Faculty Censure Wagner, Consider No Confidence
UPDATED: February 22, 2013
College faculty voted to censure University President James W. Wagner over his controversial column in Emory Magazine at their monthly meeting Wednesday.
A censure, clarified one faculty member, is “an expression that you deplore what he said. [It’s] a little stronger than a reprimand, but not as strong as a vote of no confidence.”
Faculty also voted down the motion to stop the formation of an independent committee to review the department changes announced last fall. As previously reported, the committee will examine the criteria used to cut departments and the communication process by which the plan was carried out, among other concerns.
Faculty members briefly considered voting no confidence in Wagner, but decided to wait until he attends their next meeting in March. Many were unclear about the consequences of a vote of no confidence. The move would have signaled that faculty members no longer believe Wagner is fit to hold the position of president.
Salon spoke with Ben F. Johnson III, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, on Tuesday.
“He has my 100-percent, undivided support,” Johnson reportedly said.
Johnson could not be reached for comment.
Before voting, faculty expressed outrage and grave concern over Wagner’s column, which used the Three-Fifths Clause as an example of political compromise. The clause was an agreement made in 1787 between the Northern and Southern states, stating that only three-fifths of the slave population would be counted for purposes of taxation and voting representation.
The column has drawn immediate national and local criticism, and since Saturday has been discussed on Salon, Gawker, CNN, Esquire and New York Magazine, which labeled the piece as “surely the most disastrous president’s column ever written in a University alumni magazine.”
Once the floor was open to discussion at Wednesday’s meeting, many faculty members remarked that they were appalled and horrified, with one faculty member suggesting that he resign.
“We cannot stand to be represented by someone who has these views,” the faculty member said. “He has no legitimacy and is clearly not up to the job.”
Another faculty member asked what in particular was offensive about the column.
“What I find offensive about the president’s comments is not that compromise is inherently necessary and sometimes desirable, but that that compromise was a model,” the faculty member responded. “He used the word ‘model.’ That’s inexcusable.”
Faculty members added that they were shocked Wagner had to be told that his column was offensive and that he was unaware of the potential backlash.
Faculty members proceeded to express serious discontent over Wagner’s apology, which was added to the column later on Sunday.
“Part of his explanation was an apology for hurting feelings,” a faculty member said. “We need to be attentive that hurting feelings is not the issue here. It’s not against the law to hurt feelings, but in a democracy, it’s unethical to contribute to the culture of discrimination, and I think that’s what this statement did.”
Some faculty members were “more horrified” by comments made by Gary Hauk, vice president and deputy to the president. In Tuesday’s issue of the Wheel, Hauk had said that the editing process was flawed because “all of the eyes on the piece before it was published were white people.”
Another faculty member reported that Wagner had spoken to the Faculty Council on Tuesday and that he understands the situation better than people think.
“The understanding I think is different than what it looks like in the writing,” the faculty member said. “I’m not trying to justify anything or defend anything – I just want to say that that did happen yesterday.”
Another faculty member commented that the University has a habit of making mistakes and then remarking that the community should be proud for acknowledging it.
“The apology should stand by itself, and we should be careful to find something praiseworthy in it,” the faculty member said. “I hope President Wagner doesn’t walk down that path again.”
Faculty members expressed a strong desire that Wagner explain himself to them directly next month.
Citing a busy schedule, Wagner could not be reached for comment.
Department Changes Discussion
The discussion concerning Wagner’s column followed a vote to stop the formation of a committee that would review the department changes announced last fall.
Wednesday marked the third time faculty members have voted on a motion of this kind.
The original motion dates back to the December meeting, with an amendment following in January.
Both of those measures passed by slim margins. The motion on Wednesday to stop the committee ultimately failed 96 to 103.
The debate to rescind the motion was relatively short, given that both sides had presented their arguments in full at the last vote in January.
The faculty member who presented the motion to stop the committee reiterated the belief that the committee would not lead to any “healing or revelations” but only “deepen and make much worse the divisions in this faculty.”
The faculty member also said that the previous two votes did not take place in situations that had the “largest possible representation of faculty.”
In response, the faculty member who first introduced the idea said the committee would “unite the faculty” and that “those people who made the decision should welcome an independent review.”
“People who are opposed to an independent and autonomous review are downplaying the serious harm already done to faculty,” the faculty member said.
On the contrary, another faculty member said the College dean has always had the power to create and eliminate departments.
“This dean is the first to consult with the faculty,” the faculty member said. “We’ve established that he consulted, but we just dislike the outcome.”
In response, a faculty member agreed that the dean does have such power but also expressed a desire to clarify particular rules or procedures concerning confidentiality and adequate representation with future committees that might play a role in such decisions.
Another faculty member added that the formation of the committee could have positive and beneficial consequences.
“We know that we’re going to be facing a variety of challenges in finance and in higher education in the next decade or so,” the faculty member said. “It’s important to understand criteria used for judging departments.”
That same faculty member concluded that the communication process also needs improvement.
“One of the breakdowns, in my opinion, was the difference between knowing something and being warned of something.”
After voting by paper ballot, the motion to rescind failed.
In a moment of comic relief, Stefan Lutz, an associate professor in the Chemistry department and chair of the governance committee, ended the meeting with an announcement that faculty would be have to re-vote on the members to be placed on the committee that is charged to evaluate faculty governance. School servers had crashed overnight and lost the data.
Faculty members erupted in laughter.
“The Emory web team feels absolutely terrible,” he said.
With the exception of Lutz, names of faculty members who spoke during the meeting have been omitted, in accordance with the terms that allowed the Wheel to attend the meeting.
— By Evan Mah at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Credit Emory University
This story has been updated to match the version printed in the Feb. 22 issue.