Problems in Wagner’s Article

University President James W. Wagner recently published an article in Emory Magazine defending the virtues of compromise in political contestation. In particular, Wagner cites the Three-Fifths Compromise as a model negotiation and suggests that the same principles should be applied to decision-making at Emory. While Wagner is correct to cite compromise as a vital principle in a democratic society, there are several serious problems with his articulation of this concept as well his reliability in implementing it as Emory’s president.

In any situation where compromise may take place, it is important to consider who is doing the compromising. Truly democratic compromise takes place only when everyone who is affected by a decision is involved in the decision-making process. In the case of the Three-Fifths Compromise, the same individuals who were the object of political discord — the black slave population — were not involved in the final compromise.

Similarly at Emory, Wagner has shown little interest in involving relevant stakeholders in important decision-making processes. Two years after protesters were arrested on Emory’s quad in an attempt to change campus labor policies, a committee tasked with evaluating their claims concluded that Emory “cannot claim that it knows the status of the contracted workers’ experience.”

This year, when Emory announced substantial cuts to several departments, students and affected departments had neither awareness of nor input into the process leading to this decision. There was, perhaps, compromise among the few members of the committee that ultimately decided upon the cuts. But, for the community as a whole, no such compromise was available.

It is also important to recognize the comparative advantages held by powerful actors in dictating the terms of compromise. When an institution has the power to propose the very policy that is to be compromised on, and also holds the power to enforce the final decision about that compromise, the result is — at best — a minor modification to the more powerful actor’s desired outcome.

For instance, there is a possible “compromise” in which Emory’s Economics Ph.D. program is saved, but the ILA, journalism department, education department and Russian department are eliminated as originally planned. Had the cuts been initiated in a democratic manner, the administration may have had to fight (and compromise) to eliminate even one of these departments. But, as the administration possesses both the first move and the final decision, the deck is already stacked in their favor.

Finally, it is dangerous to frame compromise as an end in and of itself. Of course, compromise is ultimately inevitable. Its only alternative is the arbitrary exercise of power (which, ironically, is the very model that Emory has employed in both labor disputes and cuts to the liberal arts). As such, it should be recognized that compromise will be the outcome of any political discord.

This does not mean, however, that it should be the nexus around which all discord revolves. Without a strong and passionate vision for an end to be achieved, and without the will to forcefully and persuasively argue for such a position, no compromise takes place, for there is nothing to be compromised on.

It is unclear, then, what form of compromise Wagner wishes to encourage on Emory’s campus. Compromise is achieved not by regulating the way in which claims are framed — as ideological or pragmatic — but by nurturing the institutions that allow all claims to be heard and taken seriously.

When individuals of different viewpoints and interests, vested with equal power, are tasked with agreeing upon a common solution, compromise is not an aspiration. Rather, it is the only possible outcome. If Wagner is disappointed with the scarcity of compromise on our campus, perhaps it is because he has made it impossible.

Ross Gordon is a recent graduate from Emory and is from Chicago, Ill.