Recent Cuts Betray Students
The majority of opposition to Dean Forman’s “restructuring” of Emory College has focused on the form in which it was announced.
The Dean’s letter was sent out Friday afternoon, on the weekend of a Jewish holiday. It abounded in euphemisms, but contained few details about the rationale behind and content of the restructuring, and little recognition of the traumatic impact it would have on hundreds of Emory students, faculty, and staff.
This announcement was more befitting of a corporate takeover than a plan to foster academic eminence. But the form of Forman’s announcement cannot be separated from its content.
Forman describes his restructuring as preserving “traditional” disciplines.
When Forman speaks of “traditional” departments, he not only describes certain departments, but also describes why they are valuable. The rationale is the duration of their existence within the university system.
But these fields are not valuable because they have “traditionally” been present. They are valuable because of the tools they provide. And the purpose of these tools is to give students the ability to criticize the very idea of “tradition” that is the basis for Forman’s rationale.
“Traditional” disciplines teach students critical skills to question, reformulate, and, if necessary, reject “tradition,” but they do not advocate an adherence to tradition for tradition’s sake. These very fields thus undermine Dean Forman’s stated reasons for preserving them.
Similar problems underlie Dean Forman’s criteria for creating new programs. Based on his letter, Dean Forman decided which new programs to create based on the demand of Emory faculty. But popular demand should not be the main factor according to which administrative decisions are made.
Programs can be valuable precisely because they provide innovative methodologies that question the academic status quo. In addition, popular demand might discriminate against those populations who themselves have historically been marginalized within the university.
At Emory, both these outcomes have been the case: Dean Forman’s decisions eliminate programs that reorganize academic disciplines in the service of politically engaged scholarship that, though not “traditional,” is extremely valuable.
These programs feature a disproportionately high number of women and people of color.
In methodological and demographic terms, Dean Forman’s decision excises the margins from the Emory community.
But the margins represent the true heart of the university tradition. The university tradition is grounded in its critical distance from both “tradition” and popular demand.
This is why legislators are simultaneously attacking universities for leading students to question both their parents’ traditions as well as the larger political organization of our society.
This critical thinking was epitomized by all of the departments cut. The content of Dean Forman’s decision must be understood as an attack on the critical thought central to the genuine innovations that the university tradition has historically provided—and can still provide today.
The form of the decision conveyed this content perfectly. Professor Michael Giles has, in these very pages, confessed that he deliberately obscured institutional transparency in order to avoid the antagonism that might occur from an open discussion of the proposed cuts. But antagonism is the core of the university, and of democracy.
Students come here to partake in precisely the open discussion that this decision has squashed.
Such a discussion can be antagonistic, but it is through precisely such antagonism that true innovation occurs. It is also through such antagonism that genuine community—not that mandated from above—can be built.
Dean Forman’s decision is a betrayal of the Emory community. Every one of us must oppose it and work with the administration to restore the trust that they have betrayed.
Harold Braswell is a 6th year PhD student in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts.