Contradictions Have Come to the Fore

This past Friday’s abrupt and ineffectual negotiations between the Student Re-Visioning Committee (SRC) and President James Wagner, Dean Robin Forman, and Vice President Gary Hauk is the most recent expression of nearly three months of widespread campus and community opposition to the September 14th cuts. Students were shocked by the flawed process and faulty principles behind the elimination and suspension of various programs and departments, frustrated by the bromides and non-answers offered by administrators at various informational sessions, and troubled by the wider implications for their own education, the values of shared governance, and the future of Emory University. It is out of this tumult that the SRC emerged.

Through a widely-attended and democratic cross-campus consultation process, as well as extensive research into governance documents and administrative meeting minutes, the SRC produced three demands: (1) Reversing the cuts, (2) Formal and meaningful student, faculty and staff participation on all key decision-making bodies, and (3) Full disclosure and investigation of the entire proceedings that led to these cuts.

Since September, the SRC has organized to raise its concerns to the Emory administration in a number of ways. We have held public meetings on a weekly basis, planned three large campus demonstrations, tabled consistently during Wonderful Wednesdays, and challenged President Wagner with pertinent questions at the State of the University address. We have also given numerous interviews with local and national media, and hand-delivered letters articulating our questions and positions to Dean Forman and President Wagner’s representative, Mr. Hauk. Our efforts have consistently hit a wall of silence and misdirection. To our letter, for example, which was published in the Wheel, President Wagner responded with obfuscations that avoided the central issues, while Dean Forman did not respond at all.

After months of fruitlessly trying to engage the administration in a substantive re-visioning of the process and content of these cuts, the SRC elected to escalate. On Tuesday December 4th, hundreds of Emory students, faculty, staff, and community members walked out of classes and offices to rally on the main quadrangle, with over 120 later staging a sit-in of the Administration building’s fourth floor. Our intent was to force the administration to take serious our positions in order to work towards addressing the unrest on campus. While initially threatening arrest, Mr. Hauk later offered a meeting between a small group and President Wagner. Through a democratic process, this offer was accepted and delegates were selected to begin talks. Yet the only result of over three-and-a-half hours of negotiations on Tuesday was the scheduling of another session later in the week. Though dissatisfied, and with television and print media watching, we in the SRC accepted that postponement in good-faith and accordingly lifted the sit-in as a gesture of good will.

On Friday, however, the administration quickly undercut the spirit of this past agreement. Hours before the meeting, officials locked down the Administration building and bolstered the number of visible police on campus. There were also numerous uniformed and plainclothes officers throughout the Candler Library building where the negotiations took place. In addition to this blatant intimidation, when the SRC team arrived and requested either the presence of outside media or permission to make an electronic recording in the interests of transparency, Mr. Hauk denied both requests. Although unilaterally recording the meeting was within the bounds of the law, the SRC nonetheless respected these refusals and proceeded with the talks. During the negotiations, the administrators also complained that their outline was not being followed, although the focus was to be the SRC’s three demands – a shared item on both proposed agendas. More importantly, President Wagner had assured the SRC on Tuesday that students, and not administrators, would set the agenda for Friday.

Despite all of this, we will not be drawn into a prolonged and ultimately distracting dispute over the atmosphere surrounding these negotiations alone. For anyone interested in following the details, the SRC has provided comprehensive notes to be published in the Wheel and later linked to on our Facebook page, blog and Twitter feed. We suspect that the administration would like nothing more than to again avoid addressing the issues at hand by simply running out the clock. We therefore mention the above tactics less as a complaint and more as a lesson for others who will undoubtedly challenge unresponsive authorities and their culture of opacity in the future.

The critical issue at present, then, is that opposition to these cuts can neither be denied out of existence nor ignored into silence. The administration must realize that there is a serious problem at the university and that the present state of affairs cannot continue. In fact, the administration’s own position reveals a contradiction that tacitly acknowledges the merits of the SRC demands. During the negotiations, President Wagner rejected the first demand to reverse the cuts and was ambivalent towards the third demand for disclosure and investigation. Yet he did admit that the second demand of formal and meaningful participation, albeit reduced to “student engagement,” was important and necessary. If that is indeed the case, if there ought to be student engagement on all decision-making bodies – which there was not for these cuts – by what logic can that be limited to a distant future and not applied to the current impasse? We ask: how can President Wagner agree with the SRC that students and faculty should be meaningfully and formally engaged in deciding the university’s future but not its present? To sequester an earlier decision from reconsideration – cuts that are both the cause of so much opposition across campus and yet to be fully implemented – reflects a troubling rigidity and unwillingness to broaden the vision of the university. It also provokes the question of the Emory community’s confidence in its leadership.

An equally disconcerting point mentioned by President Wagner during Friday’s negotiations was the likelihood of more changes to come. The administration is already trying to force a first round of misguided cuts through a secretive, illegitimate, and hurtful process. Given the current lack of shared governance and the administration’s obstinacy towards reviewing their previous actions, what is there to stop further waves of cuts and closures from being enacted in this same manner? The message should be clear: no department, no faculty and no students are immune from the possibility of their lives and scholarship being turned upside down by a handful of unaccountable individuals. The distinction between “affected” and “unaffected” is thus a fallacy conjured up to perpetuate division, selfishness and apathy. Against this, we in the SRC believe that only by honestly addressing and correcting the manifold problems of these cuts can the administration begin to recover its credibility to move forward in a different direction. It is this re-visioning, which entails harnessing the energy, creativity and expertise of the entire Emory community, which can make our university a truly world-class and innovative institution.

We therefore remain committed to our three demands and will not allow opposition to these cuts to be dismissed, co-opted, or suppressed. Our campaign will not end with the turn of the calendar, but rather 2013 will witness a renewed commitment and effort to produce a genuinely participatory and inclusive university. The SRC will continue to mobilize in order to build a university that not only fulfills but exceed its own potential.

The statement was drafted by Andrew Zonderman and Navyug Gill, both graduate students in the history department and both members of the SRC negotiation team. The statement is officially-endorsed by the Student Re-visioning Committee.