Basic Info

Dr. James W. Wagner
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Initial Contribution Date:
Primary Location:
Atlanta, GA, USA

Career Info

Primary Industry:
Personal Career Headline:
President of Emory University
Business Description (One-Liner):


More Career Details:
Author, PhD, Professor / Educator
31-40 years of work experience

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Career Snapshot:

James W. Wagner, PhD, an award-winning teacher and scientist, became the 19th president of Emory University on September 1, 2003. Born and reared in Silver Spring, Maryland, Dr. Wagner 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 PhD degree in materials science and engineering from Johns Hopkins. Following a distinguished tenure on the faculty of Johns Hopkins, Dr. Wagner served as dean, provost, and interim president of Case Western Reserve University.

What Else To Know

Your Business's Motto?:

The wise heart seeks knowledge. (Proverbs 18:15)

One food and drink on earth, what would you choose?:

I could eat all day long just about any tree nut that you would care to name.  A full-bodied red wine would complement those well.

What literature is on your bed stand?:

The bed stand is cluttered with everything from back issues of astronomy and antique car magazines to a copy of the Bible, some scripture commentary, and an unfinished novel. At present that unfinished novel is Imperium by Robert Harris. In the queue are books that have been recommended to me, like Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada and Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz.

Tell Us More:

Your advice for one applying to Emory?

Be sure to visit. Emory is a residential campus where place and community are very important. Remember that the goal of the application process here, as in many places, is to work with you to ensure that there exists a good fit, that students who come here have the highest prospects not just of graduating but of flourishing.

Most interesting headline you’ve read this week?

Just this week I read that the Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977 and passing Neptune in 1989, may not yet have broken into interstellar space as previously reported.  Traveling for 37 years at speeds nearing 40,000 mph and not yet escaping into interstellar space boggles my mind.  It is humbling.


Dr. Wagner has authored more than 115 publications and has served as editor or editorial board member for several serial publications. His research interests and activities have stemmed in part from his early employment with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, where he developed quality-assurance methods and performed failure analyses on medical devices. At Johns Hopkins his research focused on optical and microwave methods for sensing strains and displacements in materials and structures. In 2007, Dr. Wagner received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering and the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association. In the spring of 2009, he was elected as a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Wagner was honored to receive the President’s Award of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators for Region III in the summer of 2011. In 2012, Dr. Wagner was awarded an honorary doctor of engineering degree from the University of Notre Dame. He was elected in 2012 as a Charter Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.

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 strategic-planning process to serve as the basis for a comprehensive financial campaign.

Along the way, the president has won high marks for rolling up his sleeves and engaging very deeply with faculty, staff, and students — occasionally rehearsing with student a capella groups, regularly meeting with faculty leadership and departments on matters of intense controversy — seeking to involve the community in full and mutually accountable collaboration.

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 finds particularly attractive Emory’s blend of rigorous intellectual inquiry and ethical engagement.

Currently Dr. Wagner serves on the boards of The Carter Center, the Georgia Research Alliance, SunTrust Banks, and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. In 2009, he was honored to be appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama to serve as Vice-Chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

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