Reflecting on Emory’s Behavior: More Than Department Cuts

After six and a half years at Emory University, I am walking away from this campus next week with more than a Ph.D. – I am also leaving this institution with criminal charges on my record and a heart filled with mixed emotions. Participating alongside fellow students in the Student Re-visioning Committee (SRC) this past week lifted my spirits and gave me hope for Emory’s future, but it also brought to the surface difficult memories I had repressed.
 
Being in the administration building last Tuesday reminded me of when Students and Workers in Solidarity (SWS) filled the same halls in April 2010 and April 2011. Then as now, our goals were much more than protest for its own sake: we were seeking transparency in Emory’s labor contracting policies, accountability to ensure fair treatment of cafeteria workers, and an end to discriminatory practices, such as the exclusion of contracted workers from access to free MARTA passes that other Emory employees enjoy. When I gathered with others on the Quad last Friday afternoon to support SRC representatives as they entered Candler Library to meet with administration officials, I was expecting some security presence. But actually seeing so many police officers and cadets in the flesh had an effect on me I wasn’t anticipating: my heart pounded in my chest and my hands began to shake uncontrollably. I couldn’t stop thinking about that horrific day of April 25, 2011 when – after 18 months of belittling students, ignoring workers’ concerns, secretly renewing a five-year contract with Sodexo, and scheduling 14 meetings with students – Emory administrators unleashed armed police on myself and six of my friends. Our crime? We refused to leave the Quad until President Wagner agreed to hold a public forum on ensuring ethical standards in Emory’s contracting practices (after arresting us, of course, he held a public forum). Vivid memories of a night in a cold jail cell, of forced pregnancy tests, of 3 a.m. mug shots, of huddling with cellmates to keep warm came flooding back. I suddenly felt the same emotions of humiliation and anger that I experienced when President Wagner confused me with the other Asian-biracial woman who was arrested and laughed off his mistake during our futile meeting with him and his lawyer following the open forum.
 
Twenty months later, the criminal charges against me and the six other arrested students have yet to be dropped. Emory has since misrepresented admissions data to falsely boost its ratings. Emory has since implemented cuts to liberal arts programs that disproportionately impact women and people of color after bypassing avenues of shared governance. On Friday, administrators – having surrounded themselves with armed guards – gave SRC representatives the run-around after promising to engage in good-faith negotiations. It is clear to me that the history of SWS’s efforts is intimately connected to the current campaign to reverse the cuts. Yet, surprisingly, few in the SRC are familiar with this history: in occupying the administration building on Tuesday, some even shouted, “This hasn’t happened in 40 years!” when, in fact, it had happened little more than a year ago.
 
While it infuriates me that the everyday struggle of poor, working-class cafeteria workers at Emory – who are without work and pay every holiday break, laid off every summer, and subject to intimidation for even thinking of ways to improve their lot – was of little concern to the majority of people at Emory, I understand it. I also understand that it took cuts to programs that directly impacted students and faculty to generate public concern and attract media coverage. But to analyze Emory administrators’ response to the SWS campaign is the only way to make sense of their patronizing attitude and absolute rejection of the legitimate demands of the SRC. Administrators believe that scheduling meetings upon meetings, crafting public relations statements, and sending out police to intimidate students will be enough. They got away with it before, and they think they can get away with it now.

As I leave Emory and transition from a student to an alumna of a recently eliminated graduate program, I hope that the SRC and the entire Emory community critically reflect on this administration’s behavior and record of failed leadership prior to the announcement of the cuts on September 14. I hope they recognize that these cuts are but a symptom of a more serious problem at Emory University, where corporate-style governance threatens our shared ideals of genuine social responsibility, ethical engagement, and social justice. Most of all, I hope that President Wagner realizes that co-opting the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement by comparing Emory administrators to courageous movement leaders, repeating the words “eminence” and “distinction” ad nauseam, and responding to real suffering with condescension is not going to fly in a community that is increasingly organized and justifiably outraged. While he has long been averse to admitting wrongdoing, it is never too late to do the right thing. I close with a quote from Reverend Joseph Lowery, whose words in a letter written in support of the arrested students in April 2011 are just as relevant today: “President Wagner, I call upon you to uphold your moral responsibility not only for the students, but for the entire community. Once again, in times of moral upheaval, it is students that point us toward the right course of action.”   
Laura Emiko Soltis is a Ph.D Graduate as of Fall 2012 from Northfield, Minnesota.