Community response to the president’s message, winter 2013

Since February 17, Emory Magazine has received more than seventy letters in response to the president’s message from a wide range of writers, many unaffiliated with Emory. What follows is a sampling of responses from alumni, students, and others who have a connection with the university.

To see letters responding to other articles in Emory Magazine, click here.

As a history professor and citizen, I join [President James] Wagner in advocating moral and financial support for the beleaguered liberal arts (message from the president, “As American as . . . Compromise,” winter 2013). But his description of the “three-fifths compromise” as a praiseworthy example of the type of political compromise dedicated to achieving a “more perfect union” is evidence that the critical inquiry at the heart of liberal arts education is fading from our public life. His statements about this compromise are morally objectionable, bad history, and present an impoverished view of American democracy. The efforts of black and white Americans to contest this compromise, the racist assumptions and exploitative practices of the institution of slavery, and the detrimental legacies of that institution since 1787 reveal that our political culture has been defined by conflict as well as compromise.
Brian Luskey 04PhD
Associate Professor, Department of History, West Virginia University

While I realize the challenges President Wagner faces as Emory’s president are very real and serious, using the three-fifths compromise as a model for approaching university matters is in very poor taste. The three-fifths compromise was an offensive agreement where both sides’ ideals and motivations were deeply flawed and self-serving. Each side was motivated by their own political and financial interests in a mockery of human dignity. I would urge both the president and the editors of Emory Magazine to apologize for this and use better discretion in their future publications.
Max Weiss 13M

President Wagner’s comments hailing the three-fifths compromise as an example of an admirable compromise [were] greatly hurtful and offensive. As a black woman who attended Emory, I felt there was very little done to promote the well-being of the African Americans and other underrepresented minorities at the school. Emory, in addition to failing to offer a supportive and welcoming environment, is proving to be a racially insensitive and offensive institution. And this most recent development is deplorable. Did no one else think that maybe that would offend people? Are the feelings of the African American sect of the Emory population, the group of people whose ancestors were slaves, unimportant? I am hurt that my university, the university that I used to represent with pride, would allow this.
Jordan Marie Curry 10B
New York, New York

As an Emory graduate, I was quite embarrassed by the hysterical overreaction to the insightful article by President Wagner in the winter 2013 issue. Those who felt the article was insensitive seemed to have missed the point that I believe Dr. Wagner was making. That is, a government such as ours can only function well in a spirit of tolerance and compromise—not by clinging to extreme ideological positions (both right and left) which seems to be an ever growing affliction of our representatives in Washington. The recent censure of President Wagner by the faculty was equally disturbing. Although the purpose of a top-notch university such as Emory should include promotion of new ideas, respectful debate and, above all, academic freedom of speech, it sadly appears as though the characteristically intolerant ideology of “political correctness” continues to steadily increase its control over academic life. It would be refreshing to see some undergraduate students courageously taking on these issues rather than simply dwelling on items of perceived “insensitivity.”
Bill Murdy 80C
Brunswick, Georgia

I feel compelled to provide my perspective as an alumna of both Emory College and the Rollins School of Public Health. I was surprised that the statement was written and published. The wide earnings, education, and health gaps between white and black Americans are very well documented and many Americans engage in an uphill battle to financial and emotional stability that was created by the very history President Wagner uses as support for the ideals of compromise. The fact that he failed to mention this immorality at all reflects a lack of diversity in his own thoughts and the ideas and individuals with which he engages. In President Wagner’s response to his original essay, he states that slavery is repugnant and human beings should not be property, but that without the5three-fifths compromise, we may never have become the nation we are today. He uses this point to further contend that compromise in a time of polarization may seem as though one is failing to strive for the longest possible stride, when in fact it strengthens the union of stakeholders involved, which is likely to bolster the goals in the long run. This is an important point to make. However, President Wagner was correct to note that neither the framers nor ourselves can possibly know what would have happened in the absence of this compromise. In addition to the counterfactual scenario President Wagner took the liberty of offering as the sole alternative, many other historical paths could have been tread, which may not have precluded the existence of our noble but imperfect experiment, the United States. Perhaps some minimum threshold of moral repugnance would rather have set a positive historical precedence for the continent, but without knowing the alternative outcome or having any means of obtaining this information, he fails entirely to support his point. And does so quite colorfully. President Wagner’s response fails to acknowledge the real issues of this blunder.
Naomi B. Zewde 10C 11MPH

President James W. Wagner’s recent article in the Emory Magazine where he cited the three-fifths agreement from the civil war era as a good example of constitutional compromise was arguably a poor choice. However, I am also concerned about the degree and tone of criticism and censure directed towards President Wagner in reaction to this citation. To cast aspersions on the entire persona and career of Dr. Wagner based on this error in judgment seems disproportionate. Those who have expressed a hyperbolic inability to “fathom” how or why a person of his office could have used such an example, fail to appreciate that it is indeed possible to cite the now infamous reference as a good example of constitutional compromise while never remotely believing the treatment of blacks as chattel to be anything but reprehensible. To cite a relevant historic incident as a good example of compromise is not the same as validating the underlying subject matter of the compromise. As a former member of Emory University’s Board of Visitors, I have had opportunities to come to know the university a bit better. I have been impressed with its civic engagement and outreach. And as an editor of an Atlanta-based Indian-American magazine I have often said that Emory does more to highlight South Asian issues and people than the South Asian community itself can. Nothing in my three-year engagement with the University as a BOV member suggests racial prejudice or insensitivity. I don’t believe the “crime” deserves the kind of censure that has been lobbed the way of Dr. Wagner.
Parthiv N. Parekh
Suwanee, Georgia

As members of the National Lawyers Guild at Emory, we were dismayed to read President James Wagner’s column, “As American as. . . Compromise.” In it, President Wagner extolled the virtues of political compromise in polarized times, citing as a salient example the three-fifths compromise. The “compromise,” forged between Northern and Southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention, debased enslaved persons of African ancestry by counting them as less than a whole person for purposes of political representation. Although relieved that President Wagner has since apologized for his insensitivity, we are still distressed with his emphasis on this repugnant “compromise.” In his original column and subsequent remarks, Wagner touts it as a means for the founders to achieve their “highest aspiration”—the Constitution. Our shared moral revulsion stems not just from the compromise itself but his reaffirmation of the framers’ placement of federal unity above that of human equality. Ironically, perhaps President Wagner’s analogy is apt. As he notes, the shortsightedness of the three-fifths compromise created a weaker nation resulting in eighty years of turmoil and a civil war. What is the highest aspiration of a university, of this university? Has Emory attempted to justify systemic changes by appealing to a “higher ideal” that, in truth, falls far short of the mark? We urge President Wagner to embrace his own call for compromise by engaging the full spectrum of voices at Emory in defining the future of our university. As the three-fifths compromise has taught us, a political compromise forged by marginalizing whole segments of our population is doomed to fail. To the extent that the university excludes concerned students and faculty from the process of re-envisioning our collective future, the university will founder in achieving its higher goal of flourishing in service to our society.
Members of the National Lawyers Guild at Emory

Political correctness run amok! It is embarrassing to witness the ignorance demonstrated by those who are outraged by the use of an historical fact by Dr. Wagner in his discussion of compromise. I am especially disappointed that Dr. Harris, a history professor no less, would make the statements she did. The three-fifths compromise was, in fact, successful—it allowed the creation of a nation which may well not have occurred had the compromise not been accepted. I fear the true history of our country is being buried by today’s academia. I am equally disappointed that Dr. Wagner gave a “politically correct” apology, rather than explaining the historical significance and actual meaning of the three-fifths to those more concerned with emotions than knowledge.
W. C. Lang Jr. 65C 68M 70MR 75MR

Obviously Wagner isn’t holding up a rebel flag, but did no one find it disturbing that the decision to account for a black person as a portion of a person was mentioned merely as an example of good compromise? It’s certainly better thanszero-fifths, but that is under the assumption that the country was operating in some form of normalcy and slaves were being done a favor by being given any rights at all. Do you understand that? Did no one realize the two parties discussing the matter of their “property” in such an “admirable” compromise were excluding a considerable portion of the population in this so-called democratic vote? Was there really no better example of compromise in US history? It’s disturbing that the president of a prestigious university and the editors are so nonchalant in your moral deficiency and you promote your racist understanding of the world in the guise of academia. As an editor, did you not have any reservations about this article? Please examine yourself because you are a big contributor to the problems in this world if you cannot understand what is wrong with this.
Jordan Washington 09OX 11C
Spring, Texas

I am sure you are beset with emails and irate letters from not only alumni but also plain citizens who found Wagner’s piece repugnant. To be honest, I read it when it came out, and although it struck me as a strange example to use in an issue still red hot like slavery and the South; I did not take umbrage. And I was the student who castigated Emory in the Wheel in 1957 because it had no black students, yet required the student body to attend chapel during “Brotherhood Week.” I hope Emory Magazine will continue to be a scale upon which to balance the views of the administration, the faculty, the students, and the alumni of this great Southern institution.
David Pearson 58C
Miami, Florida