April 7, 2004

Wagner joins ranks of 'spirits' of Emory lawn         

By Michael Terrazas

On a clear and crisp spring afternoon on the second day of April, 2004, James W. "Jim" Wagner was inaugurated as the 19th president of Emory University.

Board of Trustees (BOT) Chair Ben Johnson placed the symbolic badge of office around Wagner's neck, and a crowd of delegates, honored guests and Emory faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends cheered the culmination of a day and a week that often seemed more festival than ceremony.

For much of that day, April 2, the University had the look of a fairground or an open house, visitors in suits or academic regalia roaming the campus, getting ready for the big day. After lunch, groups of dancers, actors, painters and musicians put on public displays of their talents in unexpected performance spaces, lending a carnival-like air to the campus' center. Then, at 2:30 p.m., strains of bagpipes caught the full breeze, and the main event began.

The inauguration had something to offer everyone.

It had reverence; in her invocation, Dean of the Chapel Susan Henry-Crowe called for a moment of silence for student John Bolds, found dead on campus that morning.

It had poetry; Professor of Medicine Emeritus John Stone read "The Spirits of This Lawn," composed especially for Wagner's inauguration.

It had diplomacy; Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and former President Jimmy Carter all delivered greetings on behalf of constituencies in the city, the state and around the world.

It had humor; University Senate President John Snarey told the story of Wagner's "winning first season" at Emory, playing on the president's shared surname with baseball legend Honus Wagner.

It had notes of beauty; music faculty Steven Everett and John Lennon were commissioned to provide interlude pieces for the event played by the Emory Wind Ensemble: Everett rearranged "Zodiacal Memory, Fanfare for the Emory President"; and Lennon rearranged his "Cor Prudentis" and debuted "Ars ex Spiritu."

It had eloquence; Frank Rhodes, president emeritus of Cornell University and longtime mentor of Wagner's, delivered in an engaging voice (and an impeccable British accent) words of support for his friend and thoughts for the future of higher education.

And it had determination. In his first words after being officially installed as Emory's president, Wagner pledged to lead the University toward tasks no smaller than helping bring the world closer together.

In his address, Wagner recalled a young man at an alumni gathering asking what Emory could do to heal divisiveness and isolation in the world.

"As much as we might want to dodge this young man's question," Wagner said, "doing so would not relieve that nagging sense of responsibility that presses on those in positions of high privilege, that sense of responsibility that makes demands of both people and institutions. 'To whom much has been given, of them much will be required.' The link between privilege and obligation is inescapable and strong."

Emory's sense of privilege and obligation was a point of reference for every speaker who took the podium, from Perdue calling for more collaborative efforts such as the joint Emory-Georgia Tech Department of Biomedical Engineering; to Carter's charge that Emory and all American universities extend their spheres of influence to benefit the most needy and impoverished people on earth; to Bishop (and BOT Vice Chair) Robert Fannin calling for a continued union of "knowledge and noble piety" in the relationship between Emory and the Methodist church; to senior Euler Bropleh rhetorically stamping Superman's red "S" on Wagner's chest.

For himself, Wagner has said for many months that April 2 would be a celebration for the entire University, one at which he would be privileged to be the guest of honor. When that honor finally arrived, it carried with it symbolism both institutional and personal.

Seated in the front row--not far from Wagner's wife, Debbie; their two daughters, Kimberly and Christine; his parents, Bob and Bernice; and his brothers, Rob and Doug--was a group of former Johns Hopkins doctoral students and postdocs, advisees of Wagner's from his younger days. BOT Chair Johnson told the story of how each year Wagner would rent a black professorial gown for commencement; on the day he received tenure, Wagner was greeted at his front door by some of these very same advisees, who presented him with a Johns Hopkins doctoral robe in honor of his accomplishment.

On April 2, Johns Hopkins President William Brody walked across the stage to help Wagner remove his old gown, and former Emory presidents James Laney and Billy Frye wrapped around their successor a new robe, gold and blue with an added fourth stripe on the sleeves denoting the University presidency. Immediately afterward, Fannin presented Wagner with a sprig of Wesley holly; BOT Secretary Charles Ginden handed over the original 1836 Emory College charter; and trustee Chilton Varner presented Wagner with a set of keys serving as metaphor for the unlocking of mind and spirit.

"Mr. Chairman and all members of the Emory University community," Wagner said in his inaugural address, "I do believe that, when privilege and responsibility are held together, genuine higher education is a compelling answer to divisiveness and isolation in the world. Allow me in your presence and in the presence of all gathered here to acknowledge the rich privilege you have extended to me to serve as Emory's 19th president. And out of that rich privilege, I enthusiastically respond to the attendant obligations and responsibilities."