Our Opinion: Offensive Analogy Sparks Necessary Concern

In its most recent issue, Emory Magazine published a column written by University President James W. Wagner titled “As American as … Compromise.” In the piece, Wagner discussed the importance of compromise in the framing of the Constitution of the United States, and in the context of Emory’s struggle to remain a high-achieving liberal arts institution in light of “our country’s fiscal conundrums.”

In doing so, he referenced the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise, in which our nation’s founders settled the issue of counting states’ populations for the purposes of determining representation in Congress. This was achieved by concluding that African slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person.

Although we do not believe that Wagner made such a comparison in the spirit of racism or bigotry, we at the Wheel feel that his comparison was tactless and offensive. Furthermore, we feel that Wagner’s apology was unconvincing and did little to quell our concerns. He certainly apologized for his unintentional offense, but did not apologize for using the three-fifths compromise as an example in the first place.

First and foremost, we acknowledge that Wagner was, by no means, condoning the institution of slavery or the notion that anyone — no matter his or her race — should be considered anything less than entirely human. However, his remarks are no less offensive when cast in the light of inadvertency. His remarks are especially offensive when one considers that February is Black History Month, that Emory is located in the South and that the University has an admittedly sensitive history with slavery.

We feel that Wagner could have just as easily found another example of notable compromise in our nation’s history. By ignoring the readily-available multitude of more appropriate compromises to cite in his column and failing to offer some sort of disclaimer to clarify that he does not, in fact, support slavery, Wagner unintentionally but implicitly condoned the belief that some people’s existences are worth only a fraction of others’. In doing so, he belittles over two centuries’ worth of horrors and tragedy and minimizes the importance of what has become an entire population’s collective history.

We feel that Wagner was inadvertently callous in his treatment of the concept of slavery. It is insensitive to use the question of the value of a person’s humanity as a metaphor for the question of the value of a university’s academic departments. It is even more questionable that he might use this notorious compromise to justify the removal of departments in the realm of humanities that might otherwise delve deeper into such a topic.

Given the unexpected insensitivity of Wagner’s statements, we cannot help but question the editorial process by which his column was vetted for publication. Furthermore, we are shocked that Wagner, who is the face of our University, would make such a grievous error in judgement. We are by no means suggesting that he — or any other administrator, for that matter — should avoid addressing controversial topics for fear of offending. Instead, we encourage anyone intending to address sensitive subjects, such as slavery, to ensure that they are doing so in a manner that is appropriate and sentient. Furthermore, we hope that in moving forward, great care will be taken to ensure that all articles published in Emory Magazine, or other Emory publications, go through the proper editing channels and are reviewed thoroughly for content and potentially sensitive material.

With regards to Wagner’s response to what was an almost instantaneous outcry against his statements, we sympathize with those who feel that his “apology” was thoroughly insufficient. Instead of apologizing for using an inappropriate example in his column, Wagner apologized for unintentionally offending anyone and continued to further explain his example. We feel that this response was inadequate, and would have preferred that Wagner acknowledge and apologize for the inappropriateness of the example itself.

The above staff editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s editorial board.