President and professor: Carter shares insights with Emory students

By Kimber Williams and Laura Douglas-Brown | Emory Report | Sept. 15, 2016

During a volatile election year, politics emerged as a focal point at Emory University’s 35th annual Carter Town Hall — a lively conversation held at the start of the fall term between first-year students and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Carter served as a state senator, Georgia governor and 39th president of the United States before embracing his current role as an acclaimed global humanitarian and founder of The Carter Center, an affiliate of Emory dedicated to "waging peace, fighting disease and building hope."

But through his enduring relationship with Emory, the 91-year-old statesman has also served another important role — engaging in the lives of faculty and students as University Distinguished Professor, a position he’s held since 1982.

During introductions that acknowledged Carter, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, and new Emory University President Claire E. Sterk, Ajay Nair, senior vice president and dean of Campus Life, observed that Emory “is well-known for its incredible professors."

“In my experience, the best professors always have diverse interests — Professor Carter exemplifies this,” Nair said, noting Carter's contributions as an author and poet, Habitat for Humanity homebuilder, Sunday school teacher, Naval officer and peacemaker.

“For decades this man with a deep and abiding faith has been a teacher and role model for the Emory community,” Nair said.

“We seek to emulate his tireless commitment to serving humanity, his candor, his quiet courage and his unflappable grace in confronting challenges on the world stage.”

Questions and answers

The question-and-answer forum was the focus of the evening, and Carter joked about the “great trepidation and hesitation” he felt responding to some of the hundreds of student-submitted questions.

Their queries ranged from what technological advancement he’s found most entertaining ("television," which Carter noted he did not have until he had been in the Navy for several years) to what advice he would give his 18-year-old self if he could travel back in time ("Stay out of politics!" the former president quipped.)

But thornier questions about politics and global affairs loomed large.

Responding to a question about how this presidential election will shape the future of American politics, Carter said he believes the country is the most divided it has been since the Civil War, but still offered hope for improvement.

"We just have to remember that our country is resilient. We have always had down through history the ability, when we make serious mistakes like slavery, or the segregation years, or the failure to let women have the right to vote and so forth — we have always been able to correct our mistakes," he said.

After lamenting that "America is approaching the status of an oligarchy" due to the influence of money in politics, Carter urged young people to help create change.

"I think we have reached a nadir, or low point, in political integrity and basic values in our country, and I hope all of you will join with the rest of us in trying to correct that in the future," Carter said.

Asked what issue young people should focus on given all of "the challenges facing our world today," Carter stressed peace and human rights, in particular "discrimination against women and girls."

He listed a series of examples, from female genital mutilation and arranged marriages to campus sexual assaults, and gave a frank assessment of why such abuses continue: "Most men don't give a damn" because they benefit from sexism.

"Those kinds of human rights violations are things you can address personally, just within the sphere of influence that you have individually," Carter urged.

A unique classroom

For the roughly 1,300 Emory students in attendance, the town hall presented a unique classroom — a chance to absorb the firsthand perspectives of a world leader, who served long before most were born.

“I’ve always seen his face in textbooks, so to have this opportunity is kind of unbelievable,” said Jeremy Prince, an Emory College student.

Carter McCormick, a master’s of public health student at Rollins School of Public Health, admitted that he had sprinted straight from the classroom to secure a ticket to the forum.

Since he was named after the former president, it was an opportunity McCormick simply couldn’t pass up.

“My mother always admired him — he’s her favorite former president, especially for the work he went on to do after he left office,” he said. “And being in public health, I find the work he’s done inspiring.”

McCormick acknowledged that he had submitted six questions — tweeting out “#CarterMeetsCarter”— and was thrilled to have the former president address his query about how higher education can respond to political action and social movements.

Carter answered by reminding students that their college years offer unprecedented freedom “to decide what kind of person you want to be."

"This is a time in your life when you set a pathway that you will probably follow without much deviation for the rest of your life," he said, noting the opportunity to interact with and learn from diverse faculty and fellow students.

"I urge you to let the institution in which you are blessed to enroll give you the hope and the dream and the expectation of a wonderful, very productive, honest, peace-loving life filled with love."

Sharing wit and wisdom

Emory College student Inaara Padani found it “pretty amazing that as college students we have the chance to hear from a former president who has had so many experiences and so much advice to share with us.”

In fact, that’s exactly what she asked Carter in one of about a dozen questions chosen for him to answer: “What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?”

In response, Carter smiled. “Tell the truth,” he responded. “That sounds like a very simple element for life, but it’s extremely difficult under various pressures to modify what you know to be fact.”

To prove the point, he told of a time that his mother, the famed Miss Lillian, was pressed by a reporter to learn if her son had ever told a lie.

She responded that Carter was “basically a truthful person” who may have told “a white lie every now and then,” and the reporter pounced on it as an admission. But his mother — who didn’t especially enjoy interviews — was quick to point out that a white lie wasn’t always a bad thing.

When the reporter asked what she meant, Miss Lillian observed, “You remember when you came to the door and I said I was glad to see you and you looked very nice?”

After the roar of laughter subsided, Carter elaborated. “When the truth means something to you or to another person, tell the truth.”