Controversy Arises Over Wagner’s Column
University President James W. Wagner is under fire for a column many have characterized as racially insensitive. The article was published in the winter edition of Emory Magazine.
The column drew immediate local and national criticism, spreading across Twitter and blogs and even catching the eyes of Gawker and Salon, two national media groups whose stories have received a combined 250,000 “likes” on Facebook by Monday night.
In the piece titled “As American as … Compromise,” Wagner discusses how political compromise is an integral part of history and necessary for moving forward. Wagner proceeds to cite the Three-Fifths Compromise, an agreement made in 1787 between the Northern and Southern states not long after the American Revolution. For purposes of taxation and voting representation, states agreed that only three-fifths of the slave population would be counted.
Wagner wrote that the compromise was an example of “pragmatic half-victories [that] kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.” Both sides were working “to form a more perfect union” and had to “temper ideology” to do so.
In reference to the department changes announced last fall, Wagner concluded his column by citing the debate on Emory’s campus about the well-being of the liberal arts within a research university.
“Different visions of what we should be doing inevitably will compete,” he wrote, “but in the end, we must set our sights on that higher goal — the flourishing liberal arts research university in service to our twenty-first-century society.”
Many students and faculty members expressed disappointment and shock at both the cited example and the manner in which Wagner approached the subject matter.
“He obviously didn’t consider how this would affect black students at Emory,” College sophomore Sammie Scott said. “One would think he’d be more conscious and more cautious in the wake of the Dooley Show incident, and maybe think about the fact that we’re in the middle of Black History Month.”
The departments of African American Studies and History also quickly mobilized to send Wagner a letter expressing their discontent.
“This is the first time that any of us has seen anyone point to the three-fifths clause as an example of what good, right-thinking individuals can accomplish when they avoid ideological fixity,” the letter reads. “It is also, though we are sure unintended, an insult to the descendants of those enslaved people who are today a vital part of the Emory University community and our nation.”
The letter further notes that the compromise itself led to the U.S. Civil War and that there surely are other examples Wagner could have used to demonstrate “civil debate, free exchange and compromise in public affairs.”
Mark Sanders, chairman of the African American studies department, wrote in an email to the Wheel that Emory has hosted a conference on slavery and recently issued a statement of regret for its ties with slavery.
“That conversation was supposed to have promoted deeper reflection on that epoch in American history and its residual effects in the present day,” he wrote. “The president’s use of this example, initially without a critique of the institution of slavery, doesn’t seem to reflect that deeper reflection.”
Later on Sunday, Wagner apologized in a second piece published on the Emory Magazine website and clarified that he did not intend to suggest that he supported slavery in any way.
“I am sorry for the hurt caused by not communicating more clearly my own beliefs,” Wagner wrote. “To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me.”
Calling the compromise “repugnant,” Wagner wrote that he intended for his essay to have two points. He had hoped to demonstrate that the Constitution had to be compromised in order to exist, and that while the document had its weaknesses, it was rooted in a “higher purpose” for the benefit of the nation.
Director of The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation Susan Glisson wrote in an email to the Wheel that while she appreciated Wagner’s swift response, she has certain expectations for institutions of higher learning.
“‘Clumsiness’ about vital and difficult matters, as the president described in his response to the feedback, is not acceptable,” she wrote.
Glisson noted that while she understood Wagner’s larger point about compromise, the column “was undermined by a lack of historical context.”
Student Government Association President Ashish Gandhi said he hopes Wagner uses this moment to address broader topics on campus.
“I think that a lot of students on this campus would also appreciate a more powerful, encompassing statement regarding minorities on campus, regarding affirmative action [and] regarding the struggles of the present and the past when it comes to race,” Gandhi said.
In an interview with the Wheel, Wagner said in retrospect he would have used a different example of compromise.
“What we needed to talk about is restoring compromise to the status of a tool to advance a noble agenda,” Wagner said. “We’ve gotten into a bad place to imagine that the compromiser is the loser of a conversation or an argument.”
Wagner added that while it has been a privilege guiding Emory through a number of difficult moments in its history, “it’s especially painful that this is an insult that I have generated.”
The Editing Process
Many have expressed bewilderment that Wagner, editors at Emory Magazine and other administrators did not consider the potential backlash that could result from the column.
“I think that’s the sad discovery,” Wagner said, “discovering that I was not appropriately sensitive to that.”
Gary Hauk, vice president and deputy to the president, said he often edits Wagner’s columns and that the idea to write this piece stretches back to late October.
The column was submitted to the magazine sometime in early December, according to Hauk.
Hauk admits that at the time, he didn’t foresee any potential issues with the way the column was written.
“As somebody who has been aware of the racial issues on our campus and in our society … I find it distressing that I don’t have the lens to see that that might be a potentially problematic way of couching the argument,” he said. “That’s just something I have to confess. I missed that.”
The process for publication typically involves Wagner sending a draft to Hauk, who offers feedback and edits. The piece is eventually sent to Paige Parvin, the editor of Emory Magazine.
From there, Parvin, Hauk, Vice President for Communications and Marketing Ron Sauder and Executive Director of Emory Creative Group Susan Carini read through the entire magazine.
The editorial process has its flaws, according to Hauk.
“I’ll be frank — one of the issues is that all of the eyes on the piece before it was published were white people,” Hauk said. “That’s an issue, and it’s something going forward we’ll need to be much more conscious about addressing to make sure there are other eyes, other perspectives that we may not be thinking about.”
Parvin refused to comment on the story and directed all questions to Emory Media Relations.
Hauk said he agrees with criticisms that the Three-Fifths Compromise was a “bad example” and that “other examples could have been used.” Hauk, though, disagrees with those who believe the piece is evidence of a racist University.
“I don’t agree with the extrapolation that this is evidence that Emory is still living the 1940s or trying to catch up with the rest of the nation,” said Hauk, who believes Emory has often led the discussion on sensitive issues. “Emory has taken as many lumps for liberalism as it has for what is perceived to be, erroneously in my mind, a reactionary, benighted view of the world.”
Wagner said he has no intention of releasing any other statements on the matter. He is, instead, focused on those initiatives at Emory that demonstrate a commitment to creating a healthy community. Wagner cited the work of the Committee on Class and Labor and the Advisory Council on Community and Diversity.
Several faculty members, though, have expressed concern that the column has damaged Emory’s reputation.
“The University is trying to improve its relations with the larger Atlanta community, particularly the black community,” wrote Sander, a professor in the African American Studies department. “And Emory is trying to present itself as a preeminent university that helps to lead in national conversations on pressing issues of the day. This article’s lack of historical insight tends to undermine many of these efforts.”
Pamela Scully, who chairs the department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, said she was also disappointed by the column and believes that it reflects poorly on Emory.
“It is a pity, because there is much at Emory which is great,” she wrote in an email to the Wheel. “Emory under President Wagner has sought to atone for its slaveholding past and anti-Semitism. It is trying to move forward, but I fear this has set us back.”
Wagner shared a positive perspective on the situation.
“I think the good news for Emory is that much of this attack is personally directed towards me,” he said. “I hope that’s suggesting to me that people understand that Emory is an institution and can be separated from this personal act.”
Wagner concluded by stressing the importance of his Presidential Commissions.
“Part of the value of Presidential Commissions is to ensure that those of us who don’t have sensitivities in the LGBTQ community or as a racial minority, woman, elderly — we do need help in understanding those sensibilities,” Wagner said. “I think I’ve been educated through this process.”
The controversial column coincides with Civil Rights leaders and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who are coming to campus on Friday to open an exhibit in the Robert W. Woodruff Library.
— By Evan Mah
Executive Editor Arianna Skibell, News Editor Nicholas Sommariva, Asst. News Editor Karishma Mehrotra, and Associate Editors Jordan Friedman and Elizabeth Howell contributed reporting.