In the most recent issue of Emory Magazine, President James Wagner cited the Three-Fifths Compromise as a model for current conversations on campus surrounding the status of the liberal arts at Emory. This is a deplorable act unbecoming of any leader, and especially so from the president of a southern university in the middle of Black History Month. Wagner should be ashamed of his actions and, in my opinion, resign immediately.
The Three-Fifths Compromise was not, as Wagner suggests, a “pragmatic half-victory.” Rather, it was a shameful moment in American history when the lives and freedoms of African Americans were used as bargaining chips in a cruel game of political brinksmanship. When we set aside our Constitutional idealism — this idea, retrospectively formed, that the formation of the “union” was an inevitable and necessary historical event — the Three-Fifths Compromise was, essentially, wealthy white landowners debating what fraction of a person a slave should count as: one-half, three-fourths? I’m a proud American citizen, but if I could turn back time, I would gladly accept a divided nation if it meant that the cruel logistics of slavery would not become further entrenched in our nation’s founding documents.
But there is more at stake here than just Wagner’s flawed perception of a shameful political bargain. Wagner’s rhetoric about compromise comes right on the heels of the controversial cuts made to programs and departments across the University. At the end of his essay in Emory Magazine, Wagner implicitly connects his appraisal of the Three-Fifths Compromise to the recent departmental changes, saying, “I am grateful that we have at our disposal the rich tools of compromise that can help us achieve our most noble goals.” I personally am not writing to stake a claim against the cuts. That is a conversation that should continue and I perceive the terrible gravity of Wagner’s recent remarks as a separate issue.
What I do want to observe, however, is how bizarrely and appallingly comic it is for Wagner to use the Three-Fifths Compromise as a model for the conversation around the cuts when — as Mairead Sullivan noted in these pages on Sept. 28, 2012 — the cuts at Emory have disproportionately affected departments with high percentages of faculty of color. Is Wagner joking by comparing the Three-Fifths Compromise to our discussion about the liberal arts at Emory? If so, it’s not a very good joke. Especially after Wagner already compared Dean Forman’s “courage” in making the cuts to the courage of civil rights leaders.
More serious still, Emory University has a troubled racial past that we cannot afford to disavow. This University could not have become the institution that it is without slave labor. This was serious enough to warrant a statement of regret from the Emory board. Let’s also not forget that Emory University did not admit black students until 1962. It is inconceivable, especially after Emory’s many statements of regret, that Wagner should publicly publish this piece on the Three-Fifths Compromise. James Wagner, please leave this university so we can have a leader who can talk about our University without invoking one of the most misguided and hurtful metaphors imaginable.
Samantha Allen is a Graduate Fellow in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.