April 7, 2004

Inaugural address of President James W. Wagner     


I'm going to tell you a story. I may not do quite as well as Frank Rhodes, but perhaps someday when I grow up.

A month ago, at the New York Palace Hotel, a young man asked me a difficult question. The occasion was an Emory alumni gathering of about 200. I had just finished talking about Emory's Vision Statement (something which is perhaps beginning to bore our faculty) and was in the midst of the question and answer period. The young man stood and said, "Dr. Wagner, we seem to be living in a period of so much divisiveness. People are distancing themselves from each other, and wars and political conflicts abound. What is your plan for Emory to fix that?"

I had the same reaction you did. "What is your plan for Emory to fix that?" It's amazing; your mind starts spinning very quickly. Peoples' eyes turn to you and say, Are you really going to answer that? Or if you're going to answer it, what are you going to say? Is it a serious question? If it were, why would anyone assume that Emory has a role to play in reducing and healing divisiveness on a global scale?

Think about that. How would you answer that question? I was told that's why presidents get the big bucks.

I sorted quickly though dozens of possible answers--it happens fast, actually, when you're under pressure--searching for just the right one. This was a challenging question, a vexing question, but turns out it was a good question, deserving of a thoughtful answer.

The premise is solid, of course, sadly. Evidence of widespread divisiveness and isolation in the world is not hard to find. Our society has become entrenched, I'm afraid, in the art of criticism, perhaps valuing that art more highly than the art of creativity.

In academe, peer review means highlighting flaws and errors in someone else's manuscript more than helping to create solutions; in television, sitcom humor usually consists of an insult contest among characters vying to be first with a snide remark or personal put-down; in politics, this year's presidential campaign has moved in record time into the mud-slinging phase, normally reserved for later in the season.

We can see examples of divisiveness and isolation not only in the behavior of individuals, but also amongst groups and nations. It was necessary last year to petition the Supreme Court for permission to value racial differences as important elements of establishing and maintaining a richly diverse campus community. President Carter consistently warns of the growing chasm between haves and have-nots among peoples and among nations of the world.

And certainly there is no shortage of war and conflict, of despair and depression. We have difficulty, it seems, concentrating our thoughts, as we ought, on those things that are true, noble, pure and just--lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy.

So the first part of our questioner's premise is plausible; there are strong divisive tendencies that separate and isolate us in today's world. But what about the second premise, that part that says Emory should do something about it? One can imagine there's a role for government and for diplomats and for clergy and for parents, but Emory? Why should Emory assume responsibility for addressing in any way this fractured state of affairs? Why not simply give this fellow the easy and tempting answer: "That's really not our job"?

As much as we might want to dodge this young man's question, 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 both of people and of institutions. "To whom much has been given, of them much will be required." The link between privilege and obligation is inescapable and strong.

Is Emory privileged? You bet we are. Emory is privileged to be in Atlanta, Ga.; it's privileged to employ some of the most highly qualified and productive teachers, scholars and researchers in the world, as well as a cadre of talented and dedicated staff; Emory is privileged to have an impressive student population, a strong endowment, superb facilities, an excellent research base, a capable leadership team and many valuable partners--some of those pointed out today, partnerships with the CDC, with the Carter Center, with Georgia Tech (I see that [President] Wayne Clough has left his seat; he warned me he had to get on a plane, something about San Antonio and the Final Four. We're rooting for him.) and partnerships with local industries, with our civic organizations and government; Emory is privileged to claim a long tradition of valuing an education of the heart as well as an education of the mind. Emory has a sense of moral compass that is extraordinary. That sense of moral compass is especially extraordinary among universities whose values also include those necessary to succeed in a competitive academic research environment.

Emory is privileged. This privilege is part of what we celebrate today. We should be pleased and proud of the blessings we enjoy.

But at the same time we celebrate our blessings, we should be challenged to use this position of privilege to fulfill our sense of obligation. Knowing that we are privileged, we must not--indeed, we cannot--avoid our obligation to address the question: "What can Emory do to help counter the forces of divisiveness and of isolation?" What is our responsibility to address those problems in the world?

Perhaps not surprising to you, I am convinced that at least part of the answer to this man's question is "higher education." But, remember, higher education means more than just "advanced education." Indeed, some of the most highly educated people I know don't hold advanced degrees. Universities in general, and Emory in particular, can combat the forces of divisiveness by re-committing to a genuine form of higher education, not just advanced education. Con-sider for a moment what I mean, what higher education is all about.

In the world of the university, we believe that higher education should prepare people to pursue truth, to understand the past, to seek and disseminate knowledge. Universities are rightly seen as environments for this kind of higher education because, at their best, universities are:

creators of the future (as Dr. Rhodes reminds us in his most recent book);

they are havens for free thought;

they are discoverers and creators of knowledge;

they are pursuers of truth; and

they are providers of a liberal education.

But, as desirable and important as these characteristics are, they are only a partial portrait of the goals of genuine higher education.

Let's take a closer look. Beyond those characteristics just mentioned, higher education should also set us free from our self-centered universe; it should enable us to perceive the world from others' perspectives, and should empower us to make a positive impact on society. Let me repeat: The true purpose of higher education is to lead us out of our self-centered universe to a place where we can perceive the world from others' perspectives and have a positive impact on the community. Higher education, you see, is as much about insight as it is about gaining information; it's as much about wisdom as it is about seeking knowledge.

In this light, we can begin to see why that definition of higher education may address that questioner's concern back in New York. Higher education teaches us that our own experiences and personal "database" are incomplete until we understand the needs, issues and opportunities of others. Higher education, by strengthening communication and bonds among us, weakens the forces that would otherwise pull us apart.

Is genuine higher education easy to achieve? No, it's not. Being educated in the way I'm talking about goes against our nature. We often prefer to be like infants who have all of their needs met by others with no regard to cost or responsibility. We really resist growing out of that stage. But genuine higher education will not let us remain self-centered and immature.

Each of us has had at least some taste of this. Think about it. This decentering of self might have happened in several ways in your life. It might happen regularly through social interaction fostered by true higher education. We bump into each other when we're together socially and we can for a brief moment be jostled from our own comfortable centers. Perhaps you've enjoyed some "mountain top" experience of social service or a weekend retreat that helped you focus your interest on others. People of faith struggle to place their deity, not themselves, in the center of their universe. So, if a "decentering" of one's life is the goal of higher education, it is indeed an education about higher things and about understanding each other. Higher education can and must continue throughout people's lives.

Here at Emory, we commit ourselves in all that we do to teach and discover, to create, heal and serve. We commit that our focus will be beyond ourselves.

In the health sciences, it is perhaps easiest to remember that our focus should be otherly rather than on ourselves. After all, people don't make a career of public health, nursing or medicine simply to be healthy themselves. Instead, they understand the critical need to get in touch with the needs of others, to understand them and to have a positive effect on another person's universe of discomfort or disease.

In the practice of law, the focus is not on the attorney, but on the needs of the client.  

In the study of business, the primary goal must not be about personal wealth, but instead about generating wealth and doing so in proper stewardship and regard of the needs of the world. The key purpose is to prepare principled business leaders.

In the study of theology, the quest should not be toward personal piety alone, but toward discovering ways to lead others to eternal truths.

In the study of the sciences, the aim must not be to generate knowledge only for personal benefit, but instead to add to the grand body of knowledge for the betterment of others.

And in the arts and letters, in the humanities, our obligation is not simply to entertain through art and writing and music and dance, but also to offer unselfishly to the world, as you have done, tangible expressions of the mind, heart and soul--to open up communication with others outside of our private worlds.

We must trust that personal satisfaction comes as an added blessing when we offer and pursue genuine higher education. At Emory, when our commitment to see the world through others' eyes is strong, when we hunger and thirst to transcend ourselves and our self-centered worlds, we will be drawn together and the world will be drawn to Emory. Doing so will indeed make Emory a destination university. We will be internationally recognized as a scholarly community. We will be inquiry driven, ethically engaged and diverse. We will work collaboratively for positive transformation in the world through courageous leadership in teaching, research, scholarship, health care and social action.

Happily, and in many ways, Emory is well on the way to being a true community of higher education. For example, pick today. We awakened this morning in part to a continuing discussion on racial tension, but not to form up opposing forces on opposite corners of some battleground. Emory awoke instead to continue the discussion and to take uniting action. We woke up today following headlines in Tuesday's issue of our student newspaper that announced the coming presence of controversial speakers to our campus, but we didn't wake up to spray-painted messages on campus walls or secret meetings for groups driven by divisiveness or hate. Emory awoke instead to engage in and be engaged by a deeper understanding of these controversies. Emory woke up this morning to the news of a tragic death in our student community, but we didn't awake to hopelessness. Emory awoke instead with a deep sense of loss and sympathy that will push us even harder to work against isolation, to provide comfort and healing and to be resolved to reduce suffering and loneliness. We woke up today to a planned celebration of the rich history and an eagerness for the future of our University in the traditional celebration of the inauguration of a new president, but certainly not to an exercise of self-congratulation or proud elitism and privilege. Instead, Emory awoke to a sense of obligation and hope for its future and the future of genuine higher education.

Back to the story. So, what was my answer to that young alumnus who asked what his University's plans were for ending divisiveness and isolation in the world? He got the short version of my answer, the seed that has grown into my reflection today. I told him, "I don't know for sure, but I do believe that genuine higher education is part of the answer."

Mr. Chairman and all members of the Emory University community, 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 assembled here to acknowledge the rich privilege that you have extended to me to serve as Emory's 19th president. Out of that great privilege, I enthusiastically respond to the attendant obligations and responsibilities.

I pledge to serve Emory to the best of my ability.

I pledge to use whatever wisdom is granted to me to challenge our scholarly community with empowering vision and noble goals.

I pledge to the best of my ability to exercise sound counsel and good judgment, and to use all of my power to enable our University community to grow in excellence through careful stewardship of our existing resources and by securing new resources.

Together, at Emory University, we will practice true higher education.   And by doing so, we will enjoy the satisfaction, the power--and yes, I think, the fun--of pursuing these goals together as a community. May God bless us in that effort.