Faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences at Emory University begin voting today on whether they still trust in the ability of embattled President James Wagner to lead the university. The online voting will continue through Friday.
I have been getting a lot of emails both for and against Wagner, who sparked a firestorm with a recent essay in which he cited the infamous 1787 “three-fifths compromise” as an example on how leaders reach agreements.
Established in the give-and-take of shaping the U.S. Constitution, the compromise counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of distributing funds back to states and determining representation in Congress.
Writing in Emory Magazine, Wagner used the compromise as an example of how people with conflicting views can find common ground.
One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—“to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.
Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it.
His essay elicited widespread condemnation, and he apologized for his “clumsiness and insensitivity.”
A number of people have raised questions regarding part of my essay in the most recent issue of Emory Magazine. Certainly, I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman. I should have stated that fact clearly in my essay. I am sorry for the hurt caused by not communicating more clearly my own beliefs. To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me.
But the issue refuses to fade away.
Wagner has already been dealing with the fallout of a controversial decision to close Emory’s educational studies division, its physical education department, its visual arts department and its journalism program and suspend admissions to the graduate programs in Spanish, economics and the Institute of Liberal Arts. The savings will allow Emory to bolster such growing areas as neurosciences, contemporary China studies and digital and new media studies. But the cuts upset many students and faculty on the campus, and protests resulted. (Here is an interview with Wagner that touches on the program cuts.)
Distressed over Wagner’s leadership and communication style, faculty members in the College of Arts and Science decided to vote to determine their level of confidence in Wagner.
A “no confidence” majority vote would not send Wagner packing as the Emory board of trustees controls whether the president stays or goes. And Wagner still retains the support of the board. But a vote of no confidence would certainly undermine Wagner.
When news first broke about Wagner’s citing of the three-fifths compromise in his President’s Letter essay, AJC higher ed reporter Laura Diamond talked to some folks about the remark.
Among the comments in her story:
“It was a terrible misfire, ” said Mark Auslander, an anthropology professor at Central Washington University who taught at Emory and wrote about the college’s racial history. “Jim Wagner has a significant track record for work on social justice and issues with racism and slavery, but even for us who admire and support him, that letter is just baffling and even incomprehensible.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog