April 26, 2004

Q&A with President Jim Wagner          

Emory’s 19th president has been on the job for nearly eight months since taking office on Sept. 1, 2003. Now that President Jim Wagner has been formally inaugurated, Emory Report Editor Michael Terrazas talked to him about his first academic year at the University.

Emory 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 direct communication.

When issues like this come up, do you groan and say, “Not another one.” Or do you appreciate the intellectual vigor and debate?
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.

Speaking 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.

If 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 one.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about yourself? Is the job what you thought it would be?
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 around them.

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 our
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 learning curve?
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 of responsibility.

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.

You’ve 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.