175 Years of Earning Trust


Illustration by Alex Nabaum

Most of us yearn for institutions we can trust.

Yet, as I write, we are in the grip of a crisis of confidence. Our economy suffers from lack of both consumer and investor confidence. Our political institutions suffer from record low trust ratings. The media, which at earlier times united us, all too often now divide us. Traditional religious institutions that have historically grounded us are being marginalized by megachurches of personality, on the one hand, and indifference on the other. Our business leaders are too often perceived as having no undergirding commitment other than short-term profits. The great professions of the law and medicine fare no better.

Trust starts at the most fundamental level—the family. I learned to trust from my parents, who shared a core trust in each other, in their church, in the country my father fought for in World War II, in the future that awaited their two sons, and in a small group of institutions to which they devoted their lives, chief of which was Emory University.

My father entered Emory College as a freshman in 1932, early in its second decade in Atlanta. He graduated from the School of Law in 1939 and, after service in the Pacific in World War II, returned to Emory to begin teaching law in 1948. He became dean of the law school in 1961, the year I started as a freshman in the college. In 2005 I watched him receive an Emory honorary degree. In 2006 he died at Emory Hospital and his funeral was at Glenn Memorial. And throughout his lifetime, he conveyed to me his deep sense that Emory was both a place you could trust, and one that could be made worthy of ever-increasing trust.

Let me set out six examples of Emory earning trust.

In the mid-1950s, Emory aspired to national leadership; yet it was confronted by the stark reality that as a segregated university, it could not attract national resources, recruit nationally recognized faculty, or keep faith with the increasingly restive political and moral beliefs of its faculty and students. But it was anchored in a region in turmoil over racial issues marked by resistance to federal desegregation mandates. Indeed, the Georgia legislature resolved to strip any educational institution “established for white people” of its tax-exempt status if it admitted black students, which would have had a ruinous effect on Emory’s already fragile financial condition. In 1961, under the leadership of board chair Henry L. Bowden, the Board of Trustees announced that it would admit black students to all programs “when and if it can do so without jeopardizing constitutional and statutory tax-exemption privileges essential to the maintenance of its educational program and facilities.” Emory filed suit in the state courts challenging the racial restrictions of the tax exemption and was ultimately successful when the Georgia Supreme Court invalidated them in October 1962. Emory could admit black students for the first time.

Another step was addressing the question of whether there could in fact be “justice for all” in a region where the legal profession had been effectively closed to African Americans and women. In the mid-1960s, the law school recognized that traditional admission policies and the lack of role models deterred black students from even applying to law school. With funding from Chicago’s Field Foundation and the help of advisers from historically black colleges, Emory created a program of alternative identification, selection, and support for black students. In one class, it would graduate twice as many African American lawyers as ever had previously graduated from all three of Georgia’s law schools combined. The program became a national model, and the number of female applicants to Emory’s law school also increased dramatically as a result of eliminating quotas in favor of equal admission policies.

In 1956, a young University of Chicago PhD, Thomas J. J. Altizer, came to Emory’s Department of Religion. Over time he became the leader of a small group of theologians who espoused the view that God began giving himself to the world at creation, but died when he poured his spirit into the world through the death of Jesus, which resulted in God’s presence continually existing in all things. Altizer’s “death of God” theology burst onto the national scene around Easter of 1966 with a Time magazine cover story asking, “Is God Dead?” Altizer immediately became both a celebrity and a pariah, appearing around the country and on national television, but also attracting death threats and outrage from organized church groups. Emory—which had just announced a major capital campaign—was faced from all sides with calls for Altizer’s termination. But President Sanford Atwood and board chair Henry Bowden held firm in supporting Altizer’s academic freedom. It was a moment when Emory was thrust into the vortex of national attention, and its defense of academic freedom heightened its reputation as a serious institution.

In 1993, Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies, published Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. In it she devoted a couple hundred words to David Irving, a popular historian and author of numerous books about World War II. Lipstadt wrote that Irving distorted evidence in order to reach historically untenable conclusions aimed at cleansing Hitler’s legacy. In 1995, Irving sued Lipstadt for libel in the UK where the burden of proof, unlike in the US, was on Lipstadt to show that what she had written was true. Throughout the ordeal, she received what she described as Emory’s “resolute support.” Her epic legal struggle, which stretched on for six years, ended in a conclusive judgment in favor of Lipstadt, a victory Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz described as “one of the great moments in legal history when truth, justice, and freedom of speech are all simultaneously served.” It was one of the great moments in Emory history as well.

In 1999, Carlos Museum curator Peter Lacovara learned that the Niagara Falls Museum was interested in selling its Egyptian collection, which included ten mummies, jewelry, sculptures, and other items that would significantly enhance the Carlos’s holdings. With a $1 million pledge from Jim and Karina Miller, the university was able to raise the total $2 million to acquire the collection. Scholars had long speculated that one of the mummies might be that of a pharaoh; but when the Board of Trustees was asked to approve an advance of the $2 million, there was no mention of the identity of any of the mummies, only that the collection had enormous educational value. No one could have imagined the breakthrough to come. Emory’s curatorial expertise and its technical resources led to the conclusion that one of the mummies was Ramesses I, the father of Seti I and grandfather of Ramesses II, the pharaoh from the Exodus period of the Old Testament. Because of the importance of this extraordinary discovery to the Egyptian people, Emory leaders decided to return Ramesses I to Egypt. When the mummy was returned in 2004 with an overwhelming reception at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said: “Children in Atlanta will learn that, once upon a time, there was a king at the museum there. And they gave it back to Egypt, without any conditions. They will learn about love and peace, and how people should live together.”

One of the troubling trends in contemporary America is the growing disparity of wealth. The thinning of the middle class decreases opportunity and creates growing class divisions. In 2007 Emory launched Emory Advantage, a program designed to allow outstanding students from middle and lower-income families to attend Emory without incurring a crushing load of student debt. The program eliminates or caps need-based loans, which opens Emory to more qualified students from all racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. To date, Emory has raised almost $30 million toward the $75 million endowment needed to fund the program in perpetuity. Raising the remainder is a critical priority—to the immediate student beneficiaries, to Emory as a whole, and to the broader society we serve.

I could have chosen many other examples where I think Emory has earned trust. But I chose these six because I was able to witness them, take pride in them, and watch Emory grow as an institution from them. They represent decisions and actions that were intentional, principled, enlightened, and ultimately self-interested. If Emory continues to work to earn the trust of its many thousands of stakeholders—from students to alumni to health care patients—then we can look with confidence at our next 175 years, as we continue to earn the trust that our world needs and yearns to give us.

Ben Johnson is retired managing partner of the firm Alston and Bird and chair of Emory's Board of Trustees.

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