March 17, 2003

Speaking of war

Jim Grimsley is senior writer in residence and director of the creative writing program.

A few months ago, at a meeting of the Faculty Council, President Bill Chace reported on a recent visit of the American Association of Universities’ presidents to Emory. During this several-days-long visit, President Chace heard stories of incidents of unrest on college campuses, related to the war on terrorism and, in particular, to the escalating talk of a renewed war with Iraq.

His concern, as I recall his expression of it, was that we had large parts of our community who fell on different sides of the war issue, and that we also have a number of groups being personally affected by this talk of war.

President Chace challenged us, as members of the council, to find a way to prepare our campus for this kind of unrest, and, as often happens at such meetings, a new committee was born, styled as the Ad Hoc Committee on Academic Freedom. Bruce Knauft, Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology, and I were selected to be co-chairs of this committee.

Bruce and I, after discussion, proposed a series of two or three lunches with students to be held early in the spring semester. The plan was to gather faculty and students to share stories about tensions as they existed already on our campus and to form ideas as to what action to take. We took this plan to the council, and it was approved.

Our ambitions for these meetings soon led us to realize that we should include members of the University staff, too. I contacted my FAME partner, Bridget Guernsey Riordan of Campus Life, to get some idea as to who would be a good staff person to help us reach the various student groups.

Bridget suggested Donna Wong, associate director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, who greeted this idea enthusiastically and got to work immediately.

We held our first meeting on Jan. 31, and it proved to be one of the most stimulating events I have attended in my four years here at Emory. Donna gathered a group of students from the Muslim Student Association, the Black Student Alliance, College Council, Student Government Association, Hillel, the Persian Club and the Arab Student Association.

The ensuing conversation surprised me in many ways. I knew that Emory had a dynamic student body but was overwhelmed by the openness of the discussion. The students said, almost in the same breath, that what would help them most to deal with the tensions a war would cause would be to hear what the faculty had to say on the subject.

From this conversation emerged an idea we call “Classroom on the Quad.” At the time, we referred to this event as a “teach-in” or open forum similar to the ones conducted here after the events of Sept. 11.

We planned a meeting for the following Friday that would include a larger representation of groups, including College Republicans, Young Democrats and other student groups. We learned of a group of students and faculty in political science that proposed holding a series of local forums around the campus, inviting students to a moderated discussion of U.S. foreign policy. This group, under the direction of professors Larry Taulbee and Rick Doner, called itself the Emory Foreign Policy Exchange and joined our planning efforts while continuing its own work.

This second meeting was even better than the first, and all the new voices in the room endorsed the idea of a campuswide forum about the possible war. We decided to peg the event to the start of hostilities, feeling that the fact of a real war would disturb a large percentage of the students, staff and faculty, and would create a need for the community to come together.

Conservative voices and liberal voices, pro-war and anti-war people at the meeting all agreed to pursue this strategy. As I recall, we were still referring to the event as a “teach-in” at that point, though within the next few days we would learn of a number of anti-war teach-ins taking place across the country. In order to make it clear that our forum would be a balanced one—what Rick Doner referred to as “multipartisan rather than nonpartisan”— we decided on the name Classroom on the Quad.

Classroom on the Quad will take place from 1–3:30 p.m. on the Quadrangle, with approximately 20 speakers talking for five minutes apiece on many subjects related to the possible war with Iraq. Some speakers will be pro-war, others anti-war, and some simply are providing information. We have invited undergraduate and graduate students to speak, and we have included members of the University staff, among them a war veteran.

The event will be held two to three days after the beginning of hostilities, and will be followed up, if our plans succeed, by smaller moderated discussions hosted by the Emory Foreign Policy Exchange. We believe the greatest need for this discussion will occur after hostilities start.

We are asking that all classes in session during the forum come to the Quad as a group and listen. President Chace, Dean Bobby Paul, Dean Peter Dowell, Dean Priscilla Echols and Dean Nagueyalti Warren have endorsed this plan; we have reached out to all the deans of Emory’s various schools for their support as well.

Since we are convening the Quad as a giant classroom, we are asking that all members of the community come to listen, to open their minds to all points of view, and to forego demonstrations, banners and anti-war or pro-war chants, in favor of an exercise of listening. We have challenged each of our speakers to envision a listener of good will who disagrees vehemently with the speaker’s positions; we want each speaker to speak respectfully to those who might disagree with his or her point of view.

Will we succeed at such an idealistic undertaking? We all know that people of good will disagree on how the business of the world should be conducted. At this moment, when such disagreements can become profound, we have the chance to demonstrate that real peace is possible on our campus, at least, even in such unsettled times as these.