Emory Report

 October 13, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 8

First Person:

Will Emory bow or break
in the winds of social change?

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to develop a relationship with Emory have good reason to take pride in this institution. Throughout its history, Emory has stood out among its peers both regionally and nationally in its ability to venture into territory seen as controversial or treacherous in greater society. The University took a stand against segregation and was among the first universities in Georgia to admit African Americans.

The global perspective and reach of Emory's programs and initiatives place us among the leaders in American society in coming into step with our rapidly changing world at a time when the voices of ethnocentrism and isolationism are becoming more apparent. Emory has even come to include gays and lesbians in its nondiscrimination policies and benefits programs, despite the constant barrage of criticisms from the public, alumni and voices within the academy.

Throughout my tenure as an undergraduate, each year brought a new conflict to the University community that challenged Emory to reaffirm or reassess its values and the actions they informed. In the course of many of these conflicts, external actors took an active role in the discourse, pulling the situation into whatever political/cultural arena supported their particular end or goals. More important than how others use the events on our campus is how their criticisms affect our view of ourselves as a community and an institution.

The current controversy surrounds same-sex unions in campus chapels and the amount of influence the Methodist Church should exercise upon the policies of the University. This dispute is the latest in Emory's interaction with elements of society that deem any progressive action by the University an affront to the traditional conservatism encouraged by many academic institutions. As the Board of Trustees prepares to take definitive action on this issue at its November meeting, Emory is left to take stock of its underpinnings.

The potential weight of the University's reaction to the church's opposition to any attempts to embrace Emory's non-heterosexual family members struck me when I read a piece in the Sept. 15 issue of the neo-conservative magazine, The Weekly Standard. The opinion column, written by Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, criticizes Emory's divergence from what he deems "the fixed ethical standards upon which the great schools of Western civilization were established." According to Tooley, the University's extension of equal rights to gays, lesbians and bisexuals reflects "the rudderless thinking of academe."

It is quite possible that Tooley has a valid point in questioning Emory's course. He is not the first to do so. The sentiments he expresses are shared by a large contingent of individuals, including many of my fellow alumni. I have no doubt there are even people on our own Board of Trustees who sympathize with Tooley's concerns and his romantic view of the "fixed" ideals of Western civilization, whatever those ideals may be for him at this particular moment in political time.

Strangely enough, people like Tooley who oppose anything that could be perceived as "celebrating" homosexuality do not appeal to heterosexual tradition, but to Western tradition. There is an entire mythology of the "glorious" West and its virtues that any detailed worldview of history would temper. This mythology of the success of the Judeo-Christian European tradition over other world cultures establishes a constructed value system that would suggest that Emory is choosing to shuck the habits of the world's "winners" to embrace "lesser" philosophies or, worse, no particular philosophy at all.

Emory's refusal to state any unified, prepackaged philosophical truth as absolute truth set us apart from the pack and is, in my estimation, how we become a target for criticisms that rely on staid "Western tradition" arguments against embracing gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Despite my disagreement with Tooley's general premise, I believe he raises an important challenge in attributing Emory's actions to "rudderless thinking." If we as an institution do not embrace an identifiable guiding philosophy such as the Scriptures or the Western "ideal," then what exactly is steering our course?

In its present actions and previous history, the University has distinguished itself as an institution that seeks to pursue the "expanding boundaries" of truth in a global context. Emory takes its lessons from the global pot of knowledge as opposed to the preprocessed barrel of artificially flavored, ethnocentric thought supported by Tooley's arguments.

Even in taking clues from fellow Western societies, we see that many European nations as well as hybrid societies like South Africa have placed the rights of their lesbian/gay/bisexual/ transgendered communities more on par with the greater society. Nevertheless, the United States continues to hold out, championing itself as some sort of crowning jewel of Western civilization.

The challenge that faces Emory in this particular conflict is not simply a question of how gays, lesbians and bisexuals are treated in this community. In essence, the University is being asked to question the open-minded approach to community building and truth-seeking that have fueled the globalization of our programs, the support for initiatives that encourage an appreciation for non-Western cultures and belief systems, and the integration of multicultural and intercultural learning and experiences as fundamental elements of a liberal arts education.

Our institution is not rudderless, as Tooley would claim. Emory is guided by an emerging set of principles that do not stand in fear of cultural change and development, but rather celebrate the way in which societies move closer to learning how to peaceably interact with one another.

This dispute over Emory's policies with regard to its gay, lesbian and bisexual population is only a part of the larger backlash against institutions in modern society that choose to follow a similar route. As a community, we are left to ask whether we will allow our Board of Trustees to flinch and change course in response to the volatile winds of a changing culture or encourage them that our course is one well worth pursuing?

DyShaun G. Muhammad '97C is a coordinator in the Office of University Conferences and a member of the President's Commission on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Concerns.

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