Grateful for 13 years in a long history

Thirteen years is a long tenure for a college or university president these days, when the average is not much more than about seven. But as I prepare to retire from the Emory University presidency in August, I look back on the past 13 years stunned at their swiftness and overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude. My gratitude extends not only to the Emory family but also to the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia, for the ways in which university, city, and state have grown increasingly important to each other.

Consider the past century. When Emory College, then in Oxford, Georgia, joined with schools of medicine, theology, and law to become the new Atlanta-area university chartered in 1915, the city had few businesses with a reach beyond the state, no colleges even half a century old, and four small hospitals for the very sick. There was no Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no Carter Center, no graduate schools, no schools of business, law, nursing, or public health, and no scientific research community — all things that Emory would help bring to fruition.

During the past century, Emory benefited from much goodwill and wise leadership from the city’s best and brightest. Atlanta and Georgia leaders have served as Emory trustees, given generously to the university, and sent their daughters and sons to us as students. It is hardly conceivable that Emory’s growth as one of the nation’s leading research universities could have occurred without the collaboration of Emory’s partners throughout Atlanta.

As Atlanta grew in national and global prominence, Emory rose also. Emory’s 29,000 employees and 15,000 students make Atlanta their base for academic pursuits in the arts, humanities, natural and social sciences, theology, law, business, public health, nursing, medicine, and health care delivery.

The residential academic community at Emory struggles with the many social issues of our day, understanding that it is the role of universities to imagine greater things — greater understanding, greater prosperity, greater health, greater community, greater justice. Atlanta has been a partner, a “laboratory,” and a platform for outreach even to the ends of the earth.

Of the many lessons I have learned in 13 years of helping to nurture Emory’s regional partnerships, I would note three in particular.

First, Emory and other higher education institutions must continually demonstrate our worthiness of the public’s trust — whether that trust leads to the decision by the Georgia General Assembly to create the Georgia Research Alliance or to the request for Emory to care safely and effectively for the first Ebola virus patients in our hemisphere. Preparation, follow-through, and integrity are essential.

Second, Emory and our partner institutions must stay alert to opportunities for service that also expands our capacity for teaching and research. In an era when the utility of research universities is understood through the narrow lens of economics and health, it is important to remember their capacity to enhance all dimensions of the human condition.

Third, partnerships with our neighbors should strengthen all parties to the collaboration, including the state as well as the nation. Emory and our Atlanta community are enriched by the growing partnerships Emory enjoys with Georgia Tech, University of Georgia, Georgia State University, Agnes Scott College, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, The Carter Center, the Task Force for Global Health, and other great institutions in our city, as well as through the Gates Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and other funding partners whose efforts extend across the globe.

I leave Emory taking with me the delight of having been present as our university spread its branches around the world by digging its roots ever deeper into the rich soil of its home in Atlanta. Thank you, Emory. Thank you, Atlanta.

James W. Wagner is president, Emory University.

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