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Emory Today

James W. Wagner
b. 1953

President 2003-
James W. Wagner

When the Board of Trustees announced on July 30, 2003, the appointment of Emory’s nineteenth president, it took some hearers a moment to register that the new president was an engineer. James W. Wagner, an award-winning teacher and scientist, earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1975 from the University of Delaware and a master’s degree in clinical engineering in 1978 from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In 1984, he completed his Ph.D. degree in materials science and engineering from Johns Hopkins.

While the absence of an engineering program at Emory might have made an engineer a curious pick to assume the University’s presidency, the choice of Jim Wagner in particular made sense on many levels. Before assuming office on September 1, 2003, he had served as dean, provost, and interim president of Case Western Reserve University, following a distinguished tenure on the faculty of The Johns Hopkins University. He thus knew the academy intimately at every level.

Throughout his administrative career, Dr. Wagner has worked closely with faculty, students, alumni, and staff to enhance the undergraduate educational experience, grow research, and foster more effective partnership between the academy and local institutions, including government and industry. Out of a firm devotion to the ancient university mission of liberal education—which he defines as mastering a discipline and developing a thirst for new knowledge—Dr. Wagner has been able to forge collaborations among a diverse array of schools and programs, ranging from the arts and sciences to the professional schools. He also had gained significant experience in raising funds from private philanthropic sources. All of these notes resonated with the priorities of the institution in 2003.

As one of his first steps, President Wagner set in motion a campus-wide initiative to develop a clear vision statement intended to serve as the polestar for Emory’s development over the next decade. Having achieved widespread and deep participation in this effort, he searched for and appointed a new provost and a new senior vice president for development and University relations to complete his leadership team. With those persons in place, the University launched a year-long to serve as strategic-planning process the basis for a comprehensive financial campaign, which would begin in September 2005.

Along the way, the President won high marks for rolling up his sleeves and engaging very deeply with faculty, staff, and students—occasionally rehearsing with student a capella groups (he’s a former barbershop singer himself), regularly meeting with faculty leadership and departments on matters of intense controversy, and winning approval for his openness to the concerns of faculty and staff.

Reviving an Emory tradition, President Wagner has delivered the address at each of the baccalaureate services for graduating College seniors since his arrival at Emory. An elder in the Presbyterian church (in which his wife, Debbie, is a seasoned professional Christian educator), he found particularly attractive Emory’s blend of rigorous intellectual inquiry and ethical engagement.


Source: Gary S. Hauk, PhD



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