An Engineer at the Helm of Emory

Winter 2007


“Engineers are immersing themselves in society’s needs and goals more than ever,” says James Wagner ’78, PhD ’84. “They are going deeper and deeper into society and I think it’s a good thing.”

As president of Emory University in Atlanta, Wagner oversees the university’s nine academic divisions, which include Emory College; a graduate school of arts and sciences; professional schools of medicine, theology, law, nursing, public health, and business; and Oxford College, the school’s two-year undergraduate division. Wagner has 12,100 students and 2,635 faculty members under his care.

It should come as no surprise to many that when Wagner, who earned both his master’s in clinical engineering and PhD in materials science and engineering at the Whiting School, approaches the challenges of running a major university, he falls back on the engineering approaches he honed at Johns Hopkins.

For instance, Emory recently confronted a seemingly intractable parking problem on campus. As opposed to simply building more parking garages, Wagner says he used the problemsolving skills he learned as an engineer to refocus the question in order to get a better answer.

“Instead of figuring out how to get more cars onto campus, we looked at how to get more people onto campus,” he says. The resulting program uses incentives to encourage the use of motorcycles, carpools, public transport, and vanpools and offers rewards to those who give up their parking spaces.

Wagner is often asked how his engineering background contributes to his role as a university president, especially since Emory doesn’t include an engineering school. His response: “Hypothesis driven leadership is imagining a solution and building an experiment around it. That translates very nicely to administrative functions: identifying administrative problems, putting policies into place, and evaluating how they work.”

And those principles were gleaned from his experiences as a student, teacher, and administrator. After completing his graduate work at Hopkins, Wagner served on the Whiting School faculty and as chair of the school’s Materials Science and Engineering Department. He left Hopkins after 13 years to join Case Western Reserve University in 1998. There, he split his time serving as the engineering school dean, university provost, and interim president. In 2003, he accepted the presidency at Emory.

“It used to be that engineers solve engineering problems,” Wagner says. “Now engineers identify quality-of-life issues, translate them into engineering terms, and then solve the problems. We’ve transitioned from being just problem solvers to being problem identifiers who then solve the problem.”