October 3 , 2005
interview: Ben Johnson
The following interview, conducted by Vice President
and University Secretary Rosemary Magee with Emory Board of Trustees
(BOT) Chair Ben Johnson, begins an occasional series on the people
and processes central to University governance. As Johnson notes,
the university plays a unique cultural role as a place of reflection
and leadership—a place where people tap into the wisdom of
the past and use that knowledge as a bridge to the future.
Elected BOT chair in 2000, Johnson is managing partner
in the law firm of Alston & Bird.
A graduate of Emory College (1965) and Harvard Law School, he joined the board
as an alumni trustee in 1995.
Magee: How would you
undergraduate experience with your
own as an Emory student?
Johnson: Obviously, now you’ve got a much more developed curriculum in
just about every conceivable area. In addition, you have a much greater variety
of teachers and perspectives and world views. I never had an African American
professor. I don’t think I had but one or two women professors. So it was
a much narrower perspective.
While the classroom experience was important to me,
what I learned outside of the classroom also really affected my life.
it was being on the debate
team, or learning leadership skills in the context of a fraternity, or the Honor
Council, or writing for the [Emory] Wheel. I was like a sponge that was put into
this great reservoir of ideas.
How did that experience influence you, in terms of
your work and your wanting
to become a trustee?
My connection with Emory transcends the four years I was an undergraduate here
because I grew up on the Emory campus. My father came to Emory as a freshman
during the Depression. He was a law student and became a faculty member. I met
my wife at Emory. I learned to swim in the Emory swimming pool. I would go to
the Emory Museum and look at the mummies.
So Emory is one of those institutions where I felt
like I had been given a lot. The notion that I would have the opportunity
a role in such an important,
revered institution seemed to be the ultimate opportunity to do something satisfying
to me and, hopefully, meaningful to other people.
When you think or dream
about what a great university looks like—especially
what Emory looks like—what are the qualities that come to mind?
There is—there has to be—a place of reflection and leadership that
allows society to right itself, get its bearings and create a culture of “courageous
leadership,” to use a phrase from the vision statement. When we talk about
creating this culture, we’re talking about values that are important for
the survival of society—values like intellectual curiosity, openness, respect
for the opinions of others, critical thinking, strategic thinking, and a willingness
to be honest about and tackle problems that are obvious to everybody.
One of the historic figures I’m fascinated with
is [landscape architect]
Frederick Law Olmstead—along with the notion that you can plan landscape
design you may never see. How do you imagine trees that will take 100 years to
grow at the Biltmore Estate? How do you imagine what’s going to happen
in Central Park? Obviously, conditions can change, and people can degrade Druid
Hills or Central Park or wherever—but if it’s done right, it’s
less likely to be degraded.
I think the university is the ultimate monument to
the finest aspirations of
the human spirit; it’s a combination of tapping into the wisdom of the
past and using that as the bridge to the future. And you don’t know what
that future is, but you know, if it’s not grounded in the wisdom of the
past, it’s not going to be as bright as it might otherwise be.
What are the internal
challenges that the University faces—the hard things
that we need to come to terms with?
First, I guess, is that everybody in the University understands what I’ve
described as the unruly paradox of the university and buy into the notion. A
lot of people deep down have a hard time with the notion of the unruly paradox.
A university by its very nature encourages curiosity,
dissent, critical thinking. So the most successful university is
the one that can
tolerate the greatest amount
of chaos and ferment, because that’s what the
university is all about.
Do you ever feel tension between the idea of the university
as an unruly paradox
and being a trustee?
The whole notion of academic freedom sounds great in the abstract, but there’s
always somebody out there saying something that makes somebody else feel uncomfortable—however
the purpose of the university is to say things that make people feel uncomfortable.
So the ultimate role of the Board of Trustees ought to be to understand the real
soul of the university and its intellectual aspirations. And then protecting
the university—being an advocate for the values of the university.
Given Emory’s transformation
and strategic plans for the upcoming decades, what plans, if
any, do you see
Emory’s board is in large part a product of Emory’s history, and
today’s board often looks something like the student body of 30 or 40 years
ago. You’re looking at somebody who started at Emory in 1961—that’s
44 years ago.
What we’ve got to make sure is that we are future
oriented. When the University talks about global aspirations and
being a global destination, the board must
not only intellectually reflect that commitment, but appreciate and incorporate
those aspirations in its own makeup.
If you were to look back at your time as a trustee,
what would you like to say you contributed to or accomplished?
Understanding what the University really ought to be doing and making sure
that Emory is at the forefront. And Emory, I think, is particularly well positioned
and equipped to provide that leadership.