Like many others, College freshman Laura Briggs was starstruck on last Wednesday by simply being in the same building as former President of the United States Jimmy Carter.
“I felt famous by association,” she wrote in an email to the Wheel.
While many freshmen had their first taste of Emory’s connection to Carter at the 34th annual Carter Town Hall, the University has had a unique relationship with the former president since 1982.
“The status of our already great University certainly has been enhanced by our partnership with a former President of the United States, a Nobel Prize recipient and one of the most respected figures on the global stage,” Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Ajay Nair wrote in an email to the Wheel.
Carter as Distinguished Professor
During this year’s Carter Town Hall, Carter mentioned that, after leaving the presidency in 1981, he considered partnering with a number of other universities in Georgia. He decided on Emory after being offered the title of University Distinguished Professor in April 1982, partly because many of the other offers involved bureaucratic positions.
”When I left the White House … I decided not to join any corporate boards and not to take part in commercial ventures,” he said in a telephone interview with The New York Times in August 1998. “I’ve long had an ambition to teach — this wasn’t just a flash in the pan.”
Steven Hochman, faculty assistant to President Carter and director of research at the Carter Center, wrote in an email to the Wheel that Carter taught two classes per month. Some of these included “International Perspectives” in the Goizueta Business School, “Seminar on Environmental Issues” in the Department of Environmental Studies, “Introduction to Creative Writing” in the Department of English and “History of the Near East, 1914 – Present” in the Department of History.
The Carter Center
In 1982, University President James T. Laney agreed that Emory University would also partner with the former President and First Lady Rosalynn Carter in launching the Carter Center, a policy research institute that seeks to prevent and resolve conflicts, enhance freedom and democracy and improve health. The Emory Board of Trustees endorsed the agreement.
Emory became the original home of the Carter Center, which was located on the top floor of the Robert W. Woodruff Library. According to Hochman, the Emory administration chose the Special Collections floor of the Woodruff Library for its space and facilities. This included the Woodruff Room, used by Carter as his office and conference room.
Hochman wrote that, while the original staff in September 1982 was very small, it soon expanded. Eventually, on October 1, 1986, the Carter Presidential Center, including the Carter Center and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, relocated to its current permanent site on Freedom Parkway, about two miles from Downtown Atlanta.
Today, Emory and the Carter Center are connected in a number of ways, as Director of the Emory Institute for Developing Nations Sita Ranchod-Nilsson said in a 2013 article for the Academic Exchange.
Besides the most visible connection involving President Carter himself, the Center’s Mental Health Program also works closely with the Rollins School of Public Health. Similar ties exist between the Center for Global Safe Water at Emory and the Trachoma Control Program at the Carter Center.
Faculty of the Laney Graduate School doctoral program in religion have worked with the Center toward conflict resolution efforts in Liberia. Master’s of Public Health students in the Hubert Department of Global Health and Master’s in Development Practice students in the Laney Graduate School gain practical experience through the Center’s Peace and Health Programs.
“The Carter Center has a wide range of programs that are in or have been in 80 countries,” Carter said in an interview with the Wheel. “We, as a small non-government organization that’s been led by me and my wife Rosalynn, we just try to have as good an impact as we can on peace and human rights.”
Hochman explained that Emory’s involvement with the Carter Center is multifaceted.
Emory provides the highest number of students and recent graduates to the Carter Center Internship Program, Hochman added, which has recently grown to almost 150 interns a year. The program ranks among the top internship programs in the Princeton Review and attracts people from all around the world.
Carter Town Hall
Additionally, since his Emory appointment in 1982, Carter has continued the tradition of holding an open forum for Emory staff and students. The Carter Town Hall meeting is an avenue for the former president to speak on his vision for Emory and the world. The audience, composed mostly of Emory freshmen, has the opportunity to ask him questions.
The origin of this event dates back to Carter’s days as president, when he was known for holding town hall meetings, according to Hochman.
When Carter became a University Distinguished Professor, he thought that similar meetings would give a large number of students the opportunity to hear him speak and ask him diverse questions.
Hochman considers these efforts by Carter to be part of his general strategy to reach out to as many students as possible.
The success of the 1982 meeting determined that the Carter Town Hall would be held annually.
Carter’s Legacy at Emory
To most of the Emory community, including Nair, the University’s affiliation with Carter has made a significant impact on campus.
Nair believes that it is Carter’s charisma and personality that truly enriches life at Emory, calling him a deeply committed and steadfast friend of this institution and praising the way he “regularly, generously and humbly shares his wisdom and experience with thousands of Emory students, staff, faculty and friends.”
Nair encapsulated the effect of Carter’s presence in a personal anecdote, writing that Carter always hugs and compliments Nair’s 10-year-old daughter at each annual town hall.
In Nair’s eyes, that seemingly small gesture by Carter speaks volumes about his humility and character.
“I think it’s fair to say he has this very same effect on many of us,” Nair wrote.
Carter, in turn, cherishes his long association with Emory.
“I was a farm boy for 16-and-a-half years,” he said in September 2000 at his 19th Town Hall Meeting. “I was in the navy for 11 years; I was in the state Senate for four years, governor for four years, and I was involuntarily retired from the presidency after four years. But I’ve been a distinguished professor at Emory for 19 years. It’s the best and longest job I’ve ever had.”