Emory Report
October 3, 2005
Volume 58, Number 6


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October 3 , 2005
Governance Matters

Emory 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 compare today’s undergraduate experience with your own as an Emory student?
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. Whether 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 to play 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 for the board?
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.