University President James W. Wagner received the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Stuart Lewengrub Torch of Liberty Award on Tuesday night, honoring his “dedicated efforts to revisit and correct injustices that have been a stain on Emory University’s proud history,” according to a Nov. 19 University press release. He joins Kasim Reed, mayor of Atlanta, and the Honorable Stuart Eizenstat, former ambassador to the European Union and special representative of President Bill Clinton on Holocaust Studies, in receiving this year’s honor.
The recognition comes almost a year after Wagner published a controversial article in the winter edition of Emory Magazine, titled “As American as… Compromise,” in which he cited the Three-Fifths Compromise as an example of compromise for the greater good. It drew local and national criticism as well as extensive media attention, including an article in Salon, a HuffPost Live discussion video and a story in The New York Times titled “Emory University’s Leader Reopens Its Racial Wounds.” He issued an apology in the spring shortly after the publication of the article, much of which was removed from the magazine’s website shortly thereafter. Students and faculty protested against Wagner and the column at a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) exhibit opening in the Robert W. Woodruff Library in February, where Wagner gave a speech and acknowledged the protesters standing with signs at the back of the room. When receiving the award at a dinner Tuesday night, Wagner acknowledged the controversial column, stating, “Some of you might think I might be hesitant to accept this because of my racially insensitive blunder last winter that brought embarrassment to Emory. Mine was an action that can only be forgiven, and many have graciously forgiven me.”
The news that Wagner won the award was blasted out to the Emory community via email in the weekly Emory Report. The story about the ADL award bears the headline, “Wagner Honored as Social Justice Champion.” While we at the Wheel are proud that the individual who serves as the face of this University received the award, we have mixed feeling about it. We would like to raise questions about the fact that this is taking place after a semester rife with controversy and dialogue about issues concerning race on campus.
We aren’t saying Wagner should not have received the award or that his achievements do not deserve recognition. But the ADL, in the press release announcing the winners, fails to paint a complete picture of our school’s president, and solely acknowledging the award does not give a realistic view of the role that Wagner has played on campus this past year. Last semester, as a result of his column as well as other factors like the department changes, College faculty members staunchly criticized Wagner, ultimately censuring him and then voting on (but rejecting by a 60-40 vote) a motion for “no confidence.” Had the motion passed, it would have indicated the faculty felt he was no longer fit to lead.
Still, we do agree with the ADL that Wagner deserves praise for his track record on diversity initiatives at Emory. The ADL award highlighted the Transforming Community Project, a five-year long initiative headed by Wagner that engaged hundreds of students, faculty and staff in group dialogues about race, original research and community service. He also deserves praise for apologizing on behalf of the University for the discrimination that Jewish students at the now defunct Emory School of Dentistry faced in the middle of the 20th century, where many Jewish students were unfairly failed by the school, and for playing a role in adopting a formal statement of regret for Emory’s involvement in slavery.
What the statement does not note is that Wagner apologized for the dental school’s anti-Semitism following the creation of a documentary by Perry Brickman (’51C), a Jewish student who failed out of the dental school in 1952. The University did not apologize for the discrimination until the documentary was screened. Wagner’s apology – though a positive step in the right direction – does not erase the fact that the University did not publicly acknowledge this anti-Semitism until last year. And, while Wagner apologized for this anti-Semitism, he did not do so for Emory’s historical involvement in slavery, merely issuing a statement of “regret.”
Last year’s events demonstrate that work needs to be done on campus to improve racial issues – something that Wagner has acknowledged and discussed with the Emory community. But as for the title “social justice champion,” we feel that Wagner and Emory as a whole are not there yet.
The above staff editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel‘s editorial board.
Correction (11/22 at 1:26 p.m.): The original version of this article mistakenly referred to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as the ADF. This has been corrected in the version above.