Reflecting on Emory’s Behavior: More Than Department Cuts

After six and a half years at Emory University, I am walking away from this campus next week with more than a Ph.D. – I am also leaving this institution with criminal charges on my record and a heart filled with mixed emotions. Participating alongside fellow students in the Student Re-visioning Committee (SRC) this past week lifted my spirits and gave me hope for Emory’s future, but it also brought to the surface difficult memories I had repressed.
Being in the administration building last Tuesday reminded me of when Students and Workers in Solidarity (SWS) filled the same halls in April 2010 and April 2011. Then as now, our goals were much more than protest for its own sake: we were seeking transparency in Emory’s labor contracting policies, accountability to ensure fair treatment of cafeteria workers, and an end to discriminatory practices, such as the exclusion of contracted workers from access to free MARTA passes that other Emory employees enjoy. When I gathered with others on the Quad last Friday afternoon to support SRC representatives as they entered Candler Library to meet with administration officials, I was expecting some security presence. But actually seeing so many police officers and cadets in the flesh had an effect on me I wasn’t anticipating: my heart pounded in my chest and my hands began to shake uncontrollably. I couldn’t stop thinking about that horrific day of April 25, 2011 when – after 18 months of belittling students, ignoring workers’ concerns, secretly renewing a five-year contract with Sodexo, and scheduling 14 meetings with students – Emory administrators unleashed armed police on myself and six of my friends. Our crime? We refused to leave the Quad until President Wagner agreed to hold a public forum on ensuring ethical standards in Emory’s contracting practices (after arresting us, of course, he held a public forum). Vivid memories of a night in a cold jail cell, of forced pregnancy tests, of 3 a.m. mug shots, of huddling with cellmates to keep warm came flooding back. I suddenly felt the same emotions of humiliation and anger that I experienced when President Wagner confused me with the other Asian-biracial woman who was arrested and laughed off his mistake during our futile meeting with him and his lawyer following the open forum.
Twenty months later, the criminal charges against me and the six other arrested students have yet to be dropped. Emory has since misrepresented admissions data to falsely boost its ratings. Emory has since implemented cuts to liberal arts programs that disproportionately impact women and people of color after bypassing avenues of shared governance. On Friday, administrators – having surrounded themselves with armed guards – gave SRC representatives the run-around after promising to engage in good-faith negotiations. It is clear to me that the history of SWS’s efforts is intimately connected to the current campaign to reverse the cuts. Yet, surprisingly, few in the SRC are familiar with this history: in occupying the administration building on Tuesday, some even shouted, “This hasn’t happened in 40 years!” when, in fact, it had happened little more than a year ago.
While it infuriates me that the everyday struggle of poor, working-class cafeteria workers at Emory – who are without work and pay every holiday break, laid off every summer, and subject to intimidation for even thinking of ways to improve their lot – was of little concern to the majority of people at Emory, I understand it. I also understand that it took cuts to programs that directly impacted students and faculty to generate public concern and attract media coverage. But to analyze Emory administrators’ response to the SWS campaign is the only way to make sense of their patronizing attitude and absolute rejection of the legitimate demands of the SRC. Administrators believe that scheduling meetings upon meetings, crafting public relations statements, and sending out police to intimidate students will be enough. They got away with it before, and they think they can get away with it now.

As I leave Emory and transition from a student to an alumna of a recently eliminated graduate program, I hope that the SRC and the entire Emory community critically reflect on this administration’s behavior and record of failed leadership prior to the announcement of the cuts on September 14. I hope they recognize that these cuts are but a symptom of a more serious problem at Emory University, where corporate-style governance threatens our shared ideals of genuine social responsibility, ethical engagement, and social justice. Most of all, I hope that President Wagner realizes that co-opting the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement by comparing Emory administrators to courageous movement leaders, repeating the words “eminence” and “distinction” ad nauseam, and responding to real suffering with condescension is not going to fly in a community that is increasingly organized and justifiably outraged. While he has long been averse to admitting wrongdoing, it is never too late to do the right thing. I close with a quote from Reverend Joseph Lowery, whose words in a letter written in support of the arrested students in April 2011 are just as relevant today: “President Wagner, I call upon you to uphold your moral responsibility not only for the students, but for the entire community. Once again, in times of moral upheaval, it is students that point us toward the right course of action.”   
Laura Emiko Soltis is a Ph.D Graduate as of Fall 2012 from Northfield, Minnesota.


  1. Alex 5 years ago

    Great article!

    The situation surrounding the cuts and the administration’s approach to student and worker concerns about Sodexo raise serious questions.

    Emory’s principles need to be descriptions of how they act and make decisions not merely marketing slogans and on the issues of the cuts, as well as Sodexo, Emory’s administration has failed to do so.

    Students realize this and should keep up the work holding Emory administration to account.

    Hopefully activists keep in mind the interconnected nature of their efforts and the history of activism at Emory. This oped does a good job reminding us of that.

  2. Could've done... 5 years ago

    …without the dramatics.

    The cops didn’t exactly beat you with truncheons at the SWS protest. They gingerly escorted you to jail. And what exactly is a “forced pregnancy” test outside of “pee on this.” You make it sounds like they gave you an abortion.

    1. Roger Sikes 5 years ago

      Spend some time in Dekalb Jail and then feel free to belittle.

    2. Public Defender 5 years ago

      I can attest that on intake, prison guards thoroughly feel women’s breasts and swipe their genital area to check for drugs or weapons. Guards also strip men naked and physically check for foreign objects in the genital and anal area. Women are also required to provide urine samples in cups – often in front of other inmates – and given mandatory and painful tuberculosis skin tests. This is what these students likely endured in Dekalb county jail.

    3. seriously 5 years ago

      You’re accusing the author of dramatics, and then you write this histrionic comment? Get over yourself.

    4. Pat Blanchfield 5 years ago

      @Could’ve – The author put her name to this story and shared it with the Wheel and the Emory community. Both of those acts took courage and an open heart – to say nothing of the moral fiber she showed in April. You used an anonymous account to mock her experience. What does that say about you?

  3. Another lame attempt by SWS 5 years ago

    …to whore the spotlight.

    1. huh 5 years ago

      that’s funny… since you’re the one trolling in the comments section.

    2. Emory Alum '10 5 years ago

      Gary Hauk is that you?

  4. Classof08 5 years ago

    Gotta love the class of the people who align themselves with President Wagner – calling Emory PhD students whores. Congrats to Dr. Soltis – now that is how you speak truth to power!

    1. an emory grad student 5 years ago

      Seconded! A truly powerful essay.

  5. Emory GSAS '13 5 years ago

    Don’t you remember the time Civil Rights leaders arrested student protestors, pressed charges, and then made a joke of how they couldn’t tell the ones of the same race apart?

    In other news, maybe Jimbo Wagner should stop comparing himself and his underlings to 60s icons of dissent and social justice, man up, and realize that as long as his employees behave like the police dogs on that Selma Bridge he’s no better than they are. At least the dogs were dogs and did it for biscuits – Pappy Jim says he does it for the “courageous inquiry” and 1.2$ million a year.

  6. DisappointedbySexism 5 years ago

    It’s unfortunate that persuasive writing by strong, intelligent women at Emory immediately draw comments or innuendos about her sexual behavior: “abortion,” “whore,” really? Another reason to believe the good ol’ boy network and sexism are alive and well in this community.

  7. BTNH 5 years ago

    I certainly don’t agree with the strategies and overarching concerns of the author – nevertheless, you have to wrestle with her descriptions of “corporate-style governance” and co-optation. Don’t even feed the trolls – there are real substantive issues here.

    My disagreements seem minor, but i feel that they would alter any conception of strategic (re)action. 1st – regarding, corporate-style governance: can we just say already that Emory has “corporate-governance.” I won’t do the work for you – but check out who sits on our ultimate decision making panel; the Board of Trustees (images of the Simpsons Stonecutters episode flash to mind). Who initiated the process of ‘cutting’ in the first place? Who brought in an accreditation firm? Who followed its dictates? To what ends are these evaluations made, and what ends ground the dependence on such external authorities? How pervasive is this fiscalization of ‘education’? Again, can we admit to ourselves that Emory is already several steps into its transformation from liberal arts university to professionalization academy; *and that this should not surprise us at all given the prevailing political situation in which universities play an indispensable role.* Education took a back seat to personal professional development here and elsewhere some time ago (though, not that there’s some pristine time before this one, either).

    I thank the author again for her thought-provoking words. But I submit that we must hasten our analysis. We cannot sit back, in the wake of the SWS arrests, and now in the handling of these cuts, to gather more evidence and half-step with our critiques. Not only have we reached the time for condemnation and denunciation, but these times have passed for many of us. Once we can admit that Emory does very little (and of course, the agency here is not some faceless phantom, ‘Emory’, but those with interests in the financial viability of the enterprise, i.e., those making bank – Board of Trustees, administrators, etc), perhaps nothing, for the ‘common good’, then we can oppose it how we will. If we really want to learn anything from the civil rights movement, it’s that power will concede nothing. We must change the political situation on campus so that the process of executive decision-making faces such incredible difficulty in the implementation phase that the political costs to Emory (e.g., its reputation, its ability to attract investors, etc) outweigh the political gains of initiating such executive decisions in the first place. This is a modest point. If we have learned anything from meeting with the administration, it’s that no rational, emotional, or intellectual appeal will alter their fundamental motivation for action, hence, it won’t alter their decisions. So the very humble point is this: if we want to communicate our desires to the administration, we must speak in a language they understand. That language is not verbal. It’s dollars. It’s investors. It’s order and stability (i.e., necessary conditions for the possibility of attracting investors). And so on.

    Again, thanks to the author for provoking the conversation(s).

  8. This has nothing to do with "good ol' boy sexism." 5 years ago

    It has everything to do with SWS people trying to use this, an issue people actually care about, to piggyback their hilarious protesting from last year, which people generally ridiculed. Those most responsible for getting this protest off the ground weren’t involved in the SWS nonsense at all.

  9. ConcernedCitizen 5 years ago

    A rousing, sincere essay that makes some very important connections between the academic program cuts and the mistreatment Sodexo cafeteria workers were and are going through. I applaud the author for making her experiences public and deeply caring about the Emory community.

  10. The Bottom Line is This 5 years ago

    The author’s article reeks of an “I was doing this before it was cool.” SWS does not deserve credit for the current round of protests. In fact, if SWS never happened, the current student leaders would probably have much more credibility with the administration than they do now.

    The videos of protesters sobbing as the grey-haired policemen were gently walking them off the quad were straight-up embarrassing to the entire Emory community, and made the protesters themselves seem like a bunch of privileged babies.

    Moreover, they were protesting about a complete non-issue; Emory giving non-employees the same rights as employees. Almost every alternative solution proposed by SWS to solve the cafeteria worker’s problem was ignorant. Give them parking passes? There isn’t enough parking for students and faculty as t is! Raise their wages? Not up to Emory, because they don’t set the wages. Hire a more labor-friendly contractor? That would put the very people you’re trying to save out of a job. Pay them over break? For what?? The cafeteria isn’t even open.

    The only reasonable solution was for Emory to pay for bus passes and, of course, SWS was too busy waving the bloody shirt to push that option.

    And NOW look where we are; Emory has a legitimate problem and people are still hesitant to get involved because they associate the current protest with SWS idiocy. You do NOT get to take credit for this. Go away.

    1. silver spoon. 5 years ago

      @The Bottom Line
      You offer a sobering glimpse at some of the privilege, ignorance and pompous isolation that often lurks just beneath the surface of those untouched by hardship.
      It’s bad when people are treated poorly whether they’re cafeteria workers or students. Some folks choose to do something about the situation and my hat goes off to them.

  11. Alex 5 years ago

    “The Bottom Line is This,” literally all of the objections that you claim prove SWS’ ignorance are wrong.

    Emory can set wages for contracted workers. In fact it already does mandate contractors pay a minimum wage higher than is required by federal and state law. It could require an increase to non-poverty wages if it chose to do so.

    Hiring a more labor friendly contractor would in no way displace the workers who are currently on campus. It is common practice in the industry for schools to require that all workers be rehired by a new contractor. It is a requirement that is inserted into contracts and nothing would prevent Emory from doing the same thing if it chose

    SWS made the MARTA bus pass issue one of its main asks for years, Emory refused. SWS never moved away from that request.

    The point about break layoffs is that people who work serving the Emory community every year for decades should have their health insurance lapse over break periods. People who our community depends upon for food shouldn’t face eviction from their homes while laid off during breaks.

    I am not sure what caused you to spew your invective laden post, but the information you present is incorrect.

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