Emory president's controversial column sparks broader discussion of leadership
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Earl Lewis’s assessment of what has transpired at Emory University over the past week and a half is simple: “Jim stepped in it.”
“Jim” is Emory President James W. Wagner, who earlier this month published a controversial column in Emory Magazine, the university’s alumni publication. In the column, Wagner, while attempting to elucidate the value of compromise at a national and institutional level, praised the three-fifths compromise, a deal struck in the formation of the U.S. Constitution that counted each slave in the South as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and Congressional representation.
"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," he wrote. "Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together."
Lewis noted that while the substance of the column -- the waning of compromise in American public life -- is an important point, the way Wagner spoke about the three-fifths compromise was a serious mistake. “It was the wrong example, and while the details might be there, the context itself was missing,” said Lewis, a scholar of history and African-American studies who served as provost under Wagner from 2004 until December, when he left to become president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “You can’t use the three-fifths example without talking about how it enshrined the institution of slavery in our system.”
The column has generated local and national attention, as well as condemnation from Emory faculty members and students, who say the statements reflect poorly on Emory and represent inadequate leadership by Wagner. Backlash came to a head Wednesday evening with a “Rally Against Racism” on campus. According to Emory officials, about 200 students turned out for the event, which functioned as a discussion of the issue and rallying cry to make the university more welcoming.
"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."
See Wagner's original column and statement.
Wagner has since apologized for the column, and his supporters see the remark as a rectifiable mistake by a competent manager who has generally been attentive to issues of diversity and sensitivity. Critics say Wagner's apology, which was appended to the column, was not a forceful enough renunciation of the original statement. Wagner did not comment for this story.
“I don’t think anybody can say that President Wagner is racist or anything else, but in making the point he was trying to make, he just did not view that part of the Constitution in the way that other people would look at it,” said Gray F. Crouse, a biology professor and chair of the University Senate. While faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences voted to censure Wagner last week, the University Senate did not.
Condemnation has been stronger from Wagner’s critics, particularly those already upset about decisions by his administration and a controversial set of proposed cuts in the university’s College of Arts and Sciences. They say the comments reflect an endemic problem with the institution under Wagner’s leadership, and call for broader changes in institutional governance -- with some calling for Wagner’s resignation.
“This is an administration that is isolated, shut out from diverse viewpoints, and it’s easy to see how something like this could happen,” said Katherine Bryant, a graduate student in neuroscience and a member of the Student Re-Visioning Committee, a group formed in opposition of the cuts proposed last fall. “I think this column is systematic of a broad problem that has to do with not communicating with the university, top-down management, and extreme tone-deafness.”
The response to Wagner highlights how clumsy statements – often on nonuniversity matters – can bring to the surface a host of pent-up institutional tensions and grievances, potentially undermining a president’s effectiveness and agenda, as in the case of former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, who, by the time he made comments about women in science that many saw as sexist, had already angered a number of constituencies on campus.
The reaction and conflation of Wagner’s statements and decisions about budgetary matters and institutional governance also reflect a broader alienation of faculty from decision-making processes at a time when universities are dealing with major challenges. That trend, in which faculty members, staff and students feel like administrators are making decisions without their input or buy-in, is leading to repeated confrontations between the camps across higher education.
Emory Since Wagner Launched Strategic Plan in 2005
Research support grew from $350 million to $519 million.
Annual Ph.D.s awarded grew from 162 to 243.
Acceptance rate dropped from 36 percent to 27 percent
International students grew from 3.8 percent to 12 percent of undergraduates.
Unrestricted giving grew from $110 million to $212 million.
Source: President’s Annual Report
One Record, Mixed Views
Wagner’s appointment as president of Emory in 2003 was somewhat unusual, given that Wagner’s academic background was in engineering and the university did not have an engineering school or even program. Wagner rose through the ranks of academic administration at Case Western Reserve University, and seemed to have a strong understanding of the value of liberal arts and university research, as well as how to succeed as an administrator, faculty members said.
Multiple faculty members, all of whom said they were troubled by Wagner's comments about the three-fifths compromise, said that Wagner has been a good leader for Emory. They point to the university’s standing in various national rankings, its ability to attract students and scholars, and Wagner’s handling of several external relations issues, including the revelation that the university submitted inaccurate data to U.S. News and World Report's annual rankings for more than a decade.
In his annual report this year, Wagner trumpeted a host of metrics that he said reflect the institution’s upward path, including growth in research support and the number of doctoral students, as well as improvement in graduation rate and increase in selectivity. Much of that was outlined in a 2005 strategic plan that set a series of goals on various metrics Wagner hoped to meet by 2015.
“Statistics and rankings never have been our primary focus, but they are — in some measure — the results of doing things right,” Wagner said in the annual report.
Under Wagner’s watch, Emory also launched and completed a fund-raising campaign that brought in $1.69 billion over seven years.
While Wagner's supporters see these improved metrics as a series of successes, Wagner’s critics point to some of the same things and say they represent an over-emphasis on external appearance. “It’s a preoccupation with perception and perceived short-term gains,” said Patrick Blanchfield, a graduate student in comparative literature who is also part of the Student Re-visioning Committee. Blanchfield and others point to the rankings controversy – which they attribute to Wagner and his administration, though he has not been found to have any explicit link to the controversy – as the ultimate example of this.
A Recurring Issue
Many of the controversies that Wagner has had to navigate during his time at Emory have centered on issues of race, gender and inclusivity. Emory has a complicated history of racial issues that predates Wagner’s time on campus, extending all the way back to the institution’s founding by slave owners. But Wagner has had to deal with a number of issues since taking office in 2003.
Shortly after Wagner arrived on campus, a white anthropology professor used the N-word in a departmental gathering. That incident led to a broader call for a campuswide discussion about race and gender in the institution and led to the creation of the Transforming Communities Project, a five-year initiative to discuss the university’s racial history and the institution’s role in the South that has since remained part of the university. In 2011, the university issued a statement of regret for "its entwinement with the institution of slavery throughout the college's early history."
Emory also recently acknowledged years of anti-Jewish actions in its dental school from 1948 to 1961.
When making the statement about slavery in 2011, Wagner said the university was capable and willing to look back at its history and deal with controversial issues in its past. That sentiment was echoed by multiple faculty members and administrators in interviews this week. “The university has a history of confronting issues head-on,” Lewis said.
Lewis said that during his time as provost he and Wagner – who both grew up outside Washington, D.C., and went to high school during integration – would have extensive discussions about issues of race at Emory, in Atlanta and in society. Lewis said Wagner had a general interest in ensuring that the university was an inclusive and welcoming place. “I can say with certainty that nobody has lost more sleep over this than Jim,” Lewis said of the current controversy.
But Lewis does point to a lack of understanding about the issue on Wagner’s part. “If there’s anything, I think there was disciplinary bias that revealed itself in this process,” he said. “Jim is a materials sciences engineer. He’s used to working through problems and finding solutions that are facts-based. In this case, he might have had the facts correct, but he didn’t understand the context.”
Crouse echoed Lewis's sentiments, pointing to research studies that show that few people are free from unconscious biases. “I think this is an example of how, within the context of the university, none of us wants to feel like we have any biases, like we have any blinders of insensitivity and so forth,” he said. “I wish that were true, but it’s probably not true of anyone. So my hope is that out of this we can all begin to ask ourselves, ‘What are my blind spots? What do I not understand?’ ”
Faculty members who support Wagner say his column was particularly surprising in light of how he has handled previous issues involving race at Emory. “This recent incident was very atypical, which is why it came as such a surprise to many of us here,” Crouse said. “He has really been very supportive of a variety of initiatives which have dared to look at Emory’s past.”
Backlash to the column has come in various forms from various stakeholder groups. Some groups want the institution to simply move past the comments, while others want to use the statement as a launching point for another round of dialogue about race at the institution, similar to the Transforming Communities Project.
There is also a group of scholars – including Lewis and Leslie Harris, a history professor who led the Transforming Campus Project – who are frustrated by the lack of understanding about the compromise and its failures.
And Lewis points to a final group of Emory stakeholders, those faculty and students who tend to view Wagner’s statements as part of a larger trend of administrative disengagement, as a group who is generally disaffected and unsatisfied with decisions the administration has made.
“There’s a group of people who are mad at everything that has happened in the past 10 years,” he said. “The world is changing and they have control over only some parts of that. They’re upset with Jim and me and a whole host of people.”
Buy-In and Speak Out
The faculty members and students who have most strongly called for greater accountability on Wagner’s part for the statement, including a proposed vote of no confidence in Wagner’s leadership, overlap heavily with the Student Re-Visioning Committee and others upset about the cuts proposed by the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in September.
That group, which held a protest in December and met with Wagner afterward – a meeting where, students said, Wagner and other administrators dismissed their concerns – has seized on the current controversy as another example of the administration failing to understand other viewpoints and not engaging with other campus stakeholders.
The group helped organize Wednesday’s protest and has been collecting information on its website, stopthecutsemory.com. They also put out a document detailing how the proposed cuts are likely to have a disproportionate impact on racial minorities, they argue. The administration has disputed that claim.
Multiple people have also pointed to a perceived irony in that the group who decided which programs were going to be slated for elimination did not include representatives of those programs, similar to how slaves weren’t represented at the 1787 convention where representatives struck the three-fifths compromise.
“There’s a lot of talk on campus about how much more time President Wagner has as president," Bryant, the neurosciences graduate student, said. “There are quite a few students and faculty who feel like it’s time for President Wagner to go.”
The programs slated for closure are educational studies, physical education, visual arts and journalism. The graduate programs in Spanish and economics are slated to be suspended while the college rethinks Emory’s goals for those programs. Resources freed up by the shift will allow the college to invest in a handful of new programs.
In a letter to the campus community at the time, Robin Forman, the dean, said the program cuts were “not in response to the deficit, and will play no role in reducing our expenses." Rather, the letter, said, "for the college to reach its intellectual goals requires more than simply breaking even; we must have the flexibility to make the investments that our aspirations require. All of the funds that will gradually become available through the changes I have described will be reinvested in the college, strengthening core areas and expanding into new ones."
Wagner still retains the support of his board on the cuts as well as in the wake of his column, and it seems unlikely – at the moment, at least – that he will go the way of Larry Summers. But the recent controversy is likely to make him less willing to speak out on particular issues, faculty members and others said. And they noted that that is a problem.
“I think the nation needs more higher education leaders prepared to step into the breach, the void, and engage in these thorny topics,” Lewis said. “The problem is that every time you make a misstep, you get bludgeoned. This is the question: How do we create space for leaders to raise important questions, and if they do it in a ham-fisted way, give them some space to recover?”