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Emory president needs a filter

On 'compromise,' you're doing it wrong



There are lots of ways to celebrate Black History Month. They don't even have to be terribly reverent. For instance, I've made an effort to work peanut butter into every meal I eat to honor the alleged (!) innovation of George Washington Carver, and in my spare time I'm tackling a few projects from former New York Giants defensive tackle Rosey Grier's 1973 book Needlepoint for Men. (I hope you notice that "tackling" was a pun.)

Also notice that Grier's book is called Needlepoint for Men, and not Needlepoint for Three-Fifths of a Man. Which brings me to the hands-down-worst way to celebrate Black History Month: writing an editorial for a school publication in which it sounds a lot like you're implying that the Three-Fifths Compromise was cool.

Really briefly: The Three-Fifths Compromise was an agreement reached by the North and the South in 1787 to count three-fifths of a state's slave population when determining representation in the House of Representatives. The South wanted all slaves to be counted to pad their populations; the North thought that was a dumb approach, since slaves didn't have the right to vote.

It is, certainly, an example of two opposing sides of a constitutional question reaching an agreement. But it also carries with it the implication that individual slaves didn't count as whole people.

Other examples of political compromise certainly exist. Maybe hundreds? But Emory University President James Wagner found an analogy he liked and ran with it in a column he wrote for Emory Magazine's winter edition. In the piece, he used the Three-Fifths Compromise as an example of political pragmatism for a greater good. He compared that to modern politics and, in the piece's second-to-last paragraph — talk about burying your lede — the necessity of making massive cuts to a number of the school's liberal arts programs.

After referring to the Three-Fifths Compromise as a "pragmatic half victory," Wagner went on to say, "Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it."

Unsurprisingly, people haven't responded well to Wagner's column. Some members of the university's departments of History and African American Studies urged Wagner to "be careful about the compromises you hold up for emulation." The editorial board of student newspaper the Emory Wheel called his apology "unconvincing." One group has already called for his resignation. A rally focusing on Wagner's comments, and general racism on campus, is scheduled for Feb. 27. Current and former Emory students began posting apologies, jokes, and laments on a Tumblr called "At Emory: We Are Sorry." A good number of the posts are as dedicated to protesting program cuts as they are his remarks.

The comments come on the heels of a handful of recent race-related controversies, not to mention the fact that the school only apologized in 2011 for the fact that its history is intimately intertwined with slavery. In December, student faux-news TV program "The Dooley Show" was called out for making racially insensitive remarks during an on-air skit. Wagner slashed the liberal arts program last fall, outraging students and faculty, some of whom pointed out that the cuts disproportionately affect minorities.

It's hard to understand how a longtime academic who leads one of the country's preeminent universities and serves on the board of the Carter Center was able to sit down at his typewriter, tippity-tap the whole essay out, read the piece over one more time, wipe his brow, and say to himself, "I've done a great job here." These weren't off-the-cuff comments or quotes that were taken out of context by some cub reporter with the school newspaper. According to the Wheel, the piece was reviewed by several people before publication, all of whom were white. Emory Vice President Gary Hauk told the paper that, in the future, the university's leadership must be "much more conscious about addressing to make sure there are other eyes, other perspectives that we may not be thinking about."

As awkward as it was to compare Emory's financial pickle and course cuts to an unseemly constitutional compromise — and to go a step further and say that compromise was way cooler than anyone gives it credit for — doesn't necessarily mean Wagner's racist. One sloppy, insensitive comment does not a Klansman make. But it does make him look ignorant and oblivious, and bodes poorly for his authority in the debate over program cuts. If anything, Wagner's comments give opponents of his administrative decisions extra ammunition in their efforts to point out flaws in the university's leadership.

More than just reminding Wagner what things do and don't make good analogies, perhaps this incident will encourage him to research some more pragmatic compromises in our nation's history. He could use that information as his university "reallocates" its resources in ways that have proven overwhelmingly unpopular. There are still a few days left in February.

Back to my needlepoint.

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