An Apt Analogy?

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.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. Thanks Noelle for this insightful column. Notably, the “Payne” committee — soon to be elected — has as part of its charge to look at the whether the cuts impacted a disproportionate number of people of color.

  2. This might be a little off topic, but a recent post by Carlton Mackey led me to a very powerful collection (2011) of photographs and personal statements about race and identity at Emory, produced within the Emory Transforming Community Project:
    I hope this can be brought back into the conversation.

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