Geo Woodruff bio The Gift
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The Impact of "The Gift"

Almost equally divided between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,

and between its Oxford and Atlanta phases, the history of Emory up until 1979 is largely the story of a respectable regional school that, although not unusually distinguished, nevertheless had real substance and distinctive attributes. The course of Emory’s history changed dramatically and forever when Robert and George Woodruff transferred to Emory the Emily and Ernest Woodruff Fund, comprising $105 million in Coca-Cola stock.

Robert Woodruff

Although Robert had been pouring tens of millions of dollars into Emory for decades, the idea for the transfer of the fund originated with George. Created before the death of their father, Ernest Woodruff, in 1944, the Emily and Ernest Woodruff Foundation had grown with the Coca-Cola Company, whose stock comprised a hundred percent of the foundation’s assets. With a change in tax laws in 1969, the federal government made foundation assets taxable and required foundations to give away all of their income or 5 percent of the market value of their assets, whichever was higher. Spurred by this, the foundation board—with Robert as chair and George as vice-chair—reorganized the foundation as the Emily and Ernest Woodruff Fund, legally a “supporting organization” exempt from taxation so long as it dedicated its income to specific recipients. The Woodruff Fund designated Emory to receive 40 percent of its income and twenty-seven other institutions the remainder. George reportedly kept the checkbook for the fund at his office in the Trust Company Bank building downtown.

Recognizing that others would control the fund after his own death or Robert’s, George persuaded his brother that prudence dictated handing over the fund to Emory. George had developed confidence in the ability of Emory’s administrators and trustees to manage the assets of the fund, and so, apparently, had Robert. Over the course of the next year, the Woodruffs and President James Laney negotiated the transfer of the fund. On the day Emory announced the transfer, November 8, 1979, Henry Bowden retired from the board he had chaired for twenty-two years, and Robert Strickland was elected to succeed him. Strickland would remark near the end of his life that he took the job only because Robert Woodruff had insisted that he do so.

At the time the largest single gift to any institution of higher education in American history, the Woodruff gift made a profound impact on Emory’s direction over the next two decades. But the nature of that impact is often misunderstood. For while it was then and continues to be assumed by many that the infusion of funds from the endowment would mean few constraints on the budget, in fact the major impact of the gift may have come from its psychological jolt.

The timing was propitious. In 1979—before “The Gift”—Emory already had the sixteenth-largest endowment among American universities and colleges. But a relatively new president had high ambitions for the place and saw the need to raise funds for capital projects and a larger endowment. After a year of studying the feasibility for a campaign, the Executive Committee of the board in July 1979 voted to launch “The Campaign for Emory.” Four months later, in November, the full board heard George Woodruff read a letter from his brother announcing the gift of the Woodruff Fund. There were no stipulations on how the money should be spent, except that the principal should not be encroached upon unless two-thirds of the board determined “that there is an extraordinary need arising out of unforeseen and dire circumstances.”

George Woodruff concluded his remarks by saying, “I hope that each of you here will remember my brother and me in your prayers, that we may have God’s protection in our remaining days.” The minutes of the meeting record that the board rose for a prolonged ovation.

By the end of the meeting, the trustees went on to approve the campaign, its goal of $160 million already having been made easier. Five years later, under the chairmanship of Trustee James B. Williams, The Campaign for Emory came to an end with a final tally of $220 million.

Today, owing largely to the growth in value of its Coca-Cola stock, Emory’s endowment ranks fifth among those of American universities. (In 1992, when Coca-Cola stock made up 65 percent of Emory’s endowment, the trustees thought it prudent to diversify the portfolio and began selling shares for reinvestment as well as for income to the budget. Seven years later, having reinvested some $342 million worth of Coca-Cola stock, the percentage of the endowment in Coke was still higher than 50 percent). In the intervening years the University has used the Woodruff Fund to create new undergraduate scholarships, graduate fellowships, distinguished professorships, enhancements to academic programs and library collections, and even new buildings. But the most powerful and lasting benefit of the Woodruff gift has been its imperative to look toward the future, to establish long-range goals, and to dream unabashedly about what it would take to make a good university great.

Laney had observed, in his annual report to the trustees in 1979, that Emory lacked "definition . . . not only in the public image of the University . . . but in the image we hold of ourselves as an academic community. We do not have a convenient objective index to help us see ourselves in perspective—neither the strong intercollegiate athletic program that brings attention to other major universities, nor yet a commanding national academic reputation."

It would be Laney’s self-imposed mission to help the University name those objective measures of greatness and work toward achieving them.

The formal and painstaking process of envisioning a future different from Emory’s past really began with the work of a committee appointed by Laney in 1980. Chaired by Emory alumnus Howard Lamar ’45C, who was then dean of Yale College, the committee included five other distinguished scholars: Robert Bellah, of the University of California at Berkeley; Stanley Cavell, from Harvard University; Maurice Glicksman, then-provost and dean of the faculty at Brown University; Kathryn Sklar, from UCLA; and Eliot Stellar, then-provost of the University of Pennsylvania. The Lamar Committee provided the fulcrum by which each department and school of the University could hope to leverage its wishes into reality. The overriding question: “What will it take to move this department, this school—this university—to preëminence?”

The wish list was long and detailed. The needs were so great, Laney quipped, that the University could spend the money any way it wished and not make a mistake—every department, every school, needed help, although some clearly needed more than others. What is more, the fund enabled Emory to build at a time when other universities faced retrenchment. In 1980-81, as one or two of the Ivy League universities were cutting their operating budgets by a million dollars or more, Emory grew its budget by $6.5 million from the Woodruff Fund. Such infusions of new money into the operating budget would continue through two decades.

The immediate impact hit the faculty and student body first. In the first year of Woodruff endowment income to the budget, the University Research Committee budget jumped from $50,000 to $275,000. Laney announced that the University would seek the most eminent scholar/teachers available to fill twenty Woodruff Professorships, underwritten by an endowment of a million dollars each.

In fall of 1980 the first Woodruff Scholars and Woodruff Fellows—twelve Emory College freshmen and twenty-four students in the graduate and professional schools—entered Emory at a cost of $340,000 for full tuition and stipends. Having come through a rigorous screening process, they were the cream of the crop, some of them declining offers from the Ivy League for the new merit awards. Nearly all of them brought to the campus not only stratospheric SAT scores and grade-point averages but also commitments to volunteerism, success beyond the classroom in the arts, and entrepreneurial spirit. As their numbers grew year by year, the Woodruff Scholars—and later a larger cohort of “Emory Scholars” with similar backgrounds and similar awards—would intensify the vitality of the student body.

Keeping uppermost the aim of recruiting the best faculty and the best students possible, Laney also guided the University into developing the campus life more broadly. Drawing on the income generated by the Woodruff Fund, the administration underwrote design and planning for major new facilities. In 1983, thirty-five years after a used airplane hangar had been converted into the Field House (a building termed “splendiferous” by students at the time), Emory opened the George W. Woodruff Physical Education Center. Supplanting the cramped field house, which had virtually no locker space for women and had reached its capacity for programs by the mid-sixties, the new gym had been designed by Atlanta developer and architect John Portman to be the finest facility of its size in the country. Its operations alone immediately added $400,000 to the annual budget. Despite a few architectural problems (it took years and much experimentation to get vegetation to grow on the artificial and too-steep hill on one side of the building; and the roof, with its tennis courts and skylights, leaked constantly)  the gym became a hub of student life as soon as it opened.

In need of an expanded student center, the University also planned to add on to the handsome, serviceable, but cramped old AMUC, which had opened in 1950. Again commissioning John Portman, the University in 1985 opened the Dobbs University Center directly across from the P.E. Center. (In a press toward acronymic simplification, the Woodruff P.E. Center quickly became “WoodPEC” and the Dobbs University Center “The DUC”—woodpeck and the duck.)

Seven and a half years after announcing the Woodruff Gift to the assembled faculty, Laney again addressed the faculty in the Woodruff Health Sciences Center Administration Building to outline a vision for the future. In an address titled “Emory 2000,” he laid out a number of quantified targets and challenged the faculty to help the University hit them. Comparing Emory to a “peer set” of ten universities—the University Athletic Association members plus Duke, Tulane, and Vanderbilt—he noted that Emory led all of them in income from endowment, but was eighth of eleven in total gifts, and was second from last in research grants. Laney also pointed out that, of the top twenty-five institutions receiving federal research dollars in 1986, none was south of the line running from Baltimore to Los Angeles. And the per capita federal research funding in Georgia was $6, compared to $65 in Connecticut. These numbers, Laney said, suggested the need for change.

Until now, we at Emory have tended to measure ourselves against ourselves in the past. And by that measure things appear to be rather encouraging. But it is time we move out into the fast currents of higher education and test ourselves against our peers, or against those we want to be seen as our peers.

Laney then drew a target at which the University should aim itself.

By the year 2000, Emory should be recognized as one of the nation’s strongest and most distinctive universities, sustained by a solid core of resources, including powerful support from its alumni and region as well as a nationally competitive level of research funding. At its heart will be the faculty of arts and sciences, and radiating out from that the several faculties of the professional schools, whose quality, vision, and originality will lead them to play an increasingly important role in the dialogue that constitutes our national culture.

Not content just to draw the target, Laney then attached numbers to it, challenging the faculty and administration to meet certain numerical goals:

  • Tripling annual gift support from $30 million to $90 million, with particular attention to alumni gifts;
  • Doubling federal research support from $50 million to $100 million;
  • Increasing the number of Ph.D.’s awarded by the graduate school to one hundred a year;
  • Moving two graduate programs into the top ten, and ten into the top twenty nationally;
  • Moving the schools of theology and medicine into the top ten, and the schools of law and business into the top twenty;

In addition, Laney envisioned a much closer collaboration of Emory scientists with those at Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia; significantly strengthened international programs and reach at Emory; a performing arts center to “complement and challenge the arts in Atlanta”; and the lifting of Emory College into the national consciousness “as one of America’s finest colleges of arts and sciences, and Oxford College as the nation’s strongest two-year college.” All of these goals had in view one purpose: “to build at Emory a community of scholars devoted to linking the most rigorous intellectual specialization with . . . the education of the whole person, thereby strengthening in appropriate ways historic relationships with the United Methodist Church, while continuing to encourage a searching interfaith and intercultural dialogue.”

It was an impressive call to intellectual action. The faculty and administration responded. In fiscal year 1993, the University surpassed the $100 million mark in federal research funding. By the end of the 1990-95 capital campaign—the second campaign of Laney’s administration—annual gift support had reached $72 million. Academically, the gains were equally impressive. Within two years of Laney’s speech, Emory achieved the goal of graduating a hundred new doctors of philosophy annually. By the mid-nineties, one Ph.D. program (religion) was ranked among the top five nationally, and the schools of medicine, law, and business were knocking on the door of the top twenty.

Perhaps the surest ratification of the University’s academic progress in the preceding twenty years was its admission, in 1994, into the ranks of the Association of American Universities. Securing Emory’s election to this most prestigious group of research universities had been an ambition of Laney’s from the beginning of his administration, and he had guided several efforts to persuade the AAU leadership and member institutions of Emory’s rightful place among them.

By the time Emory was finally admitted to the AAU, however, Laney had left the University. Following the election of Bill Clinton as President of the United States in 1992, Senator Sam Nunn and President Jimmy Carter nominated Laney for the ambassadorship to South Korea. With great fondness for the Korean people, among whom he had begun his work an educator, Laney accepted the nomination and left Emory in October 1993.

Source: Hauk, Gary S., A Legacy of Heart and Mind: Emory Since 1836


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