Emory Report
My 30, 2006
Volume 58, Number 31


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May 30 , 2006
Wagner spreads the good news at Presidential Town Hall

BY michael terrazas

For thousands of alumni returning to campus, Emory Weekend was a chance to reacquaint themselves with their alma mater, to see first hand the new places and faces that define the University these days. On Saturday, May 13, a group of about 50 alums, as well as a healthy number of Emory faculty and staff, decided to get their update straight from the top by attending the weekend celebration’s first Presidential Town Hall, held in Winship Ballroom.

“I’m here to talk about what Emory’s been up to lately,” President Jim Wagner said, adding that he looked forward to plenty of questions at the end of his remarks. “I want to have a lot of time to learn from you.”

Wagner gave a thumbnail description of the University’s various planning activities of the past couple years, focusing mostly on the strategic plan’s crosscutting initiatives such as Global Health, Predictive Health and Religions and the Human Spirit. Regarding the latter, Wagner remarked that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Time magazine cover that asked, “Is God Dead?” That question was prompted by the scholarly work of Thomas Altizer, then a faculty member in the Candler School of Theology.
“I’m proud—and scared—that Emory has decided this will be one of its focal areas going forward,” Wagner said.

His synopsis of University strategic planning complete, the president opened the floor to questions, and the first (from Dan Dunaway, a 1961 medical school graduate who lives in Memphis) asked Wagner what he envisioned happening in the future to government funding of health care. The president flatly admitted to harboring hopes for universal health coverage, a highly political prospect that has not enjoyed majority support in the current Washington climate.

“I’m hoping for some creative ideas to move toward a single-payer system, because with all due respect to Tom Friedman, the world is not flat when it comes to health care,” Wagner said, referring to the New York Times columnist whose most recent book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, deals with the increasingly global business environment.

Another questioner asked Wagner to explain Emory’s role in drug development, and the president explained the nature of partnerships the University forms with pharmaceutical companies, which are especially critical when it comes to the clinical-trial phase. Perhaps anticipating the audience member’s thinking, Wagner admitted that the temptation to “cut corners” does exist when such vast sums (witness last summer’s $540 million Emtriva sale) await the successful development and marketing of the most important drugs.
“But that’s where Emory’s being an ethically engaged university comes in,” Wagner said.

He also elaborated on another recent example of such ethical engagement; after students pointed out that parts of Emory’s endowment are invested in companies that help fund the Sudanese government’s oil infrastructure—and thus indirectly support the genocide in the country’s Darfur region—Wagner said the University instructed its endowment fund managers to begin divesting Emory of holdings in those companies when they reevaluate their portfolios.

Other questions touched on everything from how much Emory’s enrollment will grow in the next 10 years (said Wagner: “Not much.”) to how the University should work with the Atlanta and Decatur communities, to the role Emory College plays in the strategic plan and its crosscutting inititiaves (answer: a major one, Wagner said, including primary leadership in several), to how baseball “fits in” with the University’s plans.

That last question, as it was intended, drew a few laughs. But Wagner took the opportunity to deliver a serious, two-part answer. Having recently attended a meeting of Association of American Universities meeting in Washington, Wagner said the meeting was “somewhat of a downer,” with several of member schools dealing with difficult and even painful crises, such as presidential ousters and the now-infamous situation concerning Duke’s lacrosse team.

“It got me to thinking how fortunate Emory is,” Wagner said, “to have been able to take a couple years and just dream [through the strategic plan].”

But specifically, the Duke situation—as well as the seemingly endless scandals concerning high-profile Div. I sports teams at colleges and universities around the country—reminded Wagner of the beauties of Div. III athletics.

“I love Div. III sports,” he said, informing his audience that the average GPA of Emory’s varsity athletes is higher than that of the overall student body.

Myron Steves, a 1934 graduate of Emory College, ended the town hall on a nostalgic note, talking about how different Emory was during his undergraduate days in the 1930s. America was in the middle of the Depression, he said, and the sums of money involved in Emory activities would have been unimaginable back then—including the cost of tuition, which he said was $75 per quarter (before Emory switched to semesters).

With some good-natured mock chagrin, Wagner smiled from the podium. “Thanks, Myron. You’re a big help.”