I shouldn’t have gone to the Wagner Open Forum drunk. Apparently, it’s frowned upon to snort when you’re told, “All questions must be submitted in Twitter form.” I asked an organizer of the event why we must send Twitter messages to someone in the same room. The organizer, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “we’re using Twitter to filter questions.” This intention does not contradict the “open” nature of the open forum, as the word “open” has many definitions, including the 22nd definition, according to Dictionary.com, “of or relating to a model of the universe in which there is not sufficient matter to halt its expansion.” And when it came to President Wagner’s answers, he often referred to an ever-expanding universe of bulls–t.
If there is one thing Wagner could have done differently, he could have admitted that he’s pissed. This man is sick and tired of hearing people complain about the state of the University when they have no idea how to run a nine-school organization dedicated primarily to educating doctors and businessmen, and – most importantly – its own self sustainment.
It’s time for people with an axe to grind to realize that Emory, like Mormonism, yields to the ebb and flow of the public. When the U.S. threatens to remove the tax-exempt status of the Mormon church, the church changed its mind about black people. Likewise, when Al Gore made a lot of money warning the world about global warming and “going green,” a recycling facility appeared overnight at Emory.
The time has come to drop the pretense and recognize that education is a commodity, and when it comes to high-quality schools, Emory has competition. We will do anything to get a leg up on the competition – and frankly, that’s what I want. And for every screeching liberal arts graduate student who wants to complain, you are just a dust mite in an expanding universe of practical research. And Wagner should just come out and say that. He should pull back the veil, reveal the man behind the curtain and show us all how the sausage is made. Because if we want a robust liberal college – which is actually one of his desires – we’re going to have to do some unsavory things. You don’t want to know how you got those Christmas presents when your single mother only makes minimum wage at the Foster’s Freeze.
And for those who clamor that a university should be beholden to absurd standards and never contradict itself, Wagner needs to wag his finger and tell the pansies, “Guess what, this marble ain’t cheap, and if you could have gotten into a better school, you’d have gone there.”
We don’t have the luxury to hold consistent values. We’re like a British middle class factory owner, scrimping on the electricity and hot water to be able to serve French wine to his upper class dinner guests. And if you’re honestly upset about that, then donate to Telefund – God knows those kids need the commission.
But what Wagner needs to do, besides tell off the #rejectthecuts movement, is to actually say something of substance. If this open forum revealed anything, it’s that President Wagner either doesn’t know what’s going on or won’t tell you that he doesn’t care. Because his every answer was either, “I don’t know,” or “We have a committee set up to handle that.” There were times when addressing contracted labor, for instance, that Wagner said, “We have a committee set up to address these issues. I’m waiting for their report.” When told that the Committee on Class and Labor had issued a report about how to solve systemic inequalities, Wagner answered, “I cannot comment on implementation of that study – I have to wait for a report from the implementation committee.” The man has an ever-expanding bureaucracy with which to hide that he doesn’t care.
He talks as if he has something to hide. And that’s a problem, because he’s the face of this University – and we should at least hide the fact that we have much to hide.
Furthermore, an engineer is not the man you want trying to explain complex problems with metaphors. When asked what he thought of the liberal arts and their place in the world, Wagner said that people join the liberal arts to join something. It’s the same mentality, he added, that you see in the inner city with gangs. Yes, Wagner compared an ethnomusicology degree to gangs. Meanwhile, students major in chemistry to live out “Breaking Bad” fantasies.
Among other faux-pas, Wagner explained that he is proud that Chinese culture has instilled in the middle class the value of higher education – and that these strivers come to the West because China is unable to educate them. Taken out of context, this could be made to sound terrible. The problem with Wagner is not that he is a crypto-racist, it’s that he’s clumsy with his words. And when the audience isn’t the predominately white, male donors, he puts the University in constant danger by putting his foot in his mouth.
He doesn’t say nothing well. And he often says nothing, and it sounds offensive. This is his problem. Every time he says nothing, it sounds like he’s saying something. A University president needs to say nothing and mean nothing. If Wagner is going to say nothing, he needs to learn to say nothing like he means it.
I had a brief moment after the talk to speak with him candidly. I asked, “Have you ever heard of the ‘Great Compromise?’ Why not choose the ‘Great Compromise’? It has ‘Great’ in the title.”
He explained that it was a boneheaded move, and he is not the best communicator. “Why,” I asked, “Didn’t you fire your Communications Director? Her job is to make you sound, at least, not racist.” Wagner had no comment.
But in a rare, candid moment, James W. Wagner said, “I’m staying.” The attempts to derail him failed. He is a PR nightmare. He is not a communicator. He cannot read a room.
But this man is a glad-hander. And if there’s one thing a University president is, it’s a simpering, coquettish, glad-hander. And this glad-hander is here to stay.
A.J. Artis is a College senior from Sunnyvale, Calif.