July 19, 2004

First Person: Johnnie Ray
A message of Value


Johnnie Ray is senior vice president for Institutional Advancement.

As we approach this exciting new time in Emory's history, we can draw inspiration from the fact that great research universities are among the most exquisite creations of the human spirit. Emory University is an economic, cultural, medical and social engine of the first order. Emory is, quite literally, among a tiny handful of places in our world where there is this much intellectual horsepower in one place at one time.

Former National Science Foundation Director Erich Bloch has said, "The solution to virtually all of the problems with which society is concerned--health, education, the environment, energy, urban development, international relationships, space, economic competitiveness and national security--all depend on the creation of new knowledge and, thus, on the health of America's great research universities." Emory is one of those great research universities and an extraordinary platform from which to do our work.

Having said (and affirmed) this, it is also true that research universities are among the most complicated enterprises imaginable. So complicated, in fact, that they have become rather opaque for most citizens. Without public understanding, we in higher education are in a weakened position when asking for support of any kind--be it advocacy, philanthropy, participation, patronage or anything else.

It once was widely accepted that investment in higher education reaped a serious return for the nation and that well-supported universities were a public good. But now the discourse has shifted; higher education more often is seen as a private good, of value only to the individual.

The very nature of the higher education enterprise can exaggerate the issue. On the one hand, the decentralized, entrepreneurial culture of our research universities is what has made American higher education the best in the world. We hire the best and brightest minds and set them to work in their fields, pushing the intellectual envelope. And individual units have wide latitude to pursue their goals. On the other hand, that same culture can be problematic when we try to communicate with the outside world because we are prone to speak with many different voices.

            Nearly three weeks ago I arrived on campus to direct the Division of Institutional Advancement (IA). In my view, the circumstances I described provide those of us in IA with an extraordinary opportunity. If we can operate as a true team--with "team" being the operative word--we can provide the University with a communications and development agenda that both nurtures and supports the decentralized culture that has made us great, while at the same time communicating with an overarching coherence about the larger whole of the University--with the unifying theme being the extraordinary value proposition Emory offers to the populations from which we seek support and understanding.

            As the University gears up for a major comprehensive campaign, there is much work to be done to improve the "machinery" within IA, and we will. However, no amount of improved machinery or technique will succeed in the absence of a compelling vision we can project into society in a way that connects Emory with the outside world. We must identify what makes this University indispensable--and

I do believe "indispensable" is the proper adjective--not only to Atlanta but to the entire American South, and then we must distill these concepts into clear, compelling messages which we will then communicate to the larger world.

President Jim Wagner already has brought us several miles into this journey by collaborating with members of the University community to develop a compelling vision statement that can provide a vibrant backdrop for what we plan to do in the campaign. In IA, it's our responsibility to interpret this vision and help people to understand it on multiple levels. How will becoming a "destination university" attract prospective students and faculty? Why is it important to a patient at Emory Hospital that we be "inquiry driven" or "ethically engaged?"

Indeed, the campaign gives us the opportunity to demonstrate that the strategies to attract philanthropic support and the strategies to improve public understanding are one and the same--or at least very tightly linked. We can show that philanthropy and public support will follow on naturally to a compelling vision and that philanthropic resources can be applied more strategically if understood within the context of the University's larger role in society. And we can show that supporting our decentralized structure and communicating coherently about the University as a whole are not mutually exclusive propositions. In fact, it is a strategic imperative for both the units and the University as a whole to speak with a common voice.

It might be surprising to hear me say that it is important for us to understand that the upcoming comprehensive campaign is not only about raising money. Support for Emory may come in a variety of forms: it may be the state or federal legislator who recognizes and advocates for the University as a resource; it may be the local Atlanta resident who visits our campus for a lecture or concert and makes a point to learn more; it may be the neighborhood parents who enroll their children at Camp Carlos, perhaps incubating the next generation of Emory undergraduates.

Yes, this campaign will be about much more than raising money. It is a time, under President Wagner's leadership, for Emory to focus on purpose, quality and achievement. It is a time to sharpen our understanding of our proper role in society and fulfill it to the best of our ability. And it is a time for us to perceive and present compelling opportunities for better service in the future. If we do these things, the resources to support a highly ambitious campaign will come.

As for those of us in IA, we should have a goal to be nothing less than the most innovative organization in the country and to be seen clearly as:

  • strategists and leaders in the development of an externally focused agenda.
  • people who clear the brush and make the University more transparent and useful to our stakeholders.
  • people who define core messages and build consistencies in how we talk about the institution.
  • people who understand how to integrate program specific messaging with core messaging.
  • people who provide in-depth industry, market and competitive analysis to identify better ways to connect the University's intellectual assets with societal interests.

As IA professionals, we will provide a tangible context for donors--and people who give in other ways--to understand the impact of their respective gifts.

In closing, I'd like to share why I knew, mere hours after my first conversation with President Wagner, that I would be coming to this place. As I read Emory's history, there have been certain identifiable moments when this institution has taken a quantum leap forward. I'm convinced this is one of those moments. The shape and texture of that leap have yet to be defined, but this University is poised to take another significant and positive step in its evolution.

It is fascinating, it is exciting, and I feel privileged to be part of it. There is an ethos of service here that is palpable. In the months and years ahead, there is much hard work to be done, but in many ways this University's unique luster makes our job that much easier. As messages go, Emory has some powerful ones to convey.