Last September the deans of Emory University’s College of Arts and Sciences and Laney Graduate School announced a fait accompli – cuts to program and curricula in the arts and humanities, among others. This came as a complete surprise to the entire faculty, though a few members subsequently said they saw it coming. College and university bylaws stipulate that the faculty has primary responsibility for the curriculum, but the only faculty consultation was with a small committee sworn to secrecy that only reported to the dean of the college.
In a recent fiasco, Emory University President James Wagner held up the 3/5 compromise that rendered black Americans 3/5 of a person for the purpose of representation as a model of compromise. Mostly lost in the uproar that has ensued is what he was trying to do: make an analogy between the 3/5 compromise over representation of black people in 1787 and now what he sees as the need for compromise over the future of liberal arts at Emory University. In its own horrible way it was an apt analogy because in both cases those making the decisions never remotely considered consulting those affected. In 1787 it was elite white leaders deciding. And in the present at Emory, it is only the administration deciding.
NPR’s Weekend Edition just interviewed Emory historian Leslie Harris about Wagner’s appeal to the 3/5 compromise, which she calls the Constitution’s “fatal flaw.” Moreover, she says,
“It’s based on an idea of democracy that we don’t really hold today. The way the 3/5 compromise got built was that a group of white men went into a building and decided what the rest of the nation would have to deal with in terms of the Constitution, not only for enslaved people but for women, for African Americans, for Native Americans who were still part of the U.S. at that point. That’s not really how we think about governance today or democracy.”
Nor is it how we should think about University governance today, but that seems to be exactly the way Wagner still thinks about it now. Even after all the apologies he’s made, he’s yet to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with the administration going into a building and fundamentally disenfranchising the faculty of the liberal arts, including, ironically, a disproportionate number of people of color.
Emory University President Jim Wagner’s recent piece in the Emory Magazine has created a huge stir because it invoked the 3/5 compromise (between the US North and South around slavery — leading slaves to be counted as 3/5 of a person) as a model of compromise during polarized political times, such as we have now. I won’t be surprised if this huge gaffe of Wagner’s — and his entire office — gets him fired. Better, he should just resign. But in the twitter firestorm that has ensued, little attention has been paid to the supposed polarization he was really pointing to: those who think the liberal arts are integral to human flourishing and those who don’t.
At Emory of late we have had many discussions about the ideal—and the reality—of the liberal arts within a research university. All of us who love Emory share a determination that the university will continue trailblazing the best way for research universities to contribute to human well-being and stewardship of the earth in the twenty-first century. This is a high and worthy aspiration. It is tempered by the hard reality that the resources to achieve this aspiration are not boundless; our university cannot do everything we might wish to do, or everything that other universities do. Different visions of what we should be doing inevitably will compete. But in the end, we must set our sights on that higher goal—the flourishing liberal arts research university in service to our twenty-first-century society.
As shocking as Wagner’s invocation of the 3/5 compromise to make a point is, let’s not lose sight of the point he was trying to make: that maybe the value of the liberal arts should be compromised. That is the issue he is addressing. But if there’s a debate on the value of the liberal arts, let’s have that debate. But rather than do so, the Emory University administration has been unilaterally deciding the outcome of this question. The vast majority of programs chosen for closure in the recent cuts at Emory have been in the arts and humanities. Rather than any open opportunity to come to a collective compromise, the process for the decisions (consulting a committee sworn to silence, which never kept minutes, and hugely underrepresented faculty in the humanities) compromised any chance that those targeted in the humanities could have their say.
So, in sum, Emory’s president uses an egregious example to make a case for compromise but is not in fact interested in real compromise at all.