There is nothing safe about democracy

Recently my university has gotten caught up in a brouhaha about a supposed chalk controversy, with many Latino and Muslim students taken aback by “Trump 16” chalkings across campus and, supposedly, the university caving in to their fear and terror over political sloganeering. The dichotomy being portrayed is democracy versus “safe spaces.”

There is some truth to students wanting Emory to be a Trump-free zone, given that Trump regularly demonizes and literally wants to extrude many of those living here, which would include a significant portion of our student body.  Who wouldn’t be a bit terrorized by that? And, yes, these students did march to the president’s office requesting some response from the university to address their concerns about the climate and policies on campus. Yes.

And, yes, the president did respond to their concerns in an email to the whole Emory community,

As an academic community, we must value and encourage the expression of ideas, vigorous debate, speech, dissent, and protest. At the same time, our commitment to respect, civility, and inclusion calls us to provide a safe environment that inspires and supports courageous inquiry. It is important that we recognize, listen to, and honor the concerns of these students, as well as faculty and staff who may feel similarly.

Many in the press are claiming that the Emory administration is caving into “coddled” students demands, but I don’t see a trade-off between free speech and creating a good culture for open inquiry. Students are free to express their concerns. The university is free to help foster open inquiry.

But the aim for a “safe” environment is misbegotten. There is nothing safe about democracy. In fact, as we’re finding now in these days of Trump, democracy can be horrifying: what if the mass of people make a disastrous and unjust choice? Yes, that’s always a possibility.  At least we’ve got a bill of rights, however weak, to do some protection against demagogues.

But the search for safety runs right up against and contradicts the search for rule by the people. Democracy always teeters on the unknown and it can never tether itself to the certain and true, for these words are meaningless when “what is to be done” is “whatever the people decide.” Yes, this is frightening. No safe space will help. Instead we all need to be more courageous and step up, even if in the short run that means aiming a waterhose at the Trump chalkings, and the next day holding a rally about why you did so.

A Bad Year Gone

I can hardly believe the year that has just passed.  At the beginning of it I would never have imagined that people would stop and praise me for my mastery of Robert’s Rules of Order or for my leadership on campus.  A year ago today I’d never read RRO and I was still very much a newcomer to my campus.  But then this past September the dean of Emory’s College of Arts and Sciences announced a roster of cuts to undergraduate and graduate programs and everything for me changed.

One of the programs he cut was one that my husband was teaching in as a senior lecturer, so that was an immediate incentive.  I suppose I could have then gone to the dean and tried to strike a deal, but I didn’t.  It seemed better to stand up on principle for everyone so affected, not just those with my particular circumstances. I got deeply involved because I’m a democrat all the way down, and the long-standing principles of faculty governance call for faculty control of the curricula.  Emory’s administration just swatted that principle away as if it were a gnat.  I find this abominable.

So I got deeply involved in the newly reconstituted Emory chapter of the American Association of University Professors.  And  I spoke up often during faculty meetings and occasionally on the college faculty listserv.  And I posted a bit on this blog about what was going on.

Colleges and universities across the country and the world are under financial pressure.  But the stupidest thing they can do is cut programs.  This is the time to expand the crucial role of higher education not the time to shrink it.  The leaders of my U are definitely leaning stupid.  Buck up, guys.  Get it together.  Don’t succumb to the marketization of the university.

I’m hopeful that our new provost, a gal, Claire Sterk, can help Emory chart a better direction. And maybe the board of trustees will wake from their deep slumber and realize that they have some fiduciary responsibility to make sure that the bylaws of the university, which guarantee its nonprofit status and its accreditation with SACS, are actually being followed–but which are not.

And here’s  link to Emory’s board of trustees.

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.

Public Philosophy Network comes to Emory

Hey there friends, I’m organizing this conference and there’s still time to get on the program:

Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy, March 14-16, 2013, Emory University Conference Center, Atlanta, Georgia, Keynote Speaker: Elizabeth Minnich

Early Registration extended to February 8, 2013. Those who register early pay a lower fee and will be listed on the program as discussants for any workshop they get in. Workshops are filling up quickly. TO REGISTER GO HERE:  

The Public Philosophy Network (PPN) brings together theorists and practitioners engaged in public life. Rather than merely try to apply theoretical insights to practical problems, PPN seeks to create spaces for mutual reflections on the meanings of public problems and the practice of philosophy itself.  PPN engages theorists and practitioners online and offline, online through its interactive web space and offline through its national conferences that occur every 18 months.

A key feature of the conferences is the participatory workshops on a range of issues related to publicly engaged philosophy.  Additionally there are plenaries, paper sessions, and organized sessions, though all aim to be participatory models of public engagement.  Workshop topics for the upcoming conference are listed below; for full descriptions and the full conference program, go to:

The 2013 conference is sponsored by Emory University and co-sponsored by the American Philosophical Association, George Mason University, Penn State University’s Rock Ethics Institute and Michigan State University.

After registering for the conference, you will be prompted to sign up for workshops, listed below.



•           Taking Philosophy into the Field of Science and Technology Policy: Toward a Paradigm for Publically Engaged Philosophy, facilitators:  Adam Briggle, J. Britt Holbrook, Robert Frodeman, and Kelli Barr, U. North Texas.

•           Philosophy Behind Prison Walls, Pedagogy, Praxis, and Infrastructure, facilitators:  Brady Heiner, California State University, Fullerton; John D. Macready, University of Dallas; Marianne Patinelli-Dubay , SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

•           Creating Public-Public Partnerships: Utilizing Universities for Participatory Budgeting, facilitators:  Michael Menser and Kwabena Edusei, Brooklyn College

•           Streets, Surfaces, and Sounds, facilitator:  Gray Kochhar-Lindgren, Univeristy of Washington Bothell

•           Race, the City, and the Challenge of Praxis, facilitators:  Ron Sundstrom, University of San Francisco; Frank McMillan, Organizer, VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith CommunityEngagement)

•           Performing Philosophy:  Participatory Theater as a Means of Engaging Communities Philosophically, facilitators:  Sharon M. Meagher and Hank Willenbrink, University of Scranton

•           Using Non-Cooperative, Experiential Games to Teach Sustainability Ethics, facilitator:  Jathan Sadowski, Arizona State University

•           Scientific Advisory Committees, Controversial Issues and the Role of Philosophy, facilitators:  Paul Thompson, Michigan State University; Bryan Norton, Georgia Tech University; Mr. Gene Gregory, former President and CEO of the United Egg Producers; Kyle Powys Whyte, Michigan State University


•           Philosophy of/as Interdisciplinarity Network (PIN) or Philosophy and Interdisciplinarity: Reflecting on and Crossing Boundaries, facilitators:  Adam Briggle, J. Britt Holbrook, Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas; Jan Schmidt, Darmstadt University; Michael Hoffmann, Georgia Tech

•           Challenging the Culture of Sexual Violence: Moral Literacy and Sexual Empowerment as Tools of Transformation, faciliators:  Sarah Clark Miller and Cori Wong, Penn State University; Ann Cahill, Elon College.

•           Engaged Philosophy and Just University-Community Partnerships, facilitators:  Dr. Ericka Tucker, Cal Poly Pomona University and Emory University; Dr. Vialla Hartfield-Méndez and Letitia Campbell, Emory UniversitY; Hussien Mohamed, Director of Sagal Radio, OUCP.

•           Hip-Hop as Public Philosophy, faciliatators:  Roberto Domingo, Stony Brook University; Jo Dalton, French rap-producer, activist, and former gang leader ; Amer Ahmed, Chair of the National Hip-Hop Congress;  Michael Benitez  Jr., Director of Intercultural Engagement and  Leadership, Grinnell College

•          Sagacity and Commerce, facilitator:  David E. McClean, Rutgers University, Molloy College

•           Practical Epistemology and Sustainable Inquiry, facilitators:  Karen Hanson and Naomi Scheman, University of Minnesota

•           Public Philosophy Journal: Performing Philosophy as Publication, facilitators:  Christopher Long and Mark Fisher, Penn State University.

•           Equity and Climate Change: Opportunities for Research, Teaching, and Advocacy, faciliators:  Andrew Light, George Mason University and Center for American Progress; and Paul Baer, Georgia Tech