Campus News

May 25, 2011

New task force to examine dissent and community

How the Emory community chooses to engage in civil discourse—including protest and dissent—will be reviewed and discussed throughout the summer and into the academic year, according to President Jim Wagner, who spoke at a May 11 open forum requested by faculty and co-hosted by the University Senate and the Committee on Class and Labor. 

Much of the forum was dedicated to questions from the Emory community, since the session was designed "to pursue constructive dialogue" following the arrest of students in April, said facilitator Mark Sanders, associate professor of English.

As part of the continuation of that dialogue, Wagner announced that a university task force, chaired by law professor Frank S. Alexander, will study how to balance dissent and protest with academic freedom and academic community.

Wagner said Theophus (Thee) Smith, associate professor of religion and a longtime facilitator for the National Coalition Building Institute, has agreed to assist Alexander in the work of the committee, and a small number of other faculty will be appointed to the task force. Their charge, said Wagner, will be to prepare a white paper and vet it broadly, "to advise us on everything from principle to policy," with the eventual goal of recommending guidelines.

The forum was requested by faculty after the arrest of seven students for trespassing following a five-day "tent village" on the Quadrangle in April.  The students, from Emory and other local colleges, have expressed ongoing concerns about Emory's food service provider, Sodexo.

A review of the broader issue of all worker relationships at Emory actually began in February, when the Committee on the Study of Class and Labor was formed to explore the nature of status and the relationships between different categories of staff and faculty within Emory.

"We will be looking to [that committee] to help make recommendations on this next level of issues on how … Emory relates to its contract workers and, more broadly, to all its workers," said Wagner. The committee is "one of the groups that will be holding more open meetings and conversations around specific topics as they move forward in that process."

Provost Earl Lewis noted that as a labor historian, he is especially aware of the need to address all aspects of class and labor. "This will be a multi-stage process," said Lewis. "We are starting this first conversation, looking at non-academic labor across the board. The next phase will look at academic labor. The third phase will look at the relationship between academic labor and non-academic labor, and the fourth phase will look at the relationship between students and all labor on campus." 

As for the disposition of the case involving the students, Wagner said he would have a follow-up meeting with the four Emory students who were arrested (two others were from Georgia State, and one from Georgia Tech) to explore their own interests and intentions with regard to their legal situation. He said the students had indicated both that they were prepared to have their criminal charges tried in court and that they were considering a possible lawsuit against the University.

Regarding Sodexo, Wagner said that since spring semester 2010, he and members of Cabinet have met nine times with Students and Workers in Solidarity (SWS) representatives to discuss their concerns, and that administrators are working with SWS representatives to confirm the list of issues raised to date by the students. The goal, said Wagner, is to reach "agreement of what the very specific issues are. There has, quite frankly, been some fluctuation on those over time."

Wagner indicated that he welcomed ongoing discussions and recommendations by faculty, students and staff. Dissent and protest, he noted, are critical to a university. "Few places left on the planet actually welcome, let alone insist upon, people with opposing views coming together to engage."

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