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.