Editor’s Note: Names of faculty members who spoke during the meeting have been omitted, in accordance with the terms that allowed the Wheel to attend the meeting.
College faculty voted at a special meeting last Wednesday to hold a vote of no confidence in University President James W. Wagner via electronic ballot. The vote will take place as soon as possible, but a specific time frame has yet to be announced.
Following Wagner’s address to faculty members during last week’s faculty meeting, the group agreed to table the motion for a vote of no confidence, deciding to discuss and possibly vote on the motion later.
Although a vote of no confidence would not have a direct effect on Wagner’s position as University president, the vote would express the faculty’s belief that he is no longer fit to lead.
At the special meeting, faculty members proposed that the vote be held electronically due to the limited representation of the entire faculty in attendance. While faculty governance bylaws prohibit electronic votes for such motions, those in attendance voted to suspend the rules.
Prior to voting to amend the motion, the floor opened for debate on the issue of voting no confidence in Wagner. From the beginning, faculty wrestled with the idea of voting no confidence with many expressing that they were on the fence about the issue.
A faculty member advised that those in attendance not vote hastily and take the time to be thoughtful and more deliberate in deciding how to vote.
Faculty members in favor of voting no confidence in Wagner discussed his role in the College department cuts, as well as his recent Emory Magazine article, in which he referred to the Three-Fifths Compromise and a “lack of intellectual leadership.”
Some in attendance said Wagner’s article in Emory Magazine remains a reason to vote no confidence regardless of public apology.
“Sure, all of us have said something ill considered and then had to apologize, but as far as I recall, I’ve never done that as a president of an institution such as Emory,” one faculty member said. “This was not a slip of the tongue that came out after a dinner. This was an article that [Wagner] said was in the works since October.”
Another faculty member defended Wagner, citing the article as a mistake and expressed that his comments have led to a waterfall of criticisms on various issues.
“I find poor President Wagner, having made this mistake, is as if he has grabbed a lighting rod and taken all of the pent-up frustration people have … like someone who jumped into a shark tank with a small cut; he’s being devoured in the process,” the faculty member said.
Other faculty members noted that although they do not believe Wagner as an individual is in question, they maintain that his tenure as University president is not up to the faculty standards.
“I actually think he is a nice guy, but I think it’s interesting that this [faculty body] has been represented as sharks in a shark tank going at his body when I think we are the ones who are bleeding,” the faculty member said. “This faculty, as faculty [is] everywhere, is becoming increasingly disempowered. A vote of no confidence is one of the few tools that we have to assert a minimal amount of power.”
Some faculty debated about Wagner’s involvement in the department changes and whether or not he should be held accountable for the process by which they were conducted. One faculty member argued that although the president approved the department changes, he did not initiate them.
“If it is the cuts that are driving people … why not a motion of no confidence in the Dean [of the College Robin Forman]? He is the person who made the decision,” one faculty member said. “Or do we think the president of the University should have micromanaged the College and undercut the Dean? I would hope not.”
One faculty member said he feels there has been a disproportionate concern from faculty members in different aspects of liberal arts regarding vocal presence at the meeting.
“I don’t hear a peep coming out of the natural sciences in concern about what is happening,” the faculty member said. “I don’t hear what’s coming from the social sciences; there seems to be great concern about the humanities.”
The next faculty member to speak rejected the claim of Wagner’s limited role in the department cuts.
“I understand that it is the Dean’s decision, but I don’t understand the context in which the Dean has been placed,” the faculty member said.
In addition to recent campus controversies, some faculty members believe Wagner’s leadership, in his role as president through the last decade, is not up to the standards required of the position.
“[A no-confidence vote] will send a strong message that the way business has been conducted is not all right with us, that we can do better and that we are not satisfied simply with somebody who can raise money,” one faculty member said.
The faculty member added that Emory should demand “intellectual leadership,” meaning somebody who understands what faculty does in the College. The member added that, “[Wagner] simply doesn’t get it.”
Other faculty members defended Wagner, expressing that the main causes for the direction of the University are out of his control.
“The fact that the president lives in a bubble of administrators – that’s not President Wagner’s fault; that’s happening at all universities,” one faculty member said. “His salary being extraordinarily high, it’s true, it’s true of all U.S. university presidents, and indeed, the star system we have – of paying people at the top of anything – that is not his fault. The cuts are not his fault – they are within the college. And the article, we have already censured him.”
Some members argued that the ramifications of such a vote would put the University in a negative light.
One faculty member said that the vote would not be perceived as a constructive move and would not inspire the Emory community.
The faculty member noted that he believes Wagner’s work on the capital campaign is significant and a primary responsibility of the president. He said a vote of no confidence would generate serious perceptual consequences.
“I am concerned about the message we are sending to students,” the faculty member said. “We are coming down pretty hard on President Wagner, and in their perception, I think, that will be due to what he wrote in his column, even though I realize there are other issues of discontent here.”
He added that the condemnation of Wagner would send a message to students that, if they address sensitive issues, it would be at their peril.
The faculty member continued that he believes the consequences of voting no confidence in Wagner would hurt Emory’s ability to seek future leadership in a way that “would not inspire potential future leaders to face this faculty.”
Another faculty member noted that there is a continual tendency to conflate Wagner as a person and Wagner in his function and role as president.
“The idea is continually – he says, ‘I’m sorry,’ he apologizes, he seems genuine and he talks at great length about all the things he has to learn – and I applaud that, but my heart sinks a bit at hearing from a person who has been president for almost a decade talk about all the things he has to learn,” the faculty member said.
Toward the conclusion of the meeting, some faculty proposed alternatives to holding a vote. One faculty member said Wagner’s contract is coming to an end and that the faculty should simply ask the Board of Trustees to find a new president when that time comes. Another suggested biannual meetings between the College faculty and the Board of Trustees as a way to enhance communication.
“It’s great to see people here, but my guess is there [are] 200 people. The faculty of Emory College is more than 500,” a faculty member said. “If we were to vote unanimously in support of this, that’s a minority of the faculty, and I think if we are going to do something of this consequence, we need to get a representative vote of the Emory College faculty.”
– By Dustin Slade