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Building a Community of Scholars: James T. Laney's Presidency

James T. Laney
b. 1927

President 1977-1993
James T. Laney

Delivering the keynote address at James T. Laney's inauguration as Emory's seventeenth president in April 1978, Harvard University President Emeritus Nathan Pusey remarked that the "happy period" of the growth of higher education had ended around 1970, leaving universities and colleges across the country financially precarious and forced to dig in against coming hard times. Student population was projected to decline rapidly after 1980, colleges faced increasingly arduous competition for well-qualified applicants, faculty competed for a diminishing pool of federal research funds, and everywhere there were signs of disaffection with establishment education. Faculty morale had begun to decline, and career prospects for young scholars, especially in the humanities, had nearly evaporated.

Worse than the financial crunch of the early 1970s was the unsettled spirit pervading higher education. Faculty and students were beginning to question not only the aims and methods of nearly every curriculum in the country but also the old faith that somehow learning was all of a piece, because it had to do with truth. The national - 1 -malaise diagnosed by President Jimmy Carter during the oil crisis of 1978 had infected the academy as well.

At Emory the 1970s had brought a measure of all these trials to the University. Additionally, the University faced a set of problems peculiar to its own history. In some ways these problems derived from Emory's very strengths.

First, the good reputation of Emory's professional schools made the University attractive as a preprofessional college. Students came to Emory as undergraduates because they wanted to stay for medical school or law school or theology school, not because being an undergraduate at Emory was a great experience. At the same time, Emory had little difficulty attracting students willing to pay for its kind of education, and the University therefore had little reason to invest in scholarships. Before 1979 Emory College offered only twenty-three merit scholarships, each worth no more than $500.

One consequence of the high cost of an Emory education, however, was that many of the best students in the University's traditional Southern base could not afford to attend Emory, and the ablest of Georgia's high school graduates frequently found their way to other schools with better financial aid or to state schools with lower costs. By 1978, when competition in recruiting students had stiffened, Emory realized it would have to increase financial aid enormously.

Second, the dismantling of in loco parentis and the enthusiasms of the sixties and seventies—revolutionary or pharmacological—gave many students the urge to live off campus. There was therefore little impetus for the University to build new dormitories or to renovate the old ones, much less to provide a broad range of programs designed for aesthetic, moral, recreational, and spiritual enrichment. While the University had grown and changed in important academic ways since the Martin administration, the tenor of campus life had not. The Emory experience came to be viewed as a Spartan fast track into the professions. And life on the Atlanta campus more and more deserved that view.

Finally, during the sixties and seventies, the centrifugal forces pulling apart all university communities had made higher education intensely specialized and therefore fragmented. Careerist tendencies predominated among the faculty as well as the students, and traditional loyalties could no longer be taken for granted. Faculty commitments shifted as scholars tended to measure their successes within their national or international scholarly guilds, rather than among their institutional colleagues. Students often viewed the undergraduate experience as a passage to graduate or professional school, rather than as a journey interesting in its own right.

The University had to ask whether it could counter those centrifugal forces that were having such a negative impact on its own community as well as on other universities. The sense of a larger purpose, of dedication, and of commitment, had been manifest in the Emory spirit from the beginning. If shoring up that sense of purpose and creating a community hospitable to the ends of a larger sense of life sounded like a difficult order, it was an order consistent with Emory's traditions.

Sanford Atwood's announcement in 1976 that he would retire at the end of the academic year set in motion the University's first presidential search in thirteen years. The previous search had been fraught with the complexity of at least three internal claims to the presidency, and in the end the trustees had gone to the Ivy League to invite Cornell's provost to fill the job. This time around, they found a worthy candidate closer to home—indeed, one almost in the mold of his nineteenth-century predecessors.

Southern-born Jim Laney had grown up in Arkansas and Memphis before going off to Yale to earn his B.A. degree in economics. His studies interrupted by a call from the United States Army, he found himself in the late 1940s in Korea, working in military intelligence. He would say later in life that the experience in Korea so changed his thinking about the world, that by the time he returned to Yale to finish his degree, in 1950, he had determined to enter the ministry. And so, after graduating from Yale College, he entered immediately into Yale Divinity School and became a Methodist minister, serving as chaplain at Choate School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) while completing his seminary degree.

For five years following his seminary graduation, Laney served as a church minister in Cincinnati, Ohio. But in 1959, drawn by what he had seen in Korea, Laney returned to that country with his wife, Berta, and four of their five children (the fifth would be born there) to serve as a Methodist missionary teaching at Yonsei University in Seoul. In 1964, seeing higher education as another facet of his vocation, he entered Yale Graduate School, where he completed his Ph.D. degree in Christian ethics in just two years. In 1969, only three years after becoming an assistant professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Laney was called by Emory to be dean of the Candler School of Theology.

When the board announced Laney's appointment to the presidency in the spring of 1977, scattered members of the faculty voiced questions about the choice—if not outright dissatisfaction. For some, the Methodist ministry no longer seemed suitable training to lead a modern research university. But if anyone had any doubt about the kind of presidency Laney would have, they need only have looked at his deanship for clues.

Early in his tenure as dean Laney tapped as the new theology librarian a former Yale Divinity colleague, who had gone on to earn his Ph.D. degree from Chicago and a library degree from Columbia. Channing Jeschke had an eye for rare books and a nose for a deal. Scanning the pages of a theological journal in 1974, two years after his move to Emory, Jeschke learned that the Hartford Theological Seminary was about to put its library on the market. Built largely during the nineteenth century, the collection contained a rich trove of Reformation materials, early American sermons, a unique collection of hymnody, and thousands of monographs long out of print. Totaling some 220,000 volumes, the collection was priceless; nevertheless, the Hartford trustees had a price in mind and entertained offers from Emory and from Wheaton College in Illinois, home of the Billy Graham Institute.

During protracted negotiations, Laney and Jeschke persuaded Hartford that Emory's bid of $1.75 million—not the highest bid—also offered the best home for the collection. With approval of the purchase by Emory's trustees in July 1975, the University acquired the collection at an average cost of $8 a book, making Pitts Theology Library overnight the second largest theological library in North America and bringing to Emory an unparalleled research collection.

Having tripled the size of their library holdings, Laney and Jeschke now had to find a place for their new collection. Originally the Theology Building—built in 1916 as one of the first two academic buildings on the Druid Hills campus— housed the entire theology school—a library, offices, classrooms, the Durham Chapel, and even the office used by Chancellor Candler. The Hartford collection would squeeze out everything but the library.

The University commissioned internationally renowned architect Paul Rudolph—whose father had been a member of Candler's first graduating class—to design a new chapel and transform the old Theology Building into a new library. The renovation of the Theology Building was made possible largely by the gifts of Miss Margaret Pitts and the Pitts Foundation, and the building now bears the Pitts name.

As president, Laney had grander plans than moving the theology library from fortieth place to second. In his first annual report to the board, Laney outlined four steps he wanted to take toward improving the quality of undergraduate life at Emory: increasing available scholarship funds to attract the best students; enhancing residence and dining facilities; providing adequate recreation facilities; and emphasizing collaboration among disciplines in order to foment a richer intellectual climate. He sought also to increase alumni support and to raise faculty compensation. He concluded that first report by quoting the great president of Harvard, Charles Norton Eliot: "We intend to build here, surely and steadily, a university of the first rank." Laney went on to say, "I am no less ambitious for Emory over the next twenty years. I know of no other university which has such a happy conjunction of resources and opportunity as Emory has today."

This last phrase would become a litany of the Laney years: resources and opportunity—freedom from some of the encumbrances that other universities had incurred by the late seventies, and the chance to grow with the boom that hit Atlanta at the close of the decade. In the fall of 1977, however, Laney was just beginning to sense what "resources and opportunity" might mean. Two years later the phrase would be clear as summer noon through a gift from Robert W. Woodruff.


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