my seven months.”
How will strategic planning make itself felt to the community?
Our intent is to insist on more inclusiveness than we had when
we did the Vision Statement. I anticipate, since our strategic
plan will have an impact on everybody, that we’ll see broader
participation. Already we had the opportunity committees, which
were a one-time thing, that had roughly 150 people—13 committees,
about a dozen people apiece. We’ve asked each of the units
to develop their own plans. So I’m hoping this has even more
awareness and more participation than the Vision Statement did.
you’re also asking how it’s going to be felt after it’s
done, that may be a little more obvious. Once we know what our specific objectives
and goals are to work toward being a destination university, we will invest
time and money and whatever other resources are required. That’s where
we will focus and make progress.
Have you been surprised by how receptive people have been to your
management and administrative style?
I am encouraged by and delighted with the response to invitations
to participate and become engaged. There never has been any shortage
of people volunteering their thoughts and even their time. We said
to people, “We want to run these opportunity committees,
and we’d like to get it done in the next three or four weeks—and
one of those weeks, I’m afraid, is spring break.” Each
committee had 15 names, and as I told you, on average 12 made time
to be part of them. I think that’s remarkable, so I’m
delighted by it.
Would you say that has been one of your bigger, more pleasant
Yes, I would. I think the willingness to engage. While I dinged
us on the habit of indirect communication, there’s still
an insistence on communication. While we have people with passions
here, I don’t come on campus and find orange spray paint
on the sides of our marble buildings. And I don’t find violence
in language either.
I’ve been here seven months, and hopefully I have seen elements of Emory
in its best and worst behavior. What I’m saying is there is a nobility
and respect for ideas and people that even in our worst times is admirable.
I’m really pleased with that. It is to a higher degree than has been
my experience elsewhere.
Would you characterize that lack of direct communication as one
of your bigger disappointments?
Happily, yes. If that is one of our big problems, we are blessed.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for peaceful protest, for a way
to get people’s attention when you disagree strongly. University campuses
should have a healthy protest culture; that’s simply another way to communicate.
But there’s a difference between a healthy protest culture and an unhealthy
protest culture, and I think right now we’re fortunate to have a healthy
What’s the biggest thing you’ve
learned about yourself? Is the job what you thought it would
One of the things I learned about myself, and one of the things
I learned about Emory at the same time, is how much I enjoy the
engagement with our faculty and also outside with alumni and friends
and the community—even when it’s engagement over difficult
issues. That makes me feel good; I don’t feel as though we
have to run away from issues, that we can really face them. We
can dig in to pursue opportunities and we don’t have to tiptoe
It’s not always happiness, because some of these are very difficult and
unfortunate engagements. But joy and happiness are two different things. It’s
my enjoyment and confidence in being able to engage with and help to engage
a very committed community. So, in some ways, I might say I’m enjoying
the job more than I thought I might.
Another thing is what I’ve learned I need more of: wise judgment. As
you may know, I try to seek mentoring from wise folks on a regular basis—sometimes
by telephone, sometimes in person. There are monthy breakfasts with Jimmy Carter
and Ben Johnson. There are a couple of people with whom I converse regularly
by phone. And, of course, there is great collective wisdom that comes from
advisory commissions and committees.
Are you embedded enough within Emory at
this point to do this job as effectively as you can, or is there still a
There is absolutely still a learning curve. And that’s reinforced
a conviction that Emory needs to develop and rely on a strong shared
leadership model. I suspect it’s a very rare person—and
it’s certainly not me—who can have mastery over the
breadth of things required to advance our University.
I had each of our vice presidents write a list of objectives,
and I asked the deans to do the same thing. I broke them into two
sections: opportunities and issues. One of those opportunities
is building a team, and building it in such a way that all of
us can contribute to each other’s areas of
responsibility—but none of us have to master each other’s area
In other words, when you have a shared leadership model, it actually puts
my mind at ease a bit because I haven’t mastered it all.
It’s almost like science; with genuine, serious scientists, the more
they learn, the more they discover there is to learn. With administration of
the University, I’m discovering the same thing: The more I learn, the
more there is to learn.
moved into Lullwater House now, but how did living at Clairmont
Campus influence this first year for you?
I enjoyed the Clairmont Campus, though I didn’t have the
level of contact with students that I thought I might have there.
I tried as much as I could to go outside and bump into students
and talk to them, and there were a number of barbecues and meetings
like that. Every now and then I could pop in on something. Early
in the year, I was walking across the commons space, and Bradd
Shore and his international students were having a dinner celebration
outdoors there. I was able to join them and chat.
I think it was psychologically important for me not to be living in a condo
off campus. I really felt like I was more a part of the campus at Clairmont.
By the way, I’m loving Lullwater, and I still see great numbers of students
when I drive in and out of Lullwater, the joggers and walkers and picnickers.
It’s nice to do that with the window down and say hi, and every now and
then you get a brief conversation going. So actually Lullwater is not quite
as isolated as you might think.
But there was another transition thing that happened this year, and that was
having to go without a provost. That was one where I did groan when I got the
news. But as it turned out, I had monthly, one-and-one meetings with each dean—with
my provost hat on—and I met with the Council of Deans monthly. And as
it turned out, that gave me a view of the University that I wouldn’t
have had if the provost had been here.