During cabinet meetings, University President James W. Wagner often begins and ends his conversations with a question: “What is the right thing to do?”
“That was powerful,” Ajay Nair, senior vice president and dean of Campus Life said in an interview with the Wheel. “It’s so refreshing to see that in University leadership.”
But for many on campus, Wagner signifies nothing more than Emory’s administrative backwaters — a world distant and not tangibly relevant to their daily lives. When Wagner announced last Friday that this would be his last year at the University, the reaction on campus was anything but uniform, unmasking the community’s varying sentiments toward its president.
“The hospital isn’t bankrupt; we still have faculty, we still have students, application numbers are fine, fundraising numbers are pretty good,” College junior Hugh McGlade said. “But I don’t feel that he has inspired an intellectual community or instilled curiosity in the minds of a generation of thinkers.”
And on the other end, a sizable population on campus is cheering his departure at the end of August 2016, especially those who were offended by his 2012 Emory Magazine editorial that referenced the three-fifths compromise in an argument about the need for consensus.
“[His editorial] definitely created a divide between a lot of student populations and different segments of it with [Wagner], and I thought a lot of people lost respect for him with that,” Goizueta Business School junior Michael Gadsden said. “I think there will be a happier response to him leaving than a saddening one. I think it will be from neutral to ‘I’m glad he’s gone.’ ”
While parts of campus took the opportunity to crack jokes about the editorial, many students on campus, especially those just arriving, are exposed to nothing more of the President than the lingering resentment from the President’s most significant blunder.
“I don’t really know much about [Wagner], but what I’ve heard about him is pretty negative,” College freshman Serena Schmitt said. “That makes me think that this might be good for Emory. I’m looking forward to seeing who Emory’s next president is.”
Indeed, a Google search of Wagner still pulls up his editorial.
“That’s still haunting him,” said Noelle McAfee, director of undergraduate studies in the philosophy department, who calls on the Board of Trustees to hire a “public intellectual,” not just a “number cruncher.”
Scott Lilienfeld, a psychology professor, said he doesn’t feel that the Board of Trustees understands how to take Emory to the next level.
“It’s all very mysterious up there … Emory is run much more like a corporation,” he said. “I’ve been somewhat frustrated by what I perceive to be a stagnation of eminence and excellence … Unless something drastic happens, Emory’s ranking will plummet dramatically.”
But Wagner came into office with a memorable tenacity, according to Ben Johnson, who was Emory’s chair of the Board of Trustees that selected Wagner in 2002. In his first interview, Wagner asked the Board, “how long is Emory going to be ‘poised for greatness’? Are you ever going to get there?,” playing off the University’s motto at the time.
Johnson, who was probably the first person at Emory to meet Wagner, was particularly drawn to Wagner’s engineering background because of its influence on his problem-solving capabilities.
“He’s one of the most intelligent people I have ever met,” Johnson said. “He is extraordinarily energetic. He’s like the energizer bunny.”
Johnson said Wagner approached him in the spring about his potential departure, expressing reluctance to sign onto another strategic plan and fundraising campaign. Johnson and current Board Chair John Morgan were saddened by Wagner’s announcement.
“If one could take a picture of Emory then and Emory now, that contrast would capture the significant advances experienced at this university under [Wagner’s] presidency,” Morgan said.
When College sophomore Diana Bender-Bier heard about the news, she thought about how the new president will be able to fill Wagner’s shoes.
“It’s never been a school without J-Wags,” she said. “On Halloween, we all go to [his] house, trick-or-treating — that’s not a normal college president thing to do … He’s just the coolest person.”
His presidency was marked by dialogue about controversial matters that aimed to make a stronger Emory, a more visible national and international presence and an emphasis on Emory as a research university, said Gary Hauk, vice president and deputy to the president.
Hauk remembers that during the President’s first year on campus, the night before he was to throw out the first pitch at a varsity softball game, he knocked on Hauk’s door to borrow a softball to practice.
“He wanted to throw a strike!” Hauk wrote in an email to the Wheel. “And that’s his approach to everything he does — making sure to get the ball across.”
Editor-in-Chief Dustin Slade, Executive Editor Rupsha Basu, Managing Editor Zak Hudak, Digital Editor Brandon Fuhr, and Staff Writers Anwesha Guha and Emily Sullivan contributed to this report.