James Wagner

Great expectations

During the presidency of James Wagner, Emory has embraced a strategic vision that aspires to nothing short of greatness.

It started with 37 words, the expression of eight ideal characteristics, and one big call to action. That is the vision statement of Emory University, and its development was one of the first actions that President James Wagner spearheaded when he arrived on campus in 2003.

Written with wide participation from the Emory community, the aspirational statement soon saturated the campus. If you stopped a person on the Quad, odds are likely that she could recite some, if not all, of the wording. Wagner himself spread the vision near and far, in speeches to the Emory community in Atlanta and at alumni events around the country. He often quoted these 37 carefully chosen words from memory:

Emory is a destination university internationally recognized as an inquiry-driven, ethically engaged, and diverse community, whose members work collaboratively for positive transformation in the world through courageous leadership in teaching, research, scholarship, health care, and social action.

Development of a precise vision and accompanying mission statement for Emory University was the first of a series of intentional steps by Wagner to clarify Emory's aspirations and keep them climbing. Next came an ambitious strategic plan, Where Courageous Inquiry Leads, which charted a roadmap for Emory development from 2005 to 2015.

Soon after implementation the plan came the launch of the university's history-making fund-raising campaign with another ambitious goal -- to be precise, $1.6 billion. The campaign topped that goal, raising $1.69 billion, and drew the support of nearly 150,000, a testament that Emory is on the right track, Wagner says.

In combination, the vision and mission, the strategic plan, and the campaign have helped Emory solidify its reputation as a top residential liberal arts research university in the competitive landscape of higher education and a member of the Association of American Universities. In reflecting on Emory's trajectory, Wagner says, "I think our expectations of ourselves were high in 2005. I would go so far to say that they are even higher now."

Living up to the vocabulary of values

Much can happen in a decade. In many ways, higher education in the United States in the past 10 years mirrors what has taken place in the changing context of society. "The financial distresses of the world's economy, the rise of new technologies, and growing concerns about the durability of the traditional liberal arts have pressed us to ask serious questions about our mission and direction," Wagner said in his most recent State of the University message.

Still, the president remains rock-solid in his belief that Emory is on the right path. During a presentation to the Emory Administrative Council, Wagner identified three guiding principles of excellence, integrity, and optimism. The word "excellence" is intentionally left out of Emory's vision statement because, as Wagner says, "it can be overused and trivialized, and after all, who would aspire to mediocrity?" However, Emory is setting the standard of excellence and leading, for example, in scholarly programs in creative writing, drug discovery, international programs in public health, law, nursing, and development practice -- to name only a few.

Part of Wagner's belief comes from knowing Emory's people. "This is a community that has a facility with a vocabulary of values," he says. "It's a place where we talk about the difficult questions, where we truly are inquiry-driven and ethically engaged. In fact, the common energy that sticks our conversations together is ethics."

That idea of ethical engagement not only runs through the vision and mission of Emory but also undergirds many of the themes of its strategic plan. In addition to strengthening faculty distinction, Where Courageous Inquiry Leads calls for students to be "challenged to engage the public and address societal issues as they develop the skills and attributes of critical thinkers and citizens." It emphasizes creation of a community environment in which students, faculty, and staff realize their full potential. It promises to bring together interdisciplinary teams "to tackle difficult subjects, challenge prevailing beliefs, and assert the university's role in thoughtfully addressing important public policy issues." And in recognizing the potential of science and technology to dramatically impact our world, the plan pledges to explore new frontiers in science and technology.

Emory is now entering the last year of the strategic plan, making this a good time to revisit and reflect on where we were in 2005, where we are in 2015, and where we are going in the next 10 years. That is what this magazine is all about. During the next year, Courageous Inquiry will celebrate the successes, programs, and initiatives that the strategic plan has nurtured.

The clear course

That impact stretches from a growth in Emory faculty appointments to national academies to new opportunities for students to learn where they live in themed residential communities. It encompasses global efforts to improve the world's health to local efforts to make our community stronger by exploring our experiences of race, gender, sexuality, and other forms of human difference. It has grown through initiatives to promote sustainability, which have received national recognition, and to support work-life balance for our faculty and staff, another area where we are a national model. (See the related story in this issue.)

The impact manifests itself in significant exhibitions at the Michael C. Carlos Museum and in the growing collections of our libraries, including the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Library. Those take their place alongside stunning advances that Emory faculty have made in research and health care.

Perhaps no more visible reminder of the strategic plan's impact exists than the beauty and function of our campus facilities. Emory's investments in new spaces encourage collaboration between students and faculty and provide settings to allow research and discovery to thrive.

The strategic plan has allowed Emory to be very clear about its purpose, Wagner says, and Campaign Emory has helped us ensure the quality and value of the education we offer, the ability to pursue bold ideas, and the encouragement to stay true to the course. Although Wagner is aware that we cannot do everything, he believes that Emory can continue to be transformative in key areas with intention and strategy.

"Society, politicians, and parents alike are expecting universities to provide access to education, affordability of the degree, and preparation of our students to land a job. That's a tall order, but I would go further," Wagner says. "I believe we expect too little rather than too much of universities. We should be focused not simply on preparing graduates to take on a future role in a static world but rather enabling them to imagine and impact that future, to take on the role of working alongside others to transform the world."

Yes, that vision is lofty, reaching, and aspirational, but those 37 carefully chosen specific words are ground in realism and remain the guiding principle behind all that Emory does. By putting those words into action, all of Emory's people -- students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, trustees -- will continue to harvest the seeds of great expectations.