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Emory’s Jim Wagner on the role of universities in cities

By Maria Saporta

We now know exactly when Jim Wagner became the front-runner to be the new president of Emory University back in 2003.

At the time, Emory was touting itself as being a university “poised for greatness.”

Wagner turned the tables on the search committee and asked: “How long does Emory plan to be poised for greatness?”

That was Wagner’s way of saying it would be better if Emory had already achieved greatness.

That story was told today by Ben Johnson, chairman of the Emory University’s Board of Trustees, as he was introducing Wagner as the speaker at the Atlanta Rotary Club.

During the question-answer session after Wagner’s talk, he was asked if Emory was still poised for greatness or whether it had achieved greatness.

“It grieves me that you have to ask,” Wagner said with a smile. And then he said part of Emory’s problem and Atlanta’s problem is that the two haven’t done a great job in letting the world know of what they have to offer. “Atlanta arguably is a college town that really doesn’t market itself that way.”

In his talk, Wagner gave an historical overview of the role of universities in cities. Only in the last 100 or so years have universities emerged as engines of economic growth.

But now they’ve become magnets for research initiatives, business recruitment and urban revitalization.

Plus universities have a real stake in the communities where they live (as well as the legislative environment that exists in the states where they’re located).

“Unlike sports franchises and Fortune 100 companies, colleges and universities aren’t mobile,” Wagner said. “They are here to stay.”

But beyond the issues of economic impact, universities provide an environment where people can ask the most fundamental questions of life complete with all their ambiguities.

“They are places where ideas to battle so people won’t,” Wagner said.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. James R. Oxendine February 2, 2010 12:15 pm

    A great question;has Emory achieved greatness? Would love to know President Wagner’s response because the comments noted above do not clearly address the question.

    The topic has a great deal of value because as Atlanta and Emory continue to define themselves in the global marketplace there are some tremendous opportunities for win-win collaborations between the two.Report

  2. ACC Booster February 3, 2010 3:16 am

    I kind of somewhat agree that Atlanta is a college town that doesn’t really market itself that way. Atlanta has many very notable colleges and universities that have played a role in America’s academic and social history, but I think that Atlanta may still have a ways to go before being truly recognized as a very large city that is actually a genuine college town in the mold of a Boston or Seattle.

    As for Emory’s on-going conquest for greatness, the school seems to know that it great to be an elite private American university, but doesn’t quite seem to have a vision that many onlookers can relate to or understand. By a relatable vision I mean a goal of building the university’s academics up to a level where they could gain eligibility to compete with or join the Ivy League or a goal to start and build an athletic program to rival that of fellow crosstown schools Georgia Tech, Georgia State and/or UGA with a stated goal of eventually gaining membership to a major athletic conference (ACC, SEC, Big East, etc).

    One of Emory’s problems seems to be that it has no major athletic programs of which the entire community can get behind. Emory’s lack of a big-time athletic program means a lot of lost opportunities to rally its own academic communities to build up the name recognition and image of the university on a much wider scale (football and basketball games to entertain and loosen up deep-pocketed alums and other supporters). By choosing to have no major sports programs on campus, Emory has chosen to, in effect, remain a well-kept secret in a “college (sports)-happy region of the country”.Report

  3. Bill Casarella February 3, 2010 12:29 pm

    ACC Booster seems to be confusing greatness with PR and athletics. What is greatness? Of the top 20 research instiutions in health sciences, six : Johns Hopkins,Washingtopn U., U. of Chicago, NYU, U. of Rochester and Emory are in the University Athletic League, a Division III group that places athletics in perspective. The SEC has one -Vanderbilt,and the ACC one-Duke. The Ivy League has four:Harvard, Yale,Columbia and U of Pennsylvania. Emory already leads Cornell,Dartmouth,Brown and Princeton. Revenue from football although important to the athletic departments,doesn’t come close to the $454 Million in grants earned by Emory scientists annually or have any impact on the health and fiscal stability of the community. Intellectual property rights derived from this work at Emory has earned more than half a billion dollars over the past five years. Emory may be a well-kept secret to the “sports happy” people of the south but it is no stranger to the best academic and research institutions in the country.Report

  4. J M Whitlock February 4, 2010 2:18 am

    From my vantage point here in the high desert of New Mexico, greatness seems not so important as integrity, conscience, and momentum. As an alum, I am pleased that Emory possesses all of those, and there is no better proof than the current President of the institution and the leadership he provides the University and the higher education community. Emory’s excellence in the health sciences has been a matter of record for three decades; and it is continuously improving the quality of its other graduate and undergraduate programs. One of the issues is that Emory is a young institution compared to the Ivies; there are not so many alumni of means to provide across the board support. Another is that donors in the Southeast have been quick to support Emory’s goals in the non-health sciences and humanities, although that is changing. Those of us who wish to support Emory have many worthy choices (for example the library and the graduate school) where “greatness” happens when support reaches a critical mass and where current needs are significant.

    Hard work and increased support from the University’s alumni and supporters will make Emory great; if there is a role for athletics, it remains as always a secondary one.Report

  5. BPJ February 5, 2010 9:53 am

    This Emory alum hopes Emory DOES NOT try to join one of those big athletic conferences, which means accepting so-called “student athletes” who would otherwise not merit admission. Emory athletes are normal students who, after the game, go study for a test. I am proud that Emory is in the UAA with the U. of Chicago, NYU, and Johns Hopkins.

    Atlanta’s greatest asset is its colleges and universities. Most of us don’t need “big-time” sports to notice that.

    Two quibbles: Atlanta’s not a “college town”; it’s a “university city”. Athens and Charlottesville are college towns; San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston are university cities.

    I didn’t hear Dr. Wagner’s remarks, so I don’t know whether he actually said that, “only in the last 100 or so years have universities emerged as engines of economic growth.” The University of Paris was attracting talented people to that city 1,000 years ago, and the universities in Paris have had a great deal to do with the city’s growth and distinctive character.Report


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