Emory Report
November 15, 2004
Volume 57, Number 12


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November 15, 2004
Wagner urges open, ongoing dialogue

BY Michael Terrazas

“By the way,” President Jim Wagner told his audience, Nov. 9 in Winship Ballroom, “if you disagree with anything I say, please feel free to stand up and say so.”

The crowd shifted. A few people chuckled; others cleared their throats. But no one stood up to disagree.

Wagner’s exhortation—and the mood that both preceded and followed it—served as an apt metaphor for the message Emory’s president tried to deliver at the 13th annual Employee Council Town Hall. Throughout the
90-minute event, those in attendance sat reservedly in their chairs. They had been encouraged to bring lunch, but few people ate. When the floor was first opened to questions, no one called for the microphone.

“There is a stiffness of communication on this campus,” Wagner said in his opening remarks. “We need to engage each other easily and in a style that ensures continued engagement. The first year I was here, I heard the word ‘outrage’ more than I’d ever heard it in my life.”

Wagner’s point was one he’s made many times in many different settings in the 14 months he’s been Emory’s president: Too many people wait to communicate until they’re outraged. “Why,” he said, “didn’t you come talk to me when you were just angry?”

Eventually the town hall crowd came to life (with a little help from questions submitted via LearnLink before the event), giving Wagner the opportunity to answer questions on a range of subjects of interest to Emory staff. Wagner was introduced by Employee Council President Susie Lackey, and in his opening remarks, the president talked about all that has happened since his first Emory town hall more than a year ago. There have been tremendous positives, such as the development of the vision statement and some key hirings in senior administration, but there have been negatives, too.

“We’ve been challenged by things that may indicate we’re further from our vision than we’d like to be,” Wagner said. “We’ve got to be adults and keep our eyes open.”

Now is a “deliberate, intentional” time at Emory, its president said, as the University has moved from the broad ideals of the vision statement to the more practical task of strategic planning, which in turn will lead to a comprehensive campaign getting under way next fall. If the strategic plan will be a “road map” to Emory’s vision, Wagner said, the campaign will provide the fuel to get there.

But he said the University won’t wait for the campaign to start moving. The administration is examining how to carve out a “nest egg” from existing resources to help launch initiatives identified through the strategic planning process. “If the nest egg gets us out of the gate,” he said, “the comprehensive campaign will keep us going.”

In all, Wagner fielded a dozen questions, both from the audience and from LearnLink. Several dealt with employment-related subjects, such as the recent Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) changes and their effect on Emory employees; how rising health care costs will affect the University’s benefits package to employees; the new performance management system and whether employees may be allowed to evaluate their supervisors in the future; and an apparent drop in internal promotions.

On benefits, Wagner said a committee chaired by University Senate President Sharon Strocchia is looking at Emory’s overall package, and Human Resources Vice President Alice Miller said she will be asking employees to help make “priority choices” in which benefits Emory should offer.

In response to a question about lack of interal promotion opportunities, Wagner said the numbers do indicate that fewer University employees are being promoted than in years past, and that this needs addressing. All the members of the President’s Cabinet, he said, have been asked to identify a person who could step in and replace them on short notice, and he proposed extending this exercise across the University.

Wagner also was asked what progress has been made to advance community at Emory in the wake of last fall’s racial-language incident in the anthropology department, and he used the question as an opportunity to urge employees to respond to the upcoming Campus Climate Survey (see story, page 1). Concrete actions already have been taken (the revision of Emory’s discriminatory harrassment policy, a review and proposed reorganization of the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, a decision to hire a senior vice provost for diversity, community and institutional development), and having full and complete data from the climate survey will help the University identify what to do next, he said.

In response to a question about the Nov. 2 passage of Amendment 1, which (among other consequences) will amend the Georgia Constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman, Wagner reassured Emory’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community that the amendment’s passage will have no effect on the University’s benefits for same-sex domestic partners—and, indeed, if those policies were challenged, Emory would oppose the challenge in court. That doesn’t mean, however, that the University may not be negatively affected.

“If the city of Atlanta or the state of Georgia become places where people of all backgrounds are not comfortable coming to,” Wagner said, “it makes our job [of pursuing truth] that much harder.”

As the town hall concluded, Wagner thanked the audience for attending and for using the event to point out areas of staff concern that could use more attention from the Administration Building. He turned to his fellow administrators near the podium and asked, “We’re taking notes here, right?”

The Employee Council Town Hall was webcast and can be viewed in its entirety at the council website (www.emory.edu/EmployeeCouncil/).