Univ. Board of Trustees Affirms Dept. Changes

Emory’s Board of Trustees has affirmed the department changes announced in mid-September, the Wheel has learned.

Chairs of journalism, visual arts and educational studies departments and directors of the Institute for Liberal Arts (ILA) and economics graduate program submitted a joint letter to the Board on Nov. 6 expressing their discontent with the decision. The Board met two days later on Nov. 8 and “affirmed its support for the decisions and processes of Dean [of College Robin] Forman and the University administration,” according to an email to concerned faculty from Rosemary Magee, vice president and secretary to the University.

The Board has, up until this point, been quiet on the controversial department changes. In light of mounting criticism shortly after the announcement, Forman said that the Board had approved his plan at a July 8 meeting earlier in the summer. Still, many saw the Board as the only authority that could reverse the plan.

In the department chairs’ letter, faculty members wrote that the changes would “significantly undermine Emory’s commitment to the liberal arts” in the fields of “the development of critical thinking, independent mindedness and free inquiry into the human and natural worlds we inhabit.”

The department changes, they wrote, would send the message that Emory “is a place of narrow rather than broad academic opportunity, that its intellectual environment is increasingly desiccated and that its own venerable liberal arts foundation is structurally vulnerable.”

The faculty members urged the Board to endorse an immediate “faculty-led review of the decisions and the processes leading to them” and called for the creation of a “legitimate, transparent body comprised of faculty and administration to engage in meaningful long-term institutional planning that Emory College needs.”

The letter called the process behind the decisions “undemocratic” amid a “pattern of opaque communication, and indeed disingenuously oral and written responses from the College Office … praising the targeted ‘weak’ department, even into the Spring 2012 meetings …” More specifically, the administration failed to consult “existing faculty deliberative bodies … most importantly the Humanities, Social Sciences, Science Councils and the Commission on the Liberal Arts,” according to the letter.

In its third and final point, the letter called the decision-making process “ethically wrong” and in violation of “Emory’s own tradition of shared governance.” The changes will have serious impact on “minority and women faculty and students,” a faculty member wrote. The three-page letter noted that the process of reallocation represents a “collapse of a fair process of institutional checks and balances, inaugurating the equivalent of a constitutional crisis.”

Magee, who acts as the liaison between the Board and the University, said she was unable to comment on the substance of the Board’s meeting and that Ben Johnson, the chair of the Board, was traveling this week and unavailable to comment.

Shomu Banerjee, a senior lecturer in the Economics Department and one of the most outspoken critics of the department changes, said he was not surprised by the endorsement.

“[University] President [James W.] Wagner and the Board of Trustees were not involved in the pros and cons of the decisions, just presented with a proposal that they endorsed,” he wrote in an email to the Wheel. “…[A]s Emory faculty, our overwhelming sense is that the president and the Board of Trustees have been tone-deaf.”

Banerjee wrote that he does not believe that all avenues of recourse have been addressed, citing the potential involvement of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a national organization dedicated to academic freedom and shared faculty governance. The organization comprises of more than 500 campus chapters, Emory being one of them.

In late October, Emory’s local AAUP chapter released a statement criticizing the department changes. At the time, Barbara Ladd, AAUP’s current president and a professor in the English department, said she hoped they would not have to call for an investigation by the national organization.

Given that Wagner, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Earl Lewis, Forman and now the Board of Trustees have confirmed the department changes, Ladd wrote in an email to the Wheel that the local AAUP chapter will be discussing future courses of action at its next meeting.

“I’m still holding out some hope that we can deal with these issues locally, but some AAUP members here on campus would like to see an investigation by the national AAUP,” she wrote.

Should the national organization conduct an investigation and find issues with faculty governance, Emory could be sanctioned and censured, thereby making Emory a less attractive University to professors looking for employment, according to Sharon Strocchia, AAUP’s president-elect and a history professor.

Director of the ILA Kevin Corrigan also expressed disappointment with the affirmation, concluding in an email to the Wheel that “what we need now is vision and real leadership — and the possibility of drawing faculty and students together in an open conversation — especially since morale is very low.”

Other Recent Events

In recent weeks, faculty members and students have used public events and forums as an opportunity to voice their grievances for perceived flaws and missteps in the decision-making process.

The Student Re-Visioning Committee, graduate students and recent alumni of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, the Graduate History Society, Emory’s local AAUP chapter, the Emory Journalism faculty and, most recently, the Laney Graduate School Executive Council, have all publicly criticized the department changes and the decision-making process behind them in open letters to the Wheel.

During Wagner’s annual State of the University Address on Oct. 30, many in the crowd held up signs that read “Reject the Cuts.” As reported in a Nov. 1 Wheel article, the question-and-answer period that followed focused mostly on the department changes, culminating in a heated exchange between Wagner and Corrigan. The two proceeded to talk over each other, disagreeing about whether or not ILA faculty members are being supplanted and whether Corrigan was aware of the conversations about the changes before they were announced Sept. 14.

At a faculty meeting held the next day, faculty members pressured Lewis, Emory’s chief academic officer and Forman’s boss. Lewis, who is retiring at the end of this year, agreed that “the process was flawed” but said that “the outcomes were correct and the important question now is how do we move forward,” according to the meeting’s minutes.

Last Thursday in an open letter to the Student Re-Visioning Committee, Wagner, again, voiced support for the department changes, in addition to noting “final management responsibility lies with the administration, while final governance authority rests with the Board of Trustees.” Wagner urged the community to “put the decisions of August behind us. It is time to get on with the work of making the Emory College of Arts and Sciences the finest-possible liberal arts college that both contributes to and enjoys the benefits of its central position in a research university.”

Ladd disagreed with Wagner’s assertion to move forward.

“The way these decisions were made is still very much an issue for a lot of people, and calling for an end to the criticism, to the conversation, or to the protests is not the way to move forward in any really meaningful way. The criticism is widespread and legitimate,” she wrote. “… We can’t move forward until we have a way forward that we can believe in.”

— By Evan Mah 

Photography by Jason Lee